By Luke Houlden
I’ve always been interested in business, especially sales, marketing and finance. I love interpreting numbers. I’m drawn to the ‘science’ of business—the thrill of being clever enough to pick the right opportunity at the right time, the exhilaration of risk and the confidence of having done your research. Now, as the Pita Pit franchisee for Terrace, B.C., I finally own a business of my own where I can put all the lessons I’ve learned into action.
Born into business
I was born in 1980 and raised in Terrace, which is in northwestern British Columbia about four hours’ drive from the southern tip of Alaska. When I was young, the city’s economy was very heavily based on the forestry industry. We were the world’s biggest supplier of cedar telephone and light poles.
There was a lot of money within the community, but a low cost of living, so the quality of life was high. People tended to be outdoorsy, enjoying activities like skating, fishing and hunting. I did it all growing up, especially hockey and dirt biking. We had a cabin on a lake where I could go water skiing and wakeboarding.
I’m an only child. I wasn’t academically oriented, but I loved going to school because of the social interaction. I enjoy meeting new people. I just didn’t love doing my homework!
My grandfather had started one of the local forestry companies, Houlden Logging, which was booming in the 1970s and ‘80s, becoming a multimillion-dollar business. After he retired, my dad and his two brothers continued his legacy.
When I was a kid, my dad handled a lot of day-to-day running of the business, which involved a wide variety of responsibilities and a high degree of flexibility. He would put in 60- to 70-hour weeks, but could always drop me off and pick me up for soccer practice. I recognized the value in that and wanted to eventually own a business, too.
At the same time, though, my dad and my uncles were trying to steer me away from the family business, as logging was a tough and volatile industry. And they were right; in the 1990s, the industry took some big hits and Terrace lost a lot of its population. Fortunately, the city remained something of a retail hub for the communities around it, which helped support the local economy for a number of years.
My parents divorced when I was young. My mom moved to Vancouver to work in the music industry, sourcing songs for TV shows. She lived there for 10 years, from 1995 to 2005, and is now retired in Summerland, B.C.
My ski dream
When I was 14, I discovered downhill skiing and suddenly it was all I wanted to do. I quit playing hockey and dreamed of becoming a professional skier. So, right after I graduated from high school in 1998, my mom drove me to Whistler, B.C., and dropped me off with just a backpack. My parents had put aside some money for college, but they also encouraged me to get out and really live life before deciding what further studies to pursue.
I found a roommate and lived in Whistler off and on for the next 10 years, working part-time at Domino’s Pizza, the Old Spaghetti Factory and a retail store called Surefoot. I would often return to Terrace in the summers to work with my dad at the logging company.
Surefoot was a very unconventional retailer. All they sold were ski boots and they specially customized them for each buyer. The owner had recognized how ski boots were a hindrance to many people who found them painful to wear, so he focused on providing custom orthotics and injection-moulded liners fitted to each customer’s foot. They were a lot more expensive than standard boots.
The concept was unlike any other retail store I’d seen. As sales staff, we had a lot of confidence in the products we sold. We absolutely believed in them.
It was a demanding job, but very rewarding by retail standards. Our employer paid for our annual ski passes. In fact, the company insisted we ski on our free days! They really embraced the whole lifestyle.
After my first two years focusing on skiing in Whistler, I had become quite good, comparable in skill level to some professionals. Then I learned a profound lesson. It was an amazing day with two feet of fresh powder and the hill wasn’t busy. As I was coming over a knoll, I saw a pro skier I knew, just standing there. I asked what was up and he pointed down the hill to a photographer, who was waiting for the perfect lighting for a shot. The skier had been standing there for 45 minutes already and still had to keep waiting. In other words, he had to sacrifice an amazing day of skiing for a photo shoot.
That really made me re-evaluate my life and what I wanted to do with it.