By Mike Mihaichuk
After long and varied work experiences in information technology (IT), aerospace, banking and finance, I made the most major change in my career to date when I became a franchisee with A&W Food Services of Canada. Signing a territory agreement focusing on Oakville and Guelph, Ont., I joined the system at just the right time in its ongoing expansion in this province to feel like I was truly running a business of my own.
Tom Sawyer in a suit and tie
I’m originally from Ancaster, Ont., near Hamilton. As a child, I was highly sports-minded, dragging my father out to sign me up for everything from T-ball and soccer to hockey, lacrosse and baseball.
We lived on the fringe of agricultural and recreational spaces, before Highway 403 was built through the area. I led a sort of ‘Tom Sawyer’ existence, hiking with my buddies and cooking hot dogs on the local trails. My father’s parents were farmers and he did flooring work for residential customers.
I also worked from a young age. At 12, I caddied at golf courses in Hamilton. At 15, I began working in the construction industry and at steel mills that offered the highest-paying jobs for teenagers at the time. I had a competitive nature, sought recognition and definitely had an interest in business during my high school years. And during my university years, I worked on the oil rigs in Alberta, as that’s where the money was.
My mother instilled in me the need to go to university. I started out in Montreal playing football for McGill University, where I later walked onto the varsity hockey team, too. I studied business and transferred to the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ont., to finish a degree in economics. The subject started to interest me less and less, as an economist seemed more like consultants than the entrepreneur I wished to become, but at least those courses did help by giving me the big picture of what goes on in the world of business. I always enjoyed my studies and had a real interest in political history.
In 1978, I became the first child in my family tree to graduate from university. My first job offer was from Procter & Gamble (P&G), but IBM had an excellent sales and marketing program and I knocked on every door I could to get into it. I managed to impress a director who then referred me to another division that had an open position. Before joining the company, I had never even seen a computer in person!
IBM paired me with a great mentor for 18 months of boot camp in the ‘elite’ data processing division and it was the best training ever in the basics of business. We worked in the Royal Trust Tower in downtown Toronto and I wore a jacket and tie all day long, which was certainly a major adjustment from my jobs on the oil rigs!
I worked at IBM from 1978 to 1981, when I went over to Xerox. I stayed in sales roles in the computer and IT industries for 20 years. Among these, I later wound up back at IBM, in another of its subsidiary companies. Over that time, I developed a focused work ethic, which would later help me achieve success with A&W.
At the age of 40, I went back to Western for the executive MBA program. Through this program, I landed a great job working for a finance group in Bombardier’s aerospace division, located at the former De Havilland Downsview plant in Toronto. I spent about two-and-a-half years with the company, travelling for three weeks at a time to pursue aircraft financing opportunities throughout the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region.
Through that work, I encountered General American Transportation (GATX), which leased aircraft at the time. I opened a Canadian branch for their IT equipment finance division, in Toronto, and worked there for a bit more than 10 years, reporting to the U.S. Then a bank took over that division of GATX and I was given a severance package.
Next, I worked as a vice-president (VP) of marketing for Key Bank’s offices in Burlington, Ont., for one year until the financial crisis hit. Suddenly, I was looking for work. This is when things really changed.