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No Schedule Man Podcast: Episode 6 – Lisa Brandt (Radio Host/News Anchor, Author, Voice Talent)

I’ve been very fortunate to work with some truly interesting and talented people over the years. One of them is Lisa Brandt, my guest in the latest episode of the No Schedule Man Podcast.

Currently the voice behind the news and co-anchor of News Talk 1290 CJBK’s morning show here in London, Ontario, Lisa also maintains the creative daily discipline of blogging each weekday, contributing a feature column to a National newspaper when asked, and serving as voice talent for the productions of many well-recognized companies. Lisa has written and made available four books, including “The Naked Truth,” a real-life look inside the summer she spent working at a nudist resort in her teenage years.

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In this discussion, Lisa takes us behind the scenes and inside the minds of a broadcast media newsroom. She describes some of her career adventures which took her from the overnight show host at a country music station in Red Deer, Alberta, to co-News Anchor at 680 News in Toronto, the largest market in the country. Lisa also recalls giving up her spot in Toronto to come to London, and the many ups and downs that followed, including a terrifying health battle with what turned out to be sepsis, an experience she documented and shared in her book, “My Sepsis Story.”

Lisa and I have been pals for many years and I have always held her in very high esteem. But after listening back to this podcast, I realized just how much I’d never really asked her about. I was fascinated to hear her stories on a variety of subjects and life experiences.

I also think that her answer to me asking, “What have you learned about yourself?” near the end of the discussion should be required listening for us all. Go have a listen and let me know if you agree.

The podcast is now available for streaming, download and subscription on iTunes, as well as on our YouTube channel or SoundCloud page.

The Heart Of Rock and Roll Is Still Beating. At 7T8 bpm

I love music.

Other than the love of my kids, family and friends, there remain few things that can supercharge my soul as much as a live musical experience that reaches me in some kind of deep, personal way. And boy, did I get charged up at a charity event a little over a week ago, thanks to a band called 7T8.

If you look at the music page of my website, you’ll see that I’ve dabbled in recording and releasing a few of my own musical creations (which represent a fraction of what I’ve actually written over the years). And you might also see that it’s mostly acoustic, bordering on folk music in some cases. And that’s fine.

But I have always been a rock and roller at heart. It’s just that, to record and perform as a rock outfit, you need more people, more gear, more money, more space, more time … more everything. And so to share the few creations I have, I’ve chosen songs that I can just show up and play with my acoustic guitar and nothing more.

The point is that I’ve been through the process of recording, releasing and performing some of my own music. I know from experience that it’s not easy. Far from it. And I can only imagine how much of a challenge it would be to try and record a rock band, especially on a tight budget, and have it come out sounding good.

Last week, I met a band that’s done it. And I’m really impressed.

On March 20th, I volunteered my time to March of Dimes Canada to serve as Master of Ceremonies for their “Rock For Dimes” event here in London, Ontario. It’s essentially a “Battle of the Bands,” with terrific corporate and community support.

At “Rock for Dimes,” each band gets the opportunity to perform for a half hour. They’re judged on their musicianship, audience response, originality and overall level of quality. Most of the bands churn out classic (and some current) rock cover songs and do a fine job of it.

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With Mary Lynne Stewart from March of Dimes Canada

Before I tell the story of what happened at “Rock for Dimes,” perhaps I’l share a bit about my own musical background first. That might help make it clear why I feel I reacted so strongly to this particular experience.

I’ve been a member of a rock cover band before. Back in the late 90’s, some friends in a group they called the “River Band” approached me about joining their group as rhythm guitarist, backup vocalist and … songwriter. They had spent years playing the local clubs around Sarnia and through Lambton County (in Ontario Canada) as the “Whiskey River Band,” but when the local AM country station flipped it’s signal to an FM rock format, they dropped the “Whiskey” from their name and went for more of a pop-rock feel, and anticipated they’d want some original rock music to play. So they approached me, and asked me to write them some songs. And I did, and to this day I know I wrote some really good ones (maybe you’ll get to hear them one day).

The River Band got paid pretty well and worked steadily, thanks to the constant efforts of the band’s leader, my pal Sean Robbins (Sean was a master at getting the band booked). I jumped in with both feet, learned 40 or 50 songs within a couple of weeks and went to work as their rhythm guitarist and had a great time. But I knew all along that the payoff was to start performing and recording original music. Otherwise, I felt, what’s the point?

Coming in to the summer of 1999, we rehearsed a song I’d written that, at the time, we called “Rock the Boat” (I’ve since renamed it “Sunken Soldier”). We performed it on live TV as part of a charitable telethon in London, and got terrific feedback from it. You see, to be on TV, we had to perform original music, as we didn’t have the rights to play any one of the dozens of cover songs we’d always play in clubs and bars. So we played our own song and instantly heard from people that liked it.

A couple of weeks later, we were set to be one of the headlining bands at the annual Canada Day festivities in Centennial Park in Sarnia (some video of that show still exists, with me playing and singing lead on Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69”). Our plan for that night was to perform “Rock the Boat” as part of our set to show the thousands of people who were there that night that we did, in fact, have our own music in the works. But what happened instead is that we were a little short on time and were asked to cut a song or two from our set. Despite my protests, my bandmates chose to cut “Rock the Boat,” and though we went and played that gig and had a great time of it, I knew then and there I would leave the band, because they’d had the chance to put their own work out front and didn’t.

I was not there to sing “Mustang Sally” and “Crocodile Rock.” I tolerated the cover songs so we could get to original songs. But the other guys felt the opposite (which, by the way, I completely understand. They were good at what they did and got paid pretty well to do it. I just wasn’t there for the same reasons, so I left shortly afterward).

During that time, I was always told that “You can’t go into a bar and get away with playing original music.” I always thought that was a load of bull spoken by people too scared to try. It takes guts to get up on stage at any level. But it takes real fortitude to share and stand behind your own creations. I knew I could do it, and I did, the next spring, with a band I called “Freight Train.” But that’s another story.

Writing original music, especially good original music, is harder than it looks. And to get a band to work up a good arrangement of a song is, in my opinion, even more difficult. And even after that, you’ve no guarantee the audience will like it. So it’s a lot easier to just play popular songs, where all that work is done for you.

And so, with all that in mind, let’s jump back to present time and the business at hand. I was truly intrigued when I was reading the band bios in the program at this year’s “Rock for Dimes” event. I saw that one of the bands was going to try something new. Here’s a bit about each band from that night:

There was a group called the RJ Conspiracy. I knew them from last year. They’re a group of guys who work as accountants during the week and come together to gig now and then and they do a great job with their classic rock tastes. Their take on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” stood out to me. Their singer, Rick Jankura, later told me it was Peter Frampton’s version of the song. I really liked it.

RJ Conspiracy (photo from RJ Conspiracy Facebook Page)

RJ Conspiracy (photo from RJ Conspiracy Facebook Page)

Another group that had returned from the year before was a band that calls themselves the Attic Apostles. They’re a great group of guys who put a lot of energy and enthusiasm into their performance. I was happy to recognize John Raposo, their lead singer, and to get the chance to chat with him a bit. Anyone who gets up on stage and sings has my respect, and John has mine. And I was especially pleased when they took on a really tough song from one of my favourite bands, the Trews, with a wailing rock track called “Hold Me In Your Arms.” I also liked their choice of other cover songs.

The Attic Apostles (photo from their Facebook page)

The Attic Apostles (photo from their Facebook page)

A band called Oui B Jamon was back for another go. They’d actually won the event a couple years before and they are indeed a neat outfit. Though their keyboardist was the lead singer and seemed to be the focal point, it’s the guitarist, Norm Emblem, who stands out to me for his slick style and smooth sound. He was the only one to play a slide all night, and he looks and sounds cool and laid back when he plays. I enjoy watching him cruise through tunes like Skynyrd’s “Call Me the Breeze” or Thorogood’s “Move It On Over.”

Oui B Jamon logo

Oui B Jamon logo

One of the two new bands for this year was a group of police officers who had named their act Duty Calls. I chatted with a couple of them. Great guys. And they did a terrific job on stage with a cool mix of covers. As with Attic Apostles, Duty Calls had me smiling when they finished their set with a Trews song called “Fleeting Trust” (a great track).

Duty Calls (photo from the band's  Facebook page)

Duty Calls (photo from the band’s Facebook page)

Each of those bands were fun to watch and they all did a great job. It’s just that, for me, it was all stuff I’d heard before, in one way or another.

So I was very much intrigued when I read the bio of the other new band for this year, a group from Cambridge that called themselves 7T8. I liked the name straight away. But what I liked even more was reading that, though they’d started as a cover band, they quickly began to gel with each other and write their own music, and had not only begun to play some of it live, but they had also recorded and just released an EP of their own music as well.

That had my full attention.

7T8

7T8

As the band was setting up for their set, one of the members approached me, shook my hand and said, “Hi! I’m Shane. I’m the singer for the next band, 7T8. I just wanted to thank you for being the MC. You’re doing a great job. Is there anything you’d like to know about our band?”

Nobody else had asked me that, though I’d have welcomed it.

I asked Shane (who I instantly liked), “I read about you guys. Are you going to play a whole set of your own music?”

“We’re going to do a mix,” Shane said. “We’ll play some of our own songs and some other songs people will know.”

I remember my heart jumping a little bit. Shane had confirmed for me that we were going to hear something new that night. A little voice popped into my head that pleaded, “Please don’t suck. Please don’t suck. Please don’t suck.”

Let me tell you. They didn’t suck.

Impressed, I thanked Shane and wished him good luck and got out of the way as the band finished their quick set up.

A few minutes later, they nodded that they were ready, so I went back up on stage to introduce them. As I came to the end of my introduction, they sensed the timing and started playing what was, essentially, an intro to their own first song. It was the kind of sensing of momentum that most others never seem to take advantage of, and it’s always baffled me why more bands (and performers in general) don’t pick up on that sort of stuff. But the guys in 7T8 were tuned in.

As they tore in the opening chords of their first song, the hair went up on the back of my neck. I didn’t know what the song was. I’d never heard it before. But I knew I liked it, and that I was going to want to hear it again. The air in the room changed instantly. For me, it was one of those soul-grabbing, stupid-smiling, spin-you-around-the-room kind of moments that happens all too rarely.

7T8 on stage at Rock for Dimes London 2015

7T8 on stage at Rock for Dimes London 2015

At a time like that, it’s a lot of fun to observe people’s reactions. The crowd seemed momentarily disoriented at this band that was suddenly thundering new sounds at them with swagger and style, whereas they probably knew every other song that had been played earlier in the night, with those bands maybe not having the throttle pinned all the way to the floor the way 7T8 did. And yet, they weren’t upset. The band sounded too good for that. It was a strange mix of excitement and confusion that lasted about two minutes.

After that, 7T8 had the room. They owned it.

After grabbing the crowd by the collar with their opener, a rip-snorter of a song from their EP called “Outta My Head,” they instantly transitioned into a rollicking version of the song “Paralyzer” by Finger Eleven. Later came their EP title track, “Rebirth,” “My Hero” from the Foo Fighters and then another of their own songs. By the time they reached the end of their set, 7T8 had made it clear the competition was over for that night. They had the crowd in the palm of their hand, and finished their performance with a hair-raising rendition of the Billy Idol song “Rebel Yell.” I’ve always been lukewarm to “Rebel Yell,” but if 7T8 had made a recording of their version of the song available for sale that night, I’d have bought it without even thinking about it.

After they were done, the crowd yelled for an encore, and I don’t think they were being in any way disrespectful to the other bands. They just genuinely wanted to hear more from 7T8. I did too.

7T8’s set that night reminded me of how I’d felt so long ago, that you could play your own songs for an unfamiliar crowd, if your songs were strong enough and if you were confident about it.

With the guys from 7T8.

With the guys from 7T8.

I was buzzing from the experience. I was so glad I was there to see that performance. And perhaps I am overstating it, but I can only share what my sincere reaction to it was, and I felt like I’d been a part of something very rare and a whole lot of fun.  It’s the kind of emotional response only music can generate for me, and it can’t be manufactured. It just happens.

As soon as I got home that night, around midnight, I chose buying and listening to 7T8’s EP over going to sleep, and I am still happy with the choice. They somehow got that right, too. It’s a fine first effort, and sounds great at maximum volume in my car. If you’re interested, you can download it HERE.

I love music, and want to thank March of Dimes for having me as their MC again to help remind me why. I also want to tip my cap to all the bands that were there that night, not just 7T8. They were all great and worked hard and played well and supported a great cause.

I think I’ll go pick up my guitar.

Friends & Mentors, Vol. 5: Rob Hogendoorn of Forest City Community Church

I’ve been fortunate to get to know a great many interesting and inspiring people. I’m grateful to have learned a lot from each of them.

One of those people is Rob Hogendoorn.

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Rob Hogendoorn

The Senior Pastor at Forest City Community Church in London, Ontario, Rob is one of my favourite people to be around. He is, to me, the epitome of both a friend and a mentor, and he is always generous with his time.

In my conversation with Rob, he shared some great perspective that I feel will be extremely valuable to any goal-oriented person, such as the need to have a clear vision to begin but also remaining open to new detours and opportunities, the importance of finding and empowering the right people, and why it’s necessary to be both persistent and patient.

Another key takeaway from my chat with Rob had to do with the idea of “overnight success,” and what it truly takes to achieve the kinds of results worthy of being labelled as such. Rob also reinforced for me the reality that sometimes things don’t go the way you expect them to, and not only is that still okay, but it can actually prove to be even better and more memorable than if things had gone according to plan all along.

Here is my conversation with Rob Hogendoorn.

KB: How did you find your way to London (from Vancouver)?

Rob: It was a combination of things. One is that my wife grew up here, so we had some connection to London. And we lived here for a little bit after we got married.

When you get out into British Columbia, you get so taken by the majesty and the beauty of the place, and the softer climate and all of that. And that’s why people rarely move back. And we had that for five years. We were like, “This place is just amazing – it’s just so beautiful.” But somehow we had just kept a soft spot in our hearts for London.

And then a situation turned up where I was able to find a bit of funding for me to basically pay my salary the first couple of years while I was trying to start a new church here, but it was kind of limited to the London region, this funding. And because the desire was so imbedded in my heart to start a certain kind of church, because that was all taking shape in my mind while we were living in Vancouver, and then the opportunity came and a little bit of that financial means – I had four young kids under the age of 8 and I thought I at least need to feed them and clothe them while I’m trying to do this thing – we took the opportunity.

So it was that convergence of those two things. But the sense of what it (the church) would be like, the kind of way it would function, that started to take root in my mind in 1989, 1990, 1991 – somewhere around in there.

KB: Can you tell me more about the things that were stirring inside you, both in terms of having the sense of needing to move on and in terms of the idea for what became Forest City Community Church? What was going through your heart and mind?

Rob: I’d say two things on it. One is the vision for how it would look increasingly took shape by the fact that I grew up in a church-going family and gave my life to Christ at a pretty early age. And then when I was a pastor of a church, it was kind of a traditional church and it was a church that was really great for people who were born and raised in it, and never really strayed. But increasingly I started really resonating with the need for 85-90% of Canadians for whom that’s not their story.

Probably 85-90% of Canadians, they might have some perspectives on faith and God but they certainly don’t have a very strong integrated personal experience of God and they certainly don’t have a meaningful way in which that’s lived out in a church community.

And so increasingly I thought, “How could we develop a church that would make sense and engage the 85% of Canadians?” And that’s where the kind of model and method and style and approach and philosophy of Forest City Community Church came increasingly clear in my head and in my heart, and what it would look like and what it would feel like and how it would function.

And then it became a matter of saying, “Okay, what things are going to have to happen for that to happen?” And, “What things am I going to have to try to put in place to see that take shape?”

A lot of it had to do with finding some of the key personalities and leaders who could give rise to some of these dimensions of what this church actually is now, because I couldn’t do it all. So I had to find and build a sub-team of people who resonated with that vision but they could take a different piece of it and push that piece of it out.

So that’s really what I ended up doing in the first five years, was really honing that team of people and supporting them and working with them and then together, all these different aspects of the church’s ministry just started to take shape.

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KB: What was the response, if any, from the traditional church community when you first got started? What was that like in the early days?

Rob: You know, it was pretty simple I think, because nobody knew about us. We were nobody. We were just a group of kids, really. I mean I was 30 or 31 years old and all of my other leaders were in their 20’s and we were just a little rag-tag collection of some people doing this little thing. So I don’t think anybody noticed.

KB: And at this stage, you were at Saunders (Secondary School)?

Rob: At that stage we were at Ashley Oaks Public School. After about 5 years, we grew out of that. And then we went to Saunders, and we were there for 7 years.

KB: So the church at this point is more of an intellectual and spiritual entity as opposed to any kind of bricks and mortar?

Rob: Absolutely. And I didn’t feel tension with other churches in the city at all because, first of all, we weren’t trying to reach their people. We were trying to reach people that were not going to church. And most of them were just really quite thrilled about that because many of them would like to have been more effective at that too. But for most of the years, you’re just kind of on your own at it and you don’t even think anybody’s noticing.

KB: What point was it when you realized that this had gained enough traction that you thought, “Wow, we’ve created a going concern here that is going to be somewhat of a long-term, established commitment.” When did that first occur to you?

Rob: It’s a good question. I think that, on one level, I know that for the first 10 years easily, we wondered all the time whether this was going to work.

KB: Ten years?

Rob: (Laughs) Oh yeah. Easily.

KB: I think it’s important to hear that. So many people – and I’ve been guilty of this as well – they think that everything comes right away, or should. And that’s not reality. Every overnight success is born of a lot of time with your sleeves rolled up.

Rob: Yeah, absolutely. It was probably 10 years before I sort of thought, “Wow, I guess this might actually work.” And then the other thing is, I would say this: I still sort of think of it in my heart as this fledgling little community trying to reach into the lives of people who are not super-connected to God. So I still think of us in a very primitive state actually. I don’t think of us as this going concern. I think of us as, “Wow, we’ve got a pretty good start.”

KB: Do you think that’s what allows your curiosity to continue to flourish?

Rob: Yes, I think so. You’re probably right.

KB: So Rob, when you talk about that 85-90% of people who don’t regularly go to church, what it is about Forest City Community Church that does seem to connect with them?

Rob: I guess I would say that there are a number of things but one of them would rise to the top for me. It’s two of our core values are Biblical truth and cultural relevance. Without a strong, truly transformative, authoritative message, you don’t have anything for people. But at the same time, if you’re not engaging people in a truly culturally relevant way and in a way that addresses life today, and communicates in the way that life is lived today and the realities people have today, if you’re not bringing those two to bear on each other, you’re also missing the boat. So that’s what we work really hard to do.

KB: I’m interested in what it’s like for you, where you are the leader here in a number of different senses, in finding the balance in being able to be confident wearing that day after day, but also knowing that you’re an individual that is probably looking for guidance as well.

Rob: A couple of things come to my mind. One is that I think it’s important to not try to do this alone. There’s no doubt that I have a central, visible, pivotal leadership role in this church and this faith community. But I think that if you try to do that in isolation, it’s dangerous because I’m fallible just like everybody else is fallible. So I can get off track. I can make mistakes just like anybody else can. And I’ve made my share. So that’s where you’ve got to be careful.

It’s important for me to have people around me who I am also learning from, bouncing ideas off of, who are either bringing good ideas or confirming ideas I have. So we have a small elder board, a little team. We’ve got some senior staff people and then I also stay networked with pastors of other larger churches in North America that also are communities and not just try to do this in isolation. So that’s the one side.

But the other side of it is that I believe that when you have a calling from God, when you know you have been called to do something, you have to also believe that He’s going to give you what you need to do it. And if you really have sensed and believe that you have that calling, you work very hard to stay close to Him and you experience how He repeatedly, and I’ve seen this for 21 years, how He continues to come through and confirm that call with wisdom at the right time, with resources at the right time with people at the right time. So in that way, you have to keep a healthy sense of humility about your dependence on other people and God while also recognizing the importance of the role you have.

Forest City Community Church on Bostwick Road in London, ON

Forest City Community Church on Bostwick Road in London, ON

KB: As we’re having this conversation, we’re sitting inside the church. When did this building even become the seed of a thought, and then where did it go from there?

Rob: We started the church with just a dozen people and, literally, in a living room. And then the church started growing in that little Elementary School in White Oaks (a neighbourhood in London, Ontario). And it continued to grow and then we went into Saunders (Secondary School) and like I said, we spent 7 years there. So we were in rented facilities for 12 years before we built anything with physical bricks.

In the Saunders era, as the church was growing and we were reaching people, maybe 3, 4, 5 years in, we started realizing, “Okay, the rental facilities, as useful as this has been, is starting to become limiting to the vision.” And like we mentioned before, when you know what your vision is, it makes it a little easier to say ‘yay’ to that, ‘nay’ to that. When we realized that our vision was starting to get limited by rental facilities, then the option became maybe, “Is it time for us to build a facility that can continue to facilitate the vision and the mission of this church?”  So those thoughts and conversations started happening in that era, which would have been about 10, 11 years ago.

And then we started thinking about, “well what would that kind of facility look like?” And so we got some architects and interestingly, our first architects were people who were not church architects at all. They’d never been involved in a church. Because that’s the other thing: you typically will get a church architect, and we decided, no, we don’t want a church architect because they’re going to be thinking about building a church building and we wanted to find an architect that’s going to think a bit outside the box with us on what the facility could look like that could facilitate the vision of the church.

So we did that and then took them to some other places to kind of give them ideas of what buildings could look like. And then we just started the process here of just starting to put numbers down on paper, putting a bit of a design together.

We sort of thought, “Right now we have this amount of people, and if the growth continues, in 10 years from now we’re going to have ‘this’ amount of people, well then we have to find a way to build something that ultimately could be facilitating THAT many people when we don’t have THAT many people to pay for it right now.” So how do we do that?

So we developed a master plan of the facility, just sort of dreaming crazy of what this facility could grow into over the years. But then we broke it down into components and we built the first component. And then 3 years later we build the next component and then 3 years later we built the next component and then a couple years later we built the next component and we just kept adding components as the church continued to grow and as we continue to expand some of our generosity base of people who could actually be part of these expansions. So in a nutshell, that’s sort of how it came to be.

KB: What was it like, the first service here?

Rob: Oh, it was amazing! Actually the first service we had was outside. This was all parking lot, for the first service, where we’re sitting now. And we had our Grand Opening morning – this is a bit of a side point to what you’re asking – and we had announced it at Saunders, that everything was lined up, next week was our opening on Bostwick Road. And that week, the final inspectors came and the Fire Inspector came and there were a couple of things he did not like, that didn’t meet his standards. I don’t blame him, but he just said – and this on a Friday afternoon – he said, “You cannot open this building on Sunday.” And we were like, “Are you kidding me? We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of people that are going to be showing up, because that’s what we said last week (he chuckles)!”

So we had to make a decision. What we did is set up a stage outside in the parking lot, right there (points outside) and we had a little outdoor service, and there were hundreds of people standing here for the very first service. And it was magical, because it was a great moment.

Our Creative Arts Director, who is still on the staff, I remember him getting up and he said something about, “You know, this is just a great reminder to all of us that that’s not the church. This is the church. The church is the people here. The church is not that thing.”

And I think we’ve tried to never forget that.

Friends & Mentors, Vol. 4: Kyla Woodcock of Forest City Sport & Social Club

I’ve been fortunate to get to know a great many interesting and inspiring people. I’m grateful to have learned a lot from each of them.

One of those people is Kyla Woodcock.

Kyla Woodcock, Founder of FCSSC

Kyla Woodcock, Founder of FCSSC

Kyla is the founder of the Forest City Sport & Social Club, a co-ed, recreational sports league designed to bring people together for fun, to meet new friends, and to stay fit while giving back to  the community. Built upon Kyla’s vision and values, the club has been an amazing hit, and has since expanded to Windsor (Rose City Sport & Social Club).

From the moment I met her, I’ve admired Kyla. When I talk with Kyla, I find myself both wanting to learn from her and to try and find a thought to challenge her. I am always interested in what she will say or do next. And I am never disappointed.

Kyla’s story fascinates me. In telling parts of it, she relates some powerful perspective that any entrepreneur should find valuable.  As I listened to her talk about her journey, I caught myself on numerous occasions thinking, “People need to hear/see this.” And now they can.

Here is my conversation with Kyla Woodcock:

KB: Where were you professionally before you even started to get the seeds of the idea for FCSSC?

Kyla: My background is in business and human resources. I worked for a large corporation in the technology industry until the bubble burst in the early 90’s.

It found it relatively easy to find a really great HR job really early in my career and I immediately started traveling with that company, and other companies within the industry, because everything was going so fast in tech at the time.

I moved all over the country with those tech companies doing HR stuff and then, the classic story, I became completely exhausted of that life after about 7 or 8 years, being early in my own professional story and moving around incessantly. I was never close to family and I missed every birthday party and I wasn’t married and I didn’t have any kids and I was pushing 30 years old and thinking, “I’m not doing this anymore. I’m tired.”

When the tech industry experienced a significant downturn I had to severance a whole bunch of people out of work. In HR, that was my job I wrote myself a package too. I just said, “I’ve had enough.”

KB: What was going through your mind and heart at that time?

Kyla: I was exhausted. I saw the opportunity. I knew the company had to decrease the payroll and I knew that we didn’t need another HR person to do the recruiting, performance manage and compensation strategy because we just lost the 500 people for whom that HR person was responsible.

The Forest City Sport & Social Club (FCSSC) exists to improve the quality of life for adults in London through fun, friends, fitness and connection to our community.

The Forest City Sport & Social Club (FCSSC) exists to improve the quality of life for adults in London through fun, friends, fitness and connection to our community.

KB: When, along that timeline, did what has turned into FCSSC start to germinate as an idea, let alone a business plan?

Kyla: There was a period in the early days of my career in HR that I actually got to settle at the head office of one of the companies I worked for and that was in Ottawa. And so I started to invest a bit into a local lifestyle.

It was just pure, off the clock play time. It was what I really needed and I found when I joined the sport and social club. And I became friends with Nicki, the woman who started the club in Ottawa. Her story was not dissimilar to mine. She started her cub having leaving the tech industry. She was a couple of years ahead of me. We’re still friends to this day.

KB: So was it that time that the thought came to you, “Maybe I can do something like this in another market?”

Kyla: It wasn’t until after I took time off. I left the corporate job that I was in, and then I traveled for over a year. I just didn’t work at all. I sold my house and everything in it. I literally put clothes in a backpack and started traveling. I traveled through the South Pacific mostly.

FCSSC donated over $7,000 and made countless equipment donations to various local charities in 2014 alone.

FCSSC donated over $7,000, along with countless equipment donations, to various local charities in 2014 alone.

KB: You did that by yourself?

Kyla: By myself. And I met fabulous people along the way. Totally fabulous people.

And then I came home because my grandfather passed away. I had intentions of going back overseas. I wasn’t sure I was done traveling; I still wanted to see more; I didn’t really want to get another job and I was fortunate because I still had a little bit left in the bank. The plan was always to spend it until it was gone and I still had countries on the list and so I was going to go back. But I didn’t.

I got home and I reconnected with my family during that stay at home and realized there was too much I was missing out on.

KB: What did you learn about yourself that that time?

Kyla: Oh. What didn’t I learn about myself? I took a lot of my identity from who I was in the corporate world and what people recognized me as being good at. I was chasing that next great big title and I was needing to be at the boardroom table and part of every corporate decision because that made me valuable and important. And then when I stepped away from all of that, I realized that’s not how I needed to be important.

Being important for me is being there for my husband and kids, parents and my siblings. That’s being important. Being there for my friends and being somebody that people can rely on. Being in the big chair at the boardroom table … I don’t care about that anymore.

KB: And at that time, at that point in your life, you’re doing what you just think that you’re supposed to be doing.

Kyla: Yeah! Everybody always said, get a great job and get out there and work and it’s all about realizing your earning power and putting your degree to work. You spent thousands of dollars at university: do something with that. You know?.

KB: So you end up doing everything that you’re “supposed” to do and you wind up exhausted and empty.

Kyla: Something like that.

With Kyla at a recent FCSSC event.

With Kyla at a recent FCSSC event.

KB: I’d like to talk a little bit about FCSSC.

Kyla: Sure!

KB: Fast forward then to how that came together and why?

I still had ambitions to finish schooling. I had an undergrad degree but I’d always wanted my Masters in business and I decided that I was going to make time for that. So I went to Ivey and did my MBA (Masters in Business Administration) there and when I graduated, I didn’t want to do what I’d always done. It didn’t make sense to me that that was a good use of the investment in my education. I wanted to do something else.

I come from a long line of entrepreneurs. My dad is an incredibly successful entrepreneur. So is my mom. My stepdad is a successful entrepreneur too. I wanted to try. And that’s where the club came from. The club was my entrepreneurial attempt that was perfectly fitted to the lifestyle that I wanted for myself.

I wanted connection to my community and I wanted more fun factor in my life. I wanted the chance to meet really great people every single day and I wanted to be in a business that naturally had the opportunity to do good. The club ticked all of those boxes, so it was an absolute no-brainer.

KB: You’ve just had your 5th anniversary, which is fantastic. Congratulations.

Kyla: Thank you.

KB: Where are you hoping to go from here?

Kyla: Wherever the membership of the club wants us to go. If they want a new sport, then we’re going to work on getting them a new sport. If they want a huge party or event once a year, then let’s get a huge party event once a year. If they want 50 partners in the network of the Forest City Sport & Social Club then we’ll work on 50 partners in the network. The club is a member-based organization and what we set our sights on as the organizers of the club is directly related to what the members are telling us they want the club to be and do. So I don’t dictate that. We plug in and respond.

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KB: And it sounds like you’re trying to manage that organically, as opposed to go back to what you experienced in the tech world, where it got too far out ahead of itself and fell in. So the growth, doing it at the right speed, is important.

Kyla: Yes. Absolutely true. We’ve had lots of ideas for different things that we haven’t actually done. And we don’t flip the switch on those ideas because it’s maybe not what the membership is looking for from us at that point in time.

KB: That’s a valuable lesson that I wish I could go back and teach my 20 and 30-something year-old self.

Kyla: Yeah.

KB: Just because you have a card in your hand doesn’t mean now’s the time to play it.

Kyla: That’s right. And for us, that’s absolutely true.

At the same time, we have the ability, for example, to expand the concept to other markets. There are lots of cities near and far from here that don’t have a sport & social club. And the joy of creating it for me, making those connections and bringing rays of sunshine to the people in those communities when they come and play with us once a week, when we take them off the clock and we give them that carefree play time, I take a lot of pride in that and I think it’s super cool that that’s my work.

New Song, “Broken Breath,” To Help Southwestern Ontario Lung Association

One of the things I enjoy most about my work is that it puts me in the path of some wonderful organizations. I was thrilled when my journey took me back into the office of the Southwestern Ontario Lung Association about three years ago. I’ve been working with them ever since, in my capacity as a marketing consultant at Bell Media Radio in London. However this project transcends those day-to-day necessities.

First, a little background:

I’m a lifelong asthmatic, though you’d hardly know it to see me now. Treatment has come a long way in forty years, and I’ve also outgrown many of the daily symptoms (though allergies and other irritations still chase me at every turn, but that’s another story). When I was a child, I was very sick with asthma. I was in and out of the hospital and doctor’s office on what seemed like a regular basis. A big turning point in my life was when I was sent to a facility in Toronto that was better equipped to monitor and treat asthmatic children. I lived there, weekends excluded, for three months when I was seven years old.

Here I am at 7 years old, with my Dad. This is the only photo I still have that I know was taken at what we called "The Centre" - the hospital in Toronto.

Here I am at 7 years old, with my Dad. This is the only photo I still have that I know was taken at what we called “The Centre” – the hospital in Toronto.

At that time, my family was very involved with the Lung Association, as my parents and family doctor would do anything they could to gain access to any resources that might assist them in helping me. I’ve never forgotten that, and whenever I see the Lung Association’s red cross logo, I automatically think of others with asthma and other breathing problems.

Much later in life, after the worst of my asthmatic days seemed to be behind me, I wrote a song called “Broken Breath,” which is essentially sung from the perspective of a child with asthma who can’t breathe, doesn’t understand why, and wishes for something – anything – to help. The song also touches on the subject of my parents having no choice, for the sake of my own health, but to “send me away” (to that hospital in Toronto).

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I remember when I wrote the song. It’s dated 1997. I was going through a phase of listening almost exclusively to artists like Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle, and wanted to have a track of my own that fit the mold of many of their acoustic, introspective songs that tugged at the heart. To be more direct, I wanted to write a song somewhat like Springsteen’s “Shut Out the Light” (originally a B-Side from the “Born in the USA” era), which is the story of a Vietnam veteran who is haunted by his experiences well after returning home, just looking for comfort, calls for his mother to “Throw your arms around me in the cold, dark night. Hey now, Mama, don’t shut out the lights.”

“Broken Breath,” obviously, doesn’t sound much like Springsteen’s song. But from an emotional and narrative standpoint, I feel I succeeded in capturing something similar. I’ve always been proud of the song.

A couple of weeks ago, I played “Broken Breath” for my two curious sons, who also happen to be my biggest supporters. It left Eddie, my 11-year-old, in tears. His reaction was a compliment in a roundabout sort of way, although I was sorry to see him react that way. He said he was sorry he got upset, but that he thought the song was touching and that he didn’t know I’d been through any of the things I sang about. His reaction told me that the song may indeed be able to kick open some doors for some people to have a better understanding of the kind of work the Lung Association actually does.

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Eddie (at left) & Jaden: My “Road crew,” sounding boards, inspiration and joy.

So here’s the plan as it stands: my friends at the Southwestern Ontario Lung Association have asked me if I would perform / MC as part of their “First Noel Preview Night” for their annual “Festival of Trees” event, Tuesday, November 25th from 6pm to 9pm at the Covent Garden Market here in London, Ontario. They would like me to debut “Broken Breath” that night, so I’ll do that along with, perhaps, a couple of other songs. And I’ll happily MC and help out however else I can that night.

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Whether we record or videotape the song that evening is still unclear. And plans to make a studio-quality version of the song are also very much up in the air, depending on time and cost. Ultimately, it would be great for the Lung Association to be able to use the song however they like in an effort to create more understanding and support for all they do.

I’m also trying to recruit a friend or two to come along with me to make the night more special on November 25th and give the performance more impact, but if that doesn’t work out, I’m happy to do it on my own, as the song was written for just acoustic guitar and one voice. That said, I tweaked the lyrics and melody just a bit to create a bit of a sing-along element to it toward the end of the song, so it would be great to have company that night! We’ll see.

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For now, it would be wonderful for you to consider attending the “Festival of Trees” at some point this holiday season (it’s free, and it’s a great display that kids will love). And if you’re so inclined to assist the Lung Association, perhaps consider their Christmas Seals program or at least keep them in your thoughts or spread the word.

I well remember the Lung Association’s phrase, “When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

It’s true. I know what it’s like.

Maybe I can help.

Happy Anniversary, No Schedule Man!

Four years ago today I achieved a goal I’d held for at least a decade: to complete and release a full-length CD of my own music. It was June 26, 2010, when “No Schedule Man” was finally released with a concert at the London Music Club here in London, Ontario. Much has happened since then. And looking back, I feel proud of myself for seeing the goal through to completion, and I’m glad I have those songs recorded in some form.

At the CD Release show

At the CD Release show

It took me almost a year and a half to finish the project (I documented the whole process with a weekly journal. All the entries can be found HERE). At the time, I was not enjoying the accomplishment as much as I’d been hoping to, as I was truly hurting with sciatic nerve pain caused by herniated discs in my lower back (which actually caused a two-week delay in releasing the CD). In fact, just one week after the CD release show, I decided to cancel the rest of the appearances I had booked for that summer because I was just in too much pain and wasn’t enjoying myself at all. Partly because of that, I never really felt those songs got the push they deserved.

Shortly afterwards, many significant life changes took place, including a divorce, change of address and change in career, all of which happened pretty much at the same time. In the face of that, playing the songs from “No Schedule Man” quickly fell down the list of priorities.

CD Artwork in development

CD Artwork in development

For the better part of two years after all that, I didn’t even really look at my guitar, let alone go anywhere and play. My mind was only on being with my two boys, keeping myself healthy and learning what I needed to learn from the life changes that had taken place. To that end, I feel grateful for the lessons I’m not sure I could have learned any other way. But there was always a part of me that felt bad about watching “No Schedule Man” sit and collect dust.

Eventually, the urge to start creating and sharing music bubbled back up. But it was different this time. There was much more patience, and even hesitation, to move forward. As I’ve written and talked about before, it was really my oldest son, Eddie, who nudged me to start working on music again, and so last summer I recorded a handful of new songs that became the acoustic EP, “Solo: The Return of No Schedule Man.” In the process of getting ready to release that collection, I went back and started rehearsing some of the songs from the original “No Schedule Man” CD again and thought, quite honestly, that there were some really good songs just sitting and waiting for me to pay them some mind again.

The new EP, released in February 2014

The new EP, released in February 2014

Now that “Solo” has also been released, my guitar is mostly quiet again, at least for now. I’m still not sure where all this fits in the scheme of a guy who makes his living as a Marketing Consultant and Radio Account Executive. But when I burden myself with trying too hard to make sense of it all, I think back to the lyrics of the “No Schedule Man” title track and remember that “No plan is all part of the plan.”

The idea of control is really a fallacy. Change is inevitable, and this present moment is truly all we have. So I strive to be more like the character I created with “No Schedule Man,” to the extent where I’ve since adopted it as a kind of “brand” for most of the things I do, and hope to be.

No Schedule Man, the character, doesn’t aim to have. He simply wants to be.

It was pretty cool to be able to put this in the CD player. Still is!

It was pretty cool to be able to put this in the CD player. Still is!

One day, I’ll give those songs the attention I always felt they deserved. In the meantime, I can look back and feel proud that they even exist in the first place, and feel emboldened about my ability to navigate through whatever changes and challenges may come from here. With that in mind, I wholeheartedly encourage you to explore and celebrate your own creativity as well, in whatever form that may be. I did, and I’m glad I did.

Happy Anniversary, No Schedule Man. I’m better for knowing you and am curious to see where we set sail next.

Friends & Mentors, Vol. 2: Mark Malerba of Metropolitan Maintenance

I’ve been fortunate to get to know a great many interesting and inspiring people. I’m grateful to have learned a lot from each of them.

One of those people is Mark Malerba.

Mark Malerba

A proud father of two children (Luca, 4 and Mila, 2) and loving husband to his wife of almost 8 years (Caterina), Mark was recognized as one of London’s “Top 20 under 40 (years of age) Emerging Leaders” just last year. Mark is also Vice President of Metropolitan Maintenance, a London, Ontario-based and family-owned janitorial service provider that has been in business since his parents, Mike and Joanne, started the company in 1980.

Over the course of more than three decades, Metropolitan Maintenance has earned a well-deserved reputation of doing business consistently with integrity and respect. As such, the company has been recognized with several awards in recent years, including the Consumer Choice Award for Janitorial Service; Best of London award for Best Cleaning Service; London Chamber of Commerce’s London Quality Award; the Better Business Bureau’s Business Integrity Award; and the Family Enterprise of the Year, awarded by the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise, among others.

Although he did not originally aspire to be a part of the family business, when you talk to Mark, you quickly get the sense that he has a deep and genuine respect for his parents and the legacy they’ve built, and is extremely proud to be a part of it now. Like most of us, Mark took a somewhat indirect path to his current place, but has now found a role that suits him and also benefits those around him.

While he is rightfully proud of the company’s accomplishments, Mark does not seem to be defined by them. Rather, he has always struck me as a very humble and genuine person who is sincerely grateful for the effort of everyone that makes a contribution into making Metropolitan Maintenance the great company that it is.

Here is my conversation with Mark Malerba:

Kevin: What were your recollections of your parents, back when they started this business, and what was your perception of all of that?

Mark: I remember when I was young even going to a specific site with my Dad. I don’t know why this one sticks in my head but it was a printing shop. He would clean it on the weekends and I would go with him, just because I was fascinated by all the supplies. I just loved being in that kind of environment. And so he’d take me. I wouldn’t do any cleaning, but I would just be there and just kind of watch him and spend time there.

The one thing that both my parents did was, as I was starting to grow up, I was involved in soccer and basketball and hockey and I can never remember them ever missing a game. And we traveled quite a bit, especially for soccer, all over Ontario. We even went to Italy one year and my Dad came for two weeks during March Break. So as busy as they always were, they always made time.

Kevin: What did your Dad do prior to starting this company, and how did Metropolitan Maintenance even come to be?

Mark: He came from Italy, I believe when he was 19. And he didn’t speak any English or anything. He did have some family here that helped him get started. I know he mentioned he worked for a little while at the hospital as a patient porter. But he always felt like he could do more. So he put an ad in the paper for himself, basically just advertising himself, that he wanted to do more and that he had the skills and desire to basically run a business.

One of the calls he got was from the owner of a cleaning company. He had never run a cleaning company before. So he just basically figured it out as he went. He managed the company. He did the cleaning, he basically was doing all of it. And he ran it like it was his own business. And then the point came – I’m not sure when the transition happened of him leaving that business or that owner deciding to retire, but that’s when my Dad decided to go out on his own and start this business. My Mom told him he was crazy because there was a lot of risk involved and a lot of competition at that time too. But again, his whole thought process was, “I can do more, and I want to do more.” And he worked extremely hard to get it started.

Looking back, you wonder, ‘Would I be able to do that if I went to a country where English wasn’t the first language, or where I didn’t know anybody really, and was basically starting from scratch?’

Kevin: There’s a resourcefulness there that, in my personal feeling, we’re lacking as a culture in general.

Mark: I agree

Kevin: To think about it in the context of, ‘If I were to go to some other country, and learn how to speak the language and try to figure out how to start a business from scratch?’ When you think of it that way, it really is pretty astounding.

Mark: It is. That’s how I always looked at it, is, where would you even know how to begin?

Kevin: I’d like to talk about your journey into the family business.

Mark: I’ve always been involved with the family business, but it was really in 2005 – so it’s been 9 years – since I decided to really commit full time. Now I’m Vice President.

For the first few years, I really just managed business development. I did a lot of learning. And then, slowly, took what I had learned from Ivey (School of Business), and I had worked in consulting for a couple of years prior to coming back into the family business, so I took what I learned in those experiences and started implementing them here.

And it was definitely the best decision I ever made. It was a good mix. My father’s had the years of experience of being in this industry and running the business and I bring the formal tools that I’ve learned. He wasn’t fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go to university and that kind of thing so that’s where we mesh well.

Kevin: To what extent is he still involved?

Mark: He’s the President and he’s still here every day. He enjoys quoting jobs, going to visiting clients. He doesn’t have any thoughts of retirement.

I think that, slowly, he’d maybe like to start taking some more time off, but he always says, “If I enjoy it and my health allows me to keep doing it, then I want to keep doing it.”

My wife always says we’re like the Brady Bunch here. We get along. And there’s no issue on my end that he stays as long as he wants.

The Malerba family. From left: Mark, Mike (Mark's father), Joanne (Mother) and Emily (sister).

The Malerba family. From left: Mark, Mike (Mark’s father), Joanne (Mother) and Emily (sister).

Kevin: Can you take me back to when you were younger, even before Ivey and all of that? What were your thoughts about maybe being a part of this business? What was going through your mind about what you wanted out of the work world and what you wanted your place to be in it?

Mark: I played a lot of sports so I think that a lot of kids that are into sports think that, at one time, maybe they want to be a professional athlete. But then you realize quickly that’s not going to happen.

In high school, at one point I was thinking about medicine. But then in Grade Eleven biology, we had to start dissecting things, and that didn’t go well (laughs).

So then, for the longest time, I did have an interest in law. I did speak to three lawyers whom I’d known for a while and trusted. All three of them suggested I not go into law. So I took that information for what it was and decided that if these were three people that are in the role, and that I trust, and that have the experience and basically are telling me that if they had to do it again they wouldn’t do it, that kind of pushed that one aside too.

But you start to realize that you have all these ideas as you’re growing up.

So growing up in a family business, you always have an interest in business because it’s always there. My parents always suggested or encouraged me to do something else and not to come into the family business because the last thing I think any second or third generation should be is pressured to go into the family business, because you’re not going to do well if you don’t want to be there.

That’s why, when I went through university, I still went for my business degree. At that point I still wasn’t sure what I would do, whether I would come here or interview for different positions all over the map. And then I decided to take the consulting position at Ivey because they had a consulting group. And that was a great decision because we got to work with different sized organizations: small, medium, profit, non-profit or whatever they may be, and you get to see what kinds of issues they may face and help them overcome them. So that’s what I talked about before, about taking some of that experience and applying it here. That was definitely a positive decision that I made was not coming right into the family business but doing something different.

And then you ultimately realize that you do want to do this. I don’t think anybody grows up thinking, “I want to run a cleaning company.” It’s back to that idea that it’s not the glamourous movie star job and all these things, but once you grow up with it, it’s kind of in your blood too. It’s in you, it’s a part of you and no matter what you’re doing, no matter what industry you’re in, no matter what service or product or whatever you’re doing, if you do it with passion, then you’ll do it well. Whether you’re selling a widget, cleaning a floor, cutting a lawn or whatever it is, as long as you do it right and do it well and take care of the people that work for you, I think you’ll go a long way.

Kevin: So that brings us back to where I think we started. Rather than asking you where the passion comes from when it wasn’t something you grew up with a burning desire to do, the theme that runs through the whole thing to me seems to be one of family and partnership and integrity. To what extent is it fair to say that that’s maybe the link to the passion? There seems to be a sense of ownership and pride amongst everybody here.

questions_85475Mark: That’s exactly it because there are a lot of employees that are still with us that have been with us even from when my parents started. And in the cleaning business …

Kevin: In any business

Mark: Yeah

Kevin: It doesn’t happen anymore.

Mark: It doesn’t. It doesn’t. And that’s because of the respect my parents earned from the staff, seeing them work as hard as they did. Seeing my Dad sell during the day and then cleaning at night. Actions speak louder than words, right?

Employees do not feel like they can’t pick up the phone and call one of us, whether it’s good or bad, it’s like any family: if you communicate well, then more often than not, you’re going to have positive results. And if you don’t communicate in business, you don’t know where you stand.

Kevin: In my experience, communication, even with the best of intentions, can still go wrong, or can be taken a different way. And so to create and foster that sense of family and ownership, what do you need to be doing as somebody that’s responsible for operating the business to interact with the rest of the team members and foster that environment?

Mark: There are daily meetings so that everyone knows what’s going on and everybody’s on the same page. The employees will either communicate a lot of the time with our supervisors and managers. Our management personnel will visit the sites to get feedback from the employees and to check on them and tell them they’re doing a good job. We even encourage the clients to communicate with our employees directly as well, whether it’s to tell them pay special attention to a specific boardroom that evening because of a special visit, or to say, ‘You know what? Thank you so much for everything you’ve been doing for us.’

We even find a lot of times that clients invite our staff to their luncheons or parties or give them a little something at Christmas just as a sign of appreciation. It kind of trickles down all the way through. And I think that’s why we’ve been successful too is because those front line employees that are the heart and soul and backbone of the company, they feel accountable and take ownership of what they do. They feel like we’re all in this together. This is one big family and if I do my part and they do their part – if everybody does their part, then we’re all better off.

To Visit the Metropolitan Maintenance website, please CLICK HERE

Stories From a Short Track, Vol. 2: “Snow Crossed”

As the grip of this relentless winter starts to slowly let go, I can’t help but recall one of the coldest, most challenging projects of my career:

Snowcross at Delaware Speedway.

Back when I was General Manager of that half-mile stock car track, the people I worked for thought it would be a good idea to try and create another event in the wintertime.

214770_8596Part of the reality of a “seasonal” business is that you only have so many chances to try and put money in the bank. You’re not open fifty-two weeks of the year like most businesses. At best, we had around 30 – 40 dates annually to bring in revenue (in other words, we would go 325 – 335 days of the year without any actual event). That’s daunting, and not an especially comforting business model.

Still, we understood this and so we worked our tails off year-round to supplement that trend by strategically trying to spread out the flow and timing of other forms of revenue, such as: annual banquet, driver registration and membership, event and race division sponsorship renewals and deposits, billboard advertising renewals, and season ticket renewals.

But the bulk of the revenue came from ticket and concession sales and sponsorship directly associated with a race. So it was decided a winter event was a good idea.

And so, in the winter of 2005, we set  about the task of dumping snow on our race track.

The concept of Snowcross was to turn the track into a venue that people could visit in February. Instead of watching stock cars on the asphalt, they’d watch snowmobiles on (and above) the snow. Think motocross hills, but with snow instead of dirt and snowmobiles instead of motorcycles.

Sounds neat, right? I agree! But I wish it had been hosted by somebody else.

And here begins the lesson in this story.

For starters, the possibility of conducting this particular event required snow, and lots of it. So the first challenge was to find approximately 400 truckloads of the white stuff and deposit it on to the front straightaway of our race track, and on top of pit road. Say that out loud and see how it sounds: “Let’s take our race track, which has not been resurfaced for roughly 30 years and which we depend upon for the very existence of our business, and let’s drop 400 truckloads of snow on top of it.”

Hmmm …

We had no way of knowing whether we would even get enough snow or cold temperatures in the area to make it happen, let alone how we’d get the snow to the race track. We could well have done all the work to prep for the event and end up not having it happen. On top of that logistical challenge, we were also faced with the reality that our facility was never meant to be used in the winter. There was no heat in the concession building or ticket windows, nor in the announcer/scoring tower, washrooms or hospitality lounge.

In addition, we had to try and figure out how to staff the place for just one day, how to find and activate sponsorship (the event really couldn’t be very profitable without it), and how to advertise and market it. Preparing for the upcoming stock car racing season came to a temporary halt.

581435_92802822Despite all those challenges, lo and behold, when the day actually came, we somehow were ready to host a legion of snowmobile racers that were going to jump over hills and amaze and entertain us.

I will never forget that day. It was frigid. I believe the high reached about minus fifteen Celcius. Before we opened the gates to spectators, I was troubled with how much ice was caked all around the facility. Parts of the grandstand steps – already crooked and uneven at best – were icy. The walkways: ice. I furiously tried to put as much salt down as I could before actual paying customers came in. I remember worrying that someone would get hurt.

Amazingly, no one did get hurt, though we came within an eyelash of a disaster in the parking lot. A number of vendors had created a “tented village” along one part of the fence inside the facility. Unfortunately, someone had decided to tether all of the pop-up tents together, and when a strong gust of February wind arose, the tents all went with it, flipping up and over the wall separating the track from the parking lot like a cross between dominoes and a giant snake, barely missing a hydro line that ran above that fence. I can recall with exact emotional clarity how I felt at that moment: I wondered what I was going to see when I went into the parking lot, fully expecting to discover a series of smashed windshields and scraped-up hoods. I knew there was no way those tents could not have fallen on top of the cars of some of the customers from that day.

But they hadn’t. They missed by inches. I couldn’t believe it.

By the end of it, people that attended did seem to have enjoyed it. The folks that ran the Snowcross organization were lovely people and nice to work with.

But, ours was a 50-year old stock car track, made for the summer, not for a snowmobile event in the winter.

All told, financially, the event did a little better than breaking even. But the true cost would not be clear until much later.

Four hundred truckloads of snow do not melt quickly. Nor is it clean, especially when you’ve had racing machines running on top of it. Much of it was trucked in from places like shopping mall parking lots. As it melted, we began to see the sheer volume of garbage, salt and filth it carried with it. It literally turned black as winter turned to spring. And it reeked.

Pit crew members of race teams stood on top of hills of blackened, stinking, rotting snow hills during the first couple of open practice sessions for stock car race teams that spring. It was a sorry sight. If the race teams were upset about it, I wouldn’t have blamed them one bit.

583219_98979002As time went on, the physical effect of that event left real consequences for the track owners. In short, dumping all that filthy snow on the facility pretty much wrecked pit road. It eventually had to be completely re-paved with concrete, a job costing tens of thousands of dollars.

All told, while well intentioned, adding one random Snowcross event to the schedule of a facility that was not built nor personally equipped to handle such a thing, ended up being little more than one big party whose bills continued to show up for years afterward.

The lesson? In your business, know your core product or service and stay true to it. Even (especially?) when times are slow. Know your key customers and what they come to you for and prioritize them over “side shows” and other distractions. Otherwise, you may find that chasing short-term gain might just bring you long-term pain.

And your business may get left out in the cold.

Friends & Mentors, Vol. 1: Fred Geiger of Custom Mobility

I’ve been fortunate to get to know a great many interesting and inspiring people. I’m grateful to have learned a lot from each of them.

One those people is Fred Geiger.

Picture1Fred co-owns a London, Ontario-based business called Custom Mobility, which provides wheelchairs, walkers, and other mobility devices, as well as home healthcare equipment. Compassion, integrity, transparency and empowerment are all extremely important to Fred, and he brings all of these things (and more) to Custom Mobility on a day-to-day basis.

Currently a weekly host of his own “Ask the Experts” radio show on 1290 CJBK (Mondays at 12:00 pm), Fred has always been one to explore new and different opportunities. He has been in the Military, Police, Education and has helped build private businesses on a couple of different fronts.

Even at the age of 17, he was ready to take on a challenge, feeling at that time that he could (should?) open a McDonald’s franchise. His feelings about it were strong enough that he took the initiative to contact the restaurant chain’s Regional Vice President, with whom he eventually took a meeting … at 17 years of age! Among the many things that came from that conversation was the prediction from the McDonald’s Executive that Fred would be “a millionaire by the time he was in his 40’s.” He was also offered a position in the company at that time, but eventually decided to pass due to potential travel concerns.

Those things will come up again later in this conversation.

All of it has brought Fred to where he is now, at the wheel of Custom Mobility, a business that helps people find comfort and independence in their own homes at a time in their lives when they are more potentially vulnerable – both physically and emotionally – than they may ever have been before.

Fred is a man of great integrity, and he seems genuinely content inside his own skin, so I wanted to talk to him and find out more about his story and what got him to this point, and to see what I could learn from him. It was time very well spent.

Here is my conversation with Fred Geiger of Custom Mobility:

Kevin: Your first real interest was in Policing?

Fred: “Well, first, it was the fire department. But when that didn’t look like it could happen, yes, I wanted to get into Policing.

“Now, part of the problem was that to get on the police department, you needed to have either a two-year college program under you or you had to have two university credits. I had neither.”

Kevin: So why not go back to school?

Fred: “At that time, when I was 18, I already owned my first house, so I thought, ‘I can’t quit and go back to school now.’”

Kevin: So then what?

Fred: “And then I looked at military police because they were taking people, and I thought, ‘Okay, then what I’ll do is go into military police and work at that for a little bit and then from that, I’ll be able to leverage that to be able to get on to a police department.  And so I joined the military police, with the intention of, later on, switching to the police department, which is exactly what I did.

“From the military police, I got on to the University of Western Ontario police department, which at that time was just a security department but it was transposing into a police department so I was there through all that process. From there, five years later, I got on Niagara Regional Police department. And then I bounced to St. Thomas (Ontario) from Niagara because I wanted to be home, closer to my son from my first marriage. My son was living in London and I didn’t want to be a weekend Dad. So I quit Niagara Region and joined St. Thomas City and that was a story in itself.

“But after a while, from there, that’s when I went to Westervelt (College, in London, ON), to teach, and started the Police Foundations Program.

Kevin: Do you mind telling me how long you were in Policing and what age you were?

Fred: “13 years. I’m gonna say I was 35 when I got out.”

Kevin: At some point over those 13 years, and you’re in the prime of your life, are you thinking, “Gosh – I’ve invested almost a decade and a half of my adult life into this. It doesn’t light my fire anymore. But how can I maybe take some of what I’ve invested in myself and extract from it and then apply it in a way that will maybe feed me a little bit more?”

Fred: “I think it was exactly that. What I had also done in the meantime, I started going back to university part time. I did get my university degree. I wasn’t complete by the time I left the police department but I continued with it. What I did was pretty significant because I had been on the police department long enough that I wasn’t going to get laid off. And, great benefits, excellent money, pension. I gave it all up. I just wasn’t happy. My wife Vera has always been wonderfully supportive so with her blessing, I took a big pay cut to go from the police department to Westervelt College.

“I don’t regret that for one second.”

"There’s so much value in your quality of life. And it’s maybe a cliché, but most people don’t live it. "

Fred ( left, with business partner, Kevin Baxter): “There’s so much value in your quality of life.
And it’s maybe a cliché, but most people don’t live it.”

Kevin: Tell me more about what you did at Westervelt.

Fred: “When I started teaching at Westervelt, they had a version of a law and security program. And from there I heard that there was an inkling that they wanted to go to this new standardized training and it was called the Police Foundations Program. So I kind of ran with that.

“It’s getting buried pretty deep now, but even if you Google my name, I have an acknowledgement from the Solicitor General because I sat on the original curriculum development committee for all the Police Foundation Programs. And because we were private colleges as opposed to the community colleges, we were able to beat everybody else to the marketplace.”

Kevin: How long did you do that?

Fred: “Close to 7 years.”

Kevin: So now you’re in your early 40’s. Next thing you know, you’re getting into the truck wash business ….

Fred: “What happened was, at Westervelt, now there were new owners from back then. They had a different vision.

“When I first started there, and I started telling them that I had this vision of the Police Foundations Program, I was telling them, ‘I think I can build you a really successful program.’

“When I started there, they had 8 students in their security program. I said, ‘You give me five years; I’ll have 100 students in my program.’

“Well, within 5 years, I had 150 students in the legal programs.

“We had a great program. I said, ‘You give me five more years, I’ll have 500 students in this program.’

“We put together one helluva program with a lot of credibility and that’s why we were beating so many people out of the gate. But then I began experiencing resistance on how I believed the program needed to develop to grow successfully and to maintain its integrity.  I had a lot of pride and seeing the program shift in a way that I felt was diluting the quality, I said, ‘It’s time to move on.’”

“So, I went from that, I got offered a job to help import this equipment from Sweden, which is a whole other story.”

Kevin: How did you feel about life in general around that time?

Fred: “I remember feeling a little bit of pressure. It’s funny, because you pointed it out. There was a little bit of pressure in me from what that guy at McDonald’s had said (about being a millionaire by the time he was in his 40’s). Because I thought it was almost like I was letting him down at that time.”

Kevin: Him or yourself?

Fred: “Maybe both.

“But I remember thinking ‘You know, I wanted to prove him right.’ But it just turned out a different way. I’ve forgiven myself for that now, because I also believe that at age 17 when I made that kind of bridge – you know – I can’t be an entrepreneur because I don’t have the money, that I went the different direction of the employment route, being on the police department. I think that really stagnated me for quite a while. Because when I was at Westervelt College, honestly, I was a pure entrepreneur. I developed a program, I put the program together. I marketed it. I got the Chiefs of Police to say it was a good program. There was a lot of work. It was like building a business within a business and I really loved that part. That part was just great.

“And I really believe that the only way that you make what you deserve in this world is working for yourself. That’s a little bit harder. That steady paycheque isn’t there or anything. And there is that work in the trenches and everything else. But at the end of the day, it’s not all about money.”

"I’m just a believer that where there are opportunities, you’ve got to take it and explore it. Because you never know where the heck that’s going to lead you"

“I’m just a believer that where there are opportunities, you’ve got to take it and explore it.
Because you never know where that’s going to lead you”

Kevin: That’s a hard thing to learn.

Fred: “We always want to make as much money as we possibly can, but there’s so much value in your quality of life. And it’s maybe a cliché, but most people don’t live it.”

Kevin: So, it sounds like you’re saying that if you consistently do the right thing, the results you require will eventually find their way to you?

Fred: “Yes. Because I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think you can be incredibly ethical and do a good job and still make money at it. You don’t have to cut corners. Of all the industries, it should be able to be done in this one.”

Kevin: And for all the talk of money, it seems to me it would be just as gratifying, if not more so, to go another however-many-years and look at – where there was nothing – and then look at what had been established and the lives that had been effected and the people that had been helped. There was nothing there, just like the Police Foundations Program, but then you created it and helped a lot of people along the way. We talk about money but there’s also this challenge that seems to keep running through everything you’re telling me about.

Fred: “You’re right. Because that is still one of my proudest accomplishments, is that whole Police Foundations thing. Because there was absolutely nothing. And now there are 35 colleges and universities that offer that program. And to say that I was the first guy out of the gate on that … there’s a lot of pride in that.”

Kevin: I was going to ask about what would be something that stands out that would make you particularly proud. It sounds like that would be at the top of the list?

Fred: “That’d be up there. And I haven’t found what the one is yet here (at Custom Mobility). I haven’t put a finger on it. But I get the sense it will evolve around the fact we have so many clients say to us, ‘You know, thanks. You’re the first people that listened to me.’

slide3

Kevin: If you could go back and talk to that 17-year-old Fred Geiger, whether it was the time around the McDonald’s inquiry or even a little bit beyond that, when you were investigating the fire department and you were getting restless with high school … what do you think you’d want to impart upon yourself, knowing what you know now?

Fred: “Probably to have found a mentor in the field of what I wanted to do.

“I really … I never begrudge what happened, because I believe that everything happens in due course.  You develop at every step along the road and I’ve learned transferable skills that I use in my business today. And so I’m happy where I am and I’m happy about the road.

“But if there was something I could change, I probably wish I had have taken that job offer with that guy in McDonald’s, because I think that fellow would have taught me a lot.

And for that same reason today, I’ve encouraged my son to explore a Specialty Management program for university grads offered where he works. When you get an opportunity like that, there are jobs that you’ve never dreamed of in your life and you’re going to be exposed to it.

“I’m just a believer that where there are opportunities, you’ve got to take it and explore it. Because you never know where that’s going to lead you.

“I never would have dreamed in a million years I’d be doing what I’m doing. But it has really brought a lot of my passion together. It’s brought a lot of the entrepreneurship. And helping people. In earlier years, I wouldn’t have anticipated that it would come from this, but it has. And I think it’s a matter of having that open mind, saying, ‘Can it work?’ and ‘Do I want it to work?’

“It’s the same with you. You’re constantly exposed to things. Yet our training over time tends to direct us to think, ‘Ah, that’s not going to work’ or ‘there’s too much competition in that’ or ‘there’s too much this.’

We don’t need to think like that. Go explore it.”

To visit the Custom Mobility website, please CLICK HERE

To access, listen to and share the archived Podcasts of Fred’s “Ask the Experts” radio programs on 1290 CJBK, please CLICK HERE

Stories From a Short Track, Vol. 1: “Dipstick Down”

Here’s a True Story  …

In my days as Sales and Marketing Director at Delaware Speedway (a half-mile stock car racing track near London, Ontario, Canada), we were always looking for ways to expand our fan base and broaden our demographic.

And we wanted to appeal to kids. Future customers.

At one point, we came upon the notion that, perhaps, the track would benefit from the presence of a “mascot;” you know, like the San Diego Chicken, to whom the kids would relate. Armed with the knowledge that Charlotte Motor Speedway had such a mascot, named “Lugnut,” we decided to embark upon our own characterized adventure. After some deliberation, we settled upon the name “Dipstick,” for three main reasons:

  1. A dipstick was part of any vehicle’s engine. It’s how you checked the oil!
  1. “Dipstick” was what Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane often called Deputy Enos in the TV Show, “The Dukes of Hazzard”
  1. We wanted to poke a little bit of fun at ourselves

After agreeing on the name, I can well remember the discussions of character design: should he have a “T”-shaped head, or a “loop?”

We began examining the dipsticks of any nearby vehicle we could find and, in time, decided that a “T”-shaped head would make for a better character.

Yeah.

We also embarked upon the task of finding a company that could actually design and construct the costume for us (We eventually found a business based out of Edmonton, Alberta. The name escapes me, but they were the ones that made the costume).

In the preliminary drawings, Dipstick actually looked pretty cool, and somewhat agile.

In reality, he was shipped to us in a giant crate. And the costume inside ended up being one big, rigid, giant, heavy box that afforded the person inside almost no mobility, limited visibility and nothing for reach but the equivalent of little T-Rex arms.

In short, a lot of money later, Dipstick was a disaster.

Whoops.

Undaunted, we decided to unveil our new creation to the “world” (or, about 1500 people) at the race track’s annual appearance a London Knights Ontario Hockey League game (note: this was back in the day when the Knights played in a rinky-dink arena and few people followed them with much passion. Nowadays, the Knights pack around 9,000 people into almost every home game. This event pre-dated that trend).

Between periods, our new mascot was to take to the ice to wave to the fans and thereby represent the race track proudly and convert all in attendance at that hockey game into instant stock car racing fans. The plan was foolproof!

When the time came, the players left for their dressing rooms and the zamboni set about its duty, flooding one clean patch of ice down the middle of the rink to begin the task of cleaning the playing surface.

Dipstick stepped out in front of the fans and took a few tentative steps on the frozen stage. Gaining confidence with each step, he shuffled further into the center of the rink, only to come across the freshly flooded center spot where the Zamboni had just recently been.

“Whoosh!”

As soon as Dipstick hit that flooded patch of ice, his feet went out from under him.

The box-like behemoth of a mascot landed with a resounding thud, and it quickly became apparent that the dimensions of the costume were going to make it a challenge for the person inside to get up and resume entertaining the crowd.

As if that were the only problem.

Dipstick Down! Me & Stephen Richmond (in the blue and white race suit) try to help our fallen mascot. Photo by Janice Richmond.

Dipstick Down! Me & Stephen Richmond (in the blue and white race suit) try to help our fallen mascot. Photo by Janice Richmond.

With Dipstick flat on his back, in front of the crowd during intermission of a hockey game at the old London Ice House, I walked over to him, along with young Stephen Richmond, a Delaware Speedway Junior Racing League competitor at the time. When we arrived at our fallen mascot, we both figured that we’d be able to take his hand and lift him back to his feet.

But that didn’t work.

We tried to raise him off the ice.

Nothing.

We tried again.

He didn’t budge.

It was then that I realized, with our newly minted mascot lying flat-out on our local hockey team’s playing surface, that we had a bigger problem on our hands.

Dipstick had frozen to the ice.

The “flood” left by the zamboni mixed with the fabric of Dipstick’s costume and, by the time he’d fallen, the water had frozen, taking Dipstick’s upper body with it.

He was stuck.

True story.

I can well remember it. People in the stands were howling. Tyler Anderson, who was inside the costume, was flat on his back and staring straight up at the ceiling. He commented that all he could see were, “bright lights.”

We eventually got him up and off the ice surface, and the game continued. I can’t recall who won.

But I can tell you this:

Next time you come up with the “next great idea,” take a few extra days and think it through. Once you’ve examined every angle, you may find it’ll work out fine.

Then again, you may end up with your Dipstick stuck to the ice.

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