“Hello! Hello!! Anybody here?” I was talking on my headset, helping a customer on my private support line, while assembling machines on the workbench. Turning around I saw a head popping up repeatedly over the almost six foot high stack of monitors that were just delivered to my store. Holding my hand over the mic I responded to the customer: “I’m on a call. I’ll be with you as soon as I get off. Just have a seat please.”
After leaving Vision I did some contract work for O’leary Associates, a consultancy group focused on First Nations’ business startups. It was January of 1987 and between contracts, Tom O’Leary and I hatched a plan to start a computer business. Clones were dropping in price, making the PC affordable even for small businesses, and we saw an opportunity. Alas, after spending three months developing a business plan, O’Leary got cold feet and was no longer willing to bankroll the start-up.
So I decided to go it alone. No job and no income left me extremely strapped for cash but I was able to scrape together enough money to buy two computers, two office chairs, two panes of glass and some copper tubing to make two display tables. I also had enough to pay for three months rent in a storefront where I displayed the empty boxes as if they were additional inventory. And so Compu-Clone Computer Solutions was born.
Not long after Ben Pickles of the University’s IT department dropped by we started winning bids to supply the College of Cape Breton with PCs. These were heady times at the dawn of the microcomputer age and we grew quickly to a staff of twelve with two locations – in Sydney and Halifax. By the end of the second year we topped sales of two million dollars – with a net operating loss of 10%. The company was in big trouble and a drastic reset was triggered by the bank calling our line of credit when our regular bank manager went on vacation.
I was not prepared to fail again so I liquidated the Halifax store and terminated all the staff in Cape Breton, turning the operation into a one man band. Two hundred thousand dollars in debt and on my own, I worked 80 hour weeks in my little store to fill orders and satisfy customers. The clones I bought in Ontario arrived in such bad shape that I started to source components like motherboards and hard drives and assemble the machines myself. This led to late nights, seven days a week, but ensured the highest quality standards were maintained.
Then after selling a personal computer to the head of IT at the Regional Hospital, I became their primary supplier as well. Soon I was installing machines in doctors offices and clinics all over Industrial Cape Breton and even built a strong relationship with Micronav, a company developing and building microwave landing systems in the Sydport Industrial Park. It was Nick, the president of Micronav that proved to be a transformational agent.
“Tom, we are extremely satisfied with your computers and the incredible service you provide,” Nick engaged me in the company parking lot as I was unloading yet another batch of PCs. “But there is a problem. You are a one person operation. What happens to us if you get hit by a bus?” I had heard rumblings to this effect from other customers as well and it was time to do something about it. Problem was I was pedaling as fast as I could, consistently generating about half a million dollars in sales each year with a healthy profit margin that allowed me to pay down all my debts and even purchase my own building to house the store. I had no time to train people.
So I designed a highly unusual, and some would say draconian, apprentice program where I would pay an individual full time to watch, listen and learn. It was a three year apprenticeship that was structured around an agreement that specified a 60 hour work week, included a financial penalty for quitting and prohibited talking or any other social interaction excepting for an hour long Q&A on Friday afternoons. Against the advice of his family and his lawyer, Billy Farr decided to sign on.
To further expand our capabilities we partnered with a local IT group to launch web services and provide support and equipment to the local fishing industry. It was while servicing a machine in the wheelhouse of a scallop freezer-trawler that I realized the fish don’t stand a chance. The technologies employed left them no place to hide. When I asked one of the managers about the problems in the fishery he flippantly replied: “Problem? There is no problem. The government paid the fish companies to catch all the fish and we caught all the fish. What’s the problem?”
Not only did my role as supplier of computing technology to institutions and businesses take me backstage in the healthcare field, it also gave me a lens into the collapse of the East Coast fishery. I had read “The Sea of Slaughter” years before but when captains told me that their sonars showed the Grand Banks were now as flat as a billiard table I was shocked. Years of rolling nets across the bottom had crushed the gnarly seafloor which used to serve as spawning grounds for cod, haddock and halibut.
Fish companies were not allowed to bring excess by-catch to port. Inspectors would be on board to inspect each haul of the massive nets to ensure they met the quota assigned to the vessel. If the by-catch allowance was exceeded, the company would be fined. So under the watchful eye of the inspectors, the entire contents of a haul would be dumped overboard and the nets would be set out to try again. When inshore fisherman started to complain about all the dead fish that was washing ashore, the fish companies were given grants so they could install grinders on the vessels to “process” the dead fish before spewing them into the ocean.
“I’ll be right back…” I placed my call on hold to greet the customer that had just walked through the front door and was approaching my desk. “I’ll be with you as soon as I get off this call.” I motioned toward my headset. “I’m here to see Billy,” was the reply. “Billy is helping a customer in the back and there are two customers sitting here waiting for him. I’ll be happy to help you,” I tried to be reassuring. “No that’s ok, I’ll wait for Billy.” That’s when I knew that the apprenticeship had worked.
A year later Billy and I signed a five year buyout agreement. During that time he earned enough from the operations of the business to buy my shares. And so Billy took over the company.