By Colin Bates
After a successful career in the telecommunications industry, I took an extended break and realized I needed to get away from that sector and its politics. I wanted to run my own business, so I looked into franchising, as I felt I could join an existing company’s system and help build it up. My search led me to Jan-Pro Cleaning Systems Canada, an office and commercial cleaning company that was looking for a master franchisee to cover a significant portion of Ontario.
Using my hands
Though I was born in England, my family moved to Toronto when I was just one year old, so I grew up in Canada. We lived a modest lifestyle in a walk-up three-storey apartment in the Scarborough West Hill neighbourhood, then moved into our first house when I was five or six. I was an only child and lived with my family until I was 18.
Growing up, I always liked to do stuff with my hands, such as building model planes and rockets. I used to take dirt bikes apart in our basement and put them together again. I started working on mini-bikes when I was 12 years old. I still have a dirt bike today from 1982!
My friends and I built a mini-snowplow, then used it to make money during the winter. We also cut grass in the summer.
Similarly, at school I was into wood shop, auto shop and metal shop classes. I also became interested in science, particularly marine biology. My stepfather Neil was from Nova Scotia and we spent our summers there, where I would pick up sea creatures and eventually bring them back to my high school.
I didn’t enjoy classroom activities, however. Even today, I fall asleep as soon as I pick up a book! I struggled with figuring out what I wanted to do for a living.
A career in telecommunications
When I was 18, I looked at working for Bell Canada. I interviewed with them and turned down several jobs before picking one up at Laird Drive and Eglinton Avenue, where they had a ‘green truck’ centre serving customers in Toronto’s Forest Hill neighbourhood. I stayed with that division for five years, starting my career as a technician up a pole and ending it in an office.
I also did a short stint in the union for Air Canada’s cargo crews and worked for a year in a popcorn factory. We made the popcorn for movie theatres and fixed their machines when needed. It was hard to find a ‘real’ job, though.
During my time with Bell, I trained university students to install phone jacks and other equipment. Deregulation of the telecommunications industry was coming, however, and there were strikes, so I looked to the private sector.
I went over to Canadian Telecommunications Group (CTG), working on their system at the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX). It was a fast-paced, high-stress position. I was there for two years.
Next, I went to Telecommunications Terminal Systems (TTS), which was a similar gig. One of our customers was Call Net Enterprises, which provided switching systems to handle phone calls within an office. I ended up working with them for 18 years. They licensed the Sprint brand for Canada and grew from 50 to 3,000 people. They’re gone now, though, after they were purchased by Rogers.
While working in the telecommunications industry, I got to travel across Canada, living at times in Vancouver—where I met my wife, Karen—and Montreal. It was great work for a series of demanding CEOs.
When I ended my career in that industry eight years ago, it was consolidating. I saw an opportunity to leave it with cash in my pocket.