Posted on 2019-11-22
Canadawide Sports is humble about its success, but its beginnings are loosely tied in with a engineer who once worked at Blackberry, when it was just a startup in 1999. Shawn Fuller wanted to recapture the spirit of millennial entrepreneurship and made the leap to owning Canada’s leading sporting goods wholesale stores. Entrepreneur culture had changed radically in nearly two decades; Fuller fills us in on how to keep things fresh when you’re starting out.
“When I first started, there were maybe, a hundred people [at Blackberry.] We would have sales meetings with the CEO in the lunchroom. And that changed. It just got bigger. After my 10th year with the company, I decided I wanted to go back to the roots of the company, do something that was small, and make it fun.
“Truth be told, technology was always my second passion, sports was my first.”
“Sports is a great business in that it’s very tactile,” explains Shawn. “When we go to a trade show, or when we go see a customer, if we’re taking a leather baseball glove, they’ll pick it up and they’ll smell it. They’ll feel it, and they’ll put it on their hand.
“If you’re in software, it’s hard to pick up and feel it. Sports is very tactile in that way, and I think that’s what’s exciting about it. When I got out of working at Blackberry, I think I was tired of working with IT departments, and selling technology to corporations. Trade shows were no longer fun.
“Just kind of by chance, I met a husband and wife – Debbie and Terry – who had a sporting goods business. They had a nice little business, importing lacrosse balls, in the 1980’s. When I met them, they were in their fifties, maybe late fifties, and they both had some health issues that had them thinking of succession planning. It was the right time and the right place for them to do a deal, and that’s how I got started, in 2009.”
Fuller’s heart may have been in sports, but after a decade working as an engineer, making the shift to a business owner may have been a jolt. He applied his existing business acumen to his new venture, and during the transition-to-ownership phase, that jolt became a thrill.
“That was a year or two of “learning by doing.”
“I really had no idea how to run a business. I mean, I thought I did, and then when I got into it, I realized how much I didn’t know. Everything from inventory management to vendor agreements, and all this kind of stuff, we kind of figured out as we went. The importance of margin, and things like that become very, very real when you’re living it.”
Fuller discovered that the business he bought had no credit facilities. As the former owners sold their products, they would pay the suppliers, creating an unpredictable cash flow cycle. Fuller’s expert salesmanship actually created a strain when he started to sell more product.
“At this time, I started started build new channels of business,” says Fuller. “We were one of the first to do drop shipping in favour of selling sporting goods online. As the business came, the cash flow cycles became very strained. And that became very difficult – I had to go out and get financing to finance purchasing, and inventory.
“Though we worked with bigger and bigger customers, some of them were slow payers. But we’re doing business today with bigger customers that we ever had before, like, Amazon, Canadian Tire, Walmart. To do the volumes that we are doing today, we could never do without the financing facilities, like a line of credit, or a loan from the bank.”
Fuller states he has no regrets about “just jumping in.” He acknowledges that it was an expensive lesson, but adds that there’s no better way to learn it than by doing it. Fuller is a strong advocate of following your passion, and by going with your heart will only lead to success. He shares the reason behind his seemingly impulsive purchase of the Guelph Royals with Entrepreneurs in Canada.
“I had left my EO Forum meeting, and one of the conversation starters that day was, ‘if you weren’t doing what you’re doing today, what would you be doing if money was no object?’ And I said, ‘I would love to own a professional baseball team.’ I was thinking major leagues but that night, I saw in the paper in their 99th season, the Guelph Royals have folded. And it’s funny, because just that night, I said if money was no object, I’d run a professional baseball team.
“I felt there was some serendipity to the whole thing, and something that I couldn’t ignore.”
“So I picked up the phone, and I talked to the owner, who was struggling to keep the team going, and I talked to the commissioner, who was really eager to see the franchise continue. So, same thing – I put an offer together and we did a deal. It’s like everything I’ve done. I’m doing it for the first time, and I’ll figure it out as I go.
Fuller’s skills are put to good use with The Royals, not just with buying the team, but in leading that team to excellence. He shares his observations on how leading a sports team differs from guiding a successful business:
“It’s just a different metric: It’s not about sales, it’s not about profits, it’s just about winning baseball games.”
“We’re bringing back some of the best baseball players Guelph has ever seen. We have, on paper at least, what I think will be a winning team. I’m excited. It’s entrepreneurial in its own sense, but the metrics are totally different. We’ll look at things like attendance, and games won, instead of looking at things like revenue and profits.
“In this model, it doesn’t matter if we make money or lose money. I hope not to lose too much money, but more importantly I hope we continue a tradition that continues on to its hundredth year and beyond.”
Following your heart may give you peace of mind in the long run, but there are times when any new venture will give a new entrepreneur palpitations.
“Here’s a story I hadn’t told anyone before…”
“A few people who are really close to me know it, but I’d say maybe six months into the new business, I ended up in the hospital. And I don’t know what it was, but there was something serious that had me in the hospital for a couple of days. I think it was stress, I think it was being so overwhelmed, that body started shutting down on me.”
Fuller confesses that there’s no singular thing that keeps him up at night, but even now, he’s prone to attributing the occasional bout of insomnia to stress. “It’s a million little things,” he says.
“[Stress] is just the byproduct of caring so much about what you do that you really want everything to run perfectly, but it never does.”
“When too many things start to stack up on each other, that’s when I really start to show some anxiety about the whole thing. I’m more focused now on self care than ever before. I’m actually scheduling it into the work-week. So, I’ll block off huge amounts of time to make sure that I’m exercising, making sure that I’m eating right, make sure that I’m connecting with people that I know I can talk to about these issues.
“I think that creating that space and getting away from the operations is a little counterintuitive. When you have a million little things you’ve got to get working, the intuitive thing is to spend more time at it. What I’ve found to be more beneficial is to get away from it, and then the priorities become very clear. You’re better equipped, more energized to talk to people.”
Among the stressors new business owners may find, is the fear that they are the sole career person to experience a certain hurdle, or worry that they may handle a certain problem incorrectly. Fuller attributes part of his success to joining EO’s Forum, and taking time to make sound purchases to grow his business.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve picked up from the Forum is that you realize you’re not alone. All this stuff that I’m dealing with, all the obstacles in the path to achieving my goals, they’re the same obstacles that somebody else has faced or is currently facing. I think that peer group has demonstrated, if anything, you’re not alone.
“The organic growth in the sports industry is very difficult. The number of kids playing baseball or lacrosse doesn’t double every year. When you have aspirations to grow your business as aggressively as we’ve grown, the only way to do that is to find more companies and more products to sell them. The fastest way I’ve been able to do that is by acquiring companies. So, I think, looking ahead, the thing I’m most excited about is doing another acquisition.”
Despite Fuller’s proven skill in acquisitions, he admits he’s never had the moment where he said to himself he’s made it, or feels like a successful businessman. However, his reluctance to call himself a winner is not a sign of insecurity. Fuller sees a need to prove himself as a way of keeping things fresh before complacency sets in. “There’s a little bit of self doubt in everything I do,” he says, “and it’s a very healthy fear.”
“I would prefer to be the underdog in every situation, to find a way to have to prove myself”.
“Maybe it’s about being an entrepreneur in Canada. There’s a very healthy dose of humility in everything that we do. I’m in an industry that’s fun. And the people are very passionate about sports, and it’s a cool spot to be.”
Fuller’s humility extends itself to the donations that Canadawide Sports has given to various charities. He says he’s still working on a way to publicize his company’s mission to see under-privileged children get to play sports.
“As a group here…we really don’t publicize it. But we’ve outfitted so many amateur sport teams, we keep doing donations to make sure that kids have the equipment they need to play sports, we’ve done that both in Canada and abroad. Everything from lacrosse to baseball, soccer jerseys, that kind of stuff. That’s something of a passion, not just for myself but a lot of people on the team, here.
“The biggest thing that we’ve been able to do in terms of giving back is to make sure that kids have the equipment they need to play sports.”
“ There’s something really healthy about organized sport. Not just the physical attributes, but in terms of teamwork. Working with others, and the discipline of showing up at a game that starts at a specific time. Playing within the specific boundaries of certain rules; learning to compete, learning to win and learning to lose.
“To make sure that kids discover sports and find ways to make it affordable in Canada, that would be meaningful to me.”
You can connect to Shawn Fuller via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/shawnfuller/