By Todd Coupal
Last fall, I celebrated the one-year anniversary of the opening of my Pop-A-Lock franchise. As the company’s second franchisee in Canada, I was able to bring an established brand to an untapped market in British Columbia. This has helped fulfil my personal goal of owning my own business. And compared to my previous career as a retail executive, I now have a much better work-life balance—and a more confident view toward eventual retirement.
Born to run a business
As a child growing up in Ottawa, I was always interested in making money. At 10 years old, I started my first business, offering lawn care and housesitting services. My dad lent me some money to print up business cards and pamphlets to promote it. My main focus was on lawn care, but if people knew my family, then they would also let me housesit for them.
I also had a newspaper route on the side. Living in a new residential development, I was consistently able to win prizes for signing on the most new subscribers. That’s how I got my first 10-speed bicycle.
My parents were both middle managers and worked for the same employers for their entire careers. While they supported my entrepreneurial ambitions at a young age, they also told me one day I should join a big company and collect a pension.
I earned an economics degree at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. To help pay for school, I sold Queen’s logo tie-dye T-shirts during school events and worked part-time as a Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) teller during the summer. Since I was always very interested in business, I took as many commerce courses as possible, especially in marketing.
In my extracurricular time, I became involved through Queen’s with the International Association of Students in Economic and Commercial Sciences. It was a club of likeminded economics students who were interested in international business. I eventually became president of the local chapter and, by my last year at university, we had more than 135 members.
My experience with the club got me my first job after university with a bank in Kyoto, Japan. Between my work at RBC and my degree, I had both the banking and the economics experience they sought. My new job involved establishing banking services for English-speaking expats living in Kyoto.
I had to become bilingual quickly, especially since I lived in a company dormitory where none of the other men could speak English. With a one-month intensive language course followed by many lessons, my Japanese became more and more competent.
For my second endeavour in Japan, I moved to Osaka and worked for BC Trade, an independent agency of British Columbia’s provincial government. By then, I could speak Japanese fluently. I helped write business proposals and facilitate trade missions for companies based in British Columbia that wanted to do business with Japanese partners. And it was in Osaka I met my wife, Rio.
After my contract was up, I returned to Canada with Rio. I decided to head to Vancouver, where I loved the climate and the skiing. Our first daughter was born in 2000 and our second in 2003.
A career in retail
Once I was back in Canada, through business networking, I embarked upon a career in the retail sector. I started at Costco Canada, handling purchasing functions from their head office in Burnaby, B.C. I was with them for just over five years.
Following Costco, another opportunity arose when electronics retailer Best Buy entered Canada. They headhunted me away from Costco and I was there for almost 10 years.
As a buyer, I enjoyed the opportunity to hone my skills for running my own business. Like a small business owner a category manager is essentially in control of everything. The retailer provides a certain square footage in its stores and a specific product category, such as home appliances, and then you have the autonomy to develop and implement a plan, with the goal of maximizing sales and profitability. Choosing what products to buy, how to advertise and merchandise those products, how to price and how to deal with competition are all within the scope of the job.