By Al Colombi
I always wanted to own my own business instead of working for somebody else. In 1991, I had the opportunity to work with my brother at a Kiddie Kobbler children’s footwear franchise in Orleans, Ont., near Ottawa. Once he decided to move on a year later, I was able to buy the store and run it on my own. The last 22 years have been the best time of my life.
Growing up in Canada
I was born in a small town close to Bergamo, Italy, in 1953. I came to Canada with my parents in 1955 because there was no work for them in Europe. We landed in Halifax and took a train to Ottawa, where we stayed when my parents ran out of train money. They did not speak a word of English. It was tough to come to a new country and not know the language or have any friends or family already here.
My two brothers were born in 1959 and 1967. My mother, Anita, was a chef for the Greek Embassy until 1974, and my father, Giuseppe, worked in a foundry that made manhole covers and fire hydrants until he got injured, which led to retirement. My father passed away in 1984, while my mother still lives in Ottawa, about seven minutes from my house.
I attended Saint Margaret Mary’s Catholic Elementary School from 1959 until 1967, where I was taught by nuns and priests. I really did not have anything to compare it to, but I learned a lot about respect and integrity.
In 1967, I attended Ottawa’s newly opened business school, the High School of Commerce. I played midfield on the school soccer team and also joined a photography club after school. During that time, my parents did not have much income, so I picked up a part-time job cleaning government buildings. I would finish school around 3:30 p.m., go home to do my homework, then head over to my job until about 9 p.m. I probably did that all throughout high school, which I graduated from in 1972.
Next, I began taking anthropology and accounting classes at Carleton University. Unfortunately, I was unable to complete the program because my parents got quite sick and I had to get a full-time job to help them out. I worked in a government position for about a year. Then my friend’s father got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to work in construction during my three-week vacation because one of the machinery operators got hurt. What I made in three weeks in construction would have taken me about eight months to a year to make in the government, so I ended up staying in the construction industry for about seven years and got my licence to operate heavy equipment as well as my dynamite-blasting licence.
While working construction, I continued taking night courses at university, but only had time to take one or two of them a week. That was tough, because I had to leave home at 5:30 a.m., work until 6 p.m. and then attend my classes at 7 p.m.
I met my wife Anne almost 40 years ago through a friend and we got married in 1977. She worked with Revenue Canada for 38 years and then retired about two years ago. We had our first son, Joseph, in 1984; he now works for TD Canada Trust. In 1987, our second son, James, was born. He works with me. It is nice to have your family working with you. In fact, he started working at Kiddie Kobbler when he was in Grade 2, opening boxes and straightening things up. James first came in just to help out because I was not feeling well, but then he loved dealing with the public and working in retail so much, he decided he did not want to pursue anything else. He has been here full-time for about seven years and is now one of the managers.
Both kids played soccer growing up. They started in house leagues around four years old and then began to play competitively. Both of them stopped playing soccer last year because it was getting in the way of their jobs, but James plays baseball now in a co-ed league when he has time.
When the boys were younger, we used to go camping in New Hampshire as a family. I always enjoyed working, though, which never gave us a lot of time to do things as a family.
In 1979, I found a job driving a truck for Fine Foods, delivering food to restaurants and grocery stores. If any hours opened up on weekends driving a truck, I volunteered or bid on them. I was very fortunate to have a wife who was so understanding. If you want to live a certain lifestyle, you have to work. We ended up buying our own home within six months of being married.
In 1991, I began working at Kiddie Kobbler in Orleans, which was partly owned by my brother, Tom. That is when things really changed for me.