Following a family connection
Knight’s older brother, Rob, was in the promotional industry before him. When business at Eaton’s started to go down, he decided to go work for him as a salesperson in 1998, the year after he got married.
“While I was already comfortable in front of customers, I started out completely green, so I was handling small orders for small customers, like personalized coffee mugs,” he says. “At the same time, I was taking some marketing courses to learn more about the industry.”
Rob had studied creative communications at Red River College (RRC) and saw there were strong opportunities in promotional advertising. After working in the field for other people, he started his own business, Splash Promotions.
“He was inspirational to me as an entrepreneur,” says Knight. “My brother was a very good salesman, with good, loyal clients, and I learned a lot from him. He would bring out new products regularly and land new bulk orders every three months, filling his clients’ seasonal needs, from mugs to pens. He is still in the industry now. In fact, you could say he is one of my competitors!”
Going it alone
After leaving Splash and working for another local promotional company, Knight started his own business, KayCee Promotions & Design, in 2008.
“I was tired of giving other people half of my commissions,” he says. “Unfortunately, the economy was in horrible shape in 2008. My sales really dragged in those early days and I learned a lot of difficult lessons. After running an office and setting up a showroom, for example, I realized nobody would ever come there, so I switched to a home-based business model.”
Fortunately, he then found a major opportunity in providing products for a major franchise system—none other than Tim Hortons.
“I called their regional marketing manager and we hit it off,” he explains. “In 2009, he got me started on importing items for their Timbits Minor Sports Program, which sponsored house leagues for kids aged four to nine, including hockey, soccer, ringette, baseball and lacrosse teams. Each sponsorship deal provided branded jerseys, medals and other products.”
They developed a good, trusting business relationship. After Knight started out counting these orders in his garage with his wife, the numbers grew so much that in 2010, he had to approach a friend who owned a freight brokerage with a warehouse.
“We weren’t handling the jerseys and medals,” Knight explains. “Instead, we did a lot of creative gift items, such as water bottles shaped like hockey jerseys and tote bags that looked like soccer balls. We put bars on the back of those bags that allowed the kids to add their names to them. They were shipped all across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Northwestern Ontario.”
He showed these products to Subway’s regional office in Winnipeg and ended up doing some stuff for that franchise system, too.
“They sponsor the Challenge Cup, an annual kids’ tournament through the National Hockey League’s (NHL’s) Winnipeg Jets at Bell MTS Place, and I ended up providing gift items for them for four years, starting in 2012,” he says.
Even though Tim Hortons was Knight’s biggest client at the time and he was able to use the work he did for them as leverage to land other clients, he felt he was limited in terms of his resources.
“I was still working from home and the big orders would only come in once a year,” he explains. “Even after a few really good years in 2014 and 2015, KayCee wasn’t big enough for me to hire other people and my wife was back to working full-time at the bank. I had an outside party that could help finance my business, but knew it wouldn’t work over the long term to borrow that way.”
Meanwhile, 2015 was the last year he handled work for Tim Hortons. By that point, 3G Capital had bought the franchise system, merged it with Burger King and set up a new parent company for both businesses, Restaurant Brands International (RBI).
So, Knight started to look into some opportunities to join a group that could help with his finances and build larger business relationships.