Jim Estill of Danby Appliances: “I believe strongly in health and self-care”

I believe strongly in health and self-care. I recall once buying a company that was failing, to integrate it into ours. The company we bought had 127 employees and we had to let 100 of them go. That was a terrible day. Very difficult to feel like you are playing God and playing with peoples’ […]

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I believe strongly in health and self-care. I recall once buying a company that was failing, to integrate it into ours. The company we bought had 127 employees and we had to let 100 of them go. That was a terrible day. Very difficult to feel like you are playing God and playing with peoples’ lives. I got home late but found the energy to go for a good one-hour run. It really helped reduce my stress. Find the positive things you can do for yourself in times of high stress.

Jim Estill is CEO of Danby Appliances, a niche manufacturer of specialty appliances, which produces and distributes over 2,000,000 appliances per year. Jim Estill is leveraging his tech background to create new markets and products for Danby such as the Danby Parcel Guard.

Jim is a Canadian technology entrepreneur, executive, and philanthropist. He started his first computer distribution business from the trunk of his car while in university and grew that business to 2 Billion dollars in sales.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I started my first company while in my final year of engineering at the University of Waterloo. I needed a computer to design circuit boards (which was the business I was starting) but I got a better deal if I bought 2 of them. So I bought 2 and sold one. Then someone else wanted one so I bought another 2, then a printer, then some memory, etc. Soon I was buying and selling computer products.

I hired some people to help and eventually, we grew the business to 2 Billion dollars in sales.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I sold my business and retired for 5 years. During that time, I sat on some boards, did some mentoring, speaking, angel investing, etc. One of the boards I sat on was Danby Appliances. The CEO resigned so I said I could go in and run it for a while. I realized then that I loved running a company. When the ownership group asked me to sell it, I asked “for how much” — they told me and I said OK and bought the company.

That is how I ended up owning Danby Appliances. Danby sells about 2,000,000 appliances per year — mostly fridges, freezers, wine coolers as well as some microwaves, stoves, laundry, dishwashers, and even some window and portable air conditioners and dehumidifiers (they all have compressors which is the commonality).

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

I think I was born to be an entrepreneur but part of it was likely that from a young age I was praised and rewarded for the entrepreneurial things I did. For example, I shoveled driveways for money (I grew up in small-town Canada where there is lots of snow). In high school, I started a house painting business and hired my brothers and friends to paint houses. We likely painted over 100 houses in a few years.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

My father and mother both had a huge impact but not necessarily in the way, you would think. My father impacted me because I was a rebel. When I told him, I was starting my business he said, “that’s ok because you are an engineer, and when you fail, you can get a job”. I think that made me set out to prove that I could never fail. He had worked for the same company for decades and eventually got downsized in his mid-fifties. After that, he came to work for me and became my biggest advocate. From my father, I received a high work ethic. Work ethic was highly valued in the Estill family.

From my mother, I received politeness. There was no tolerance for poor manners while I was growing up. Those manners translated in business, to high customer service and just old-fashioned politeness. It is surprising how this little characteristic can be uncommon and become a competitive advantage.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Danby Appliances has a heart and we want to have a positive impact on the world. In 2017, the news of the war in Syria was front and center (and disturbing). We wanted to do something to help, so we decided to privately sponsor 50 refugee families to resettle in Canada. That sponsorship made us the poster child of refugee sponsorship and we have gone on the sponsor many more refugees.

Interestingly, this charitable gesture helped us win many business awards like the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2019. The award is for entrepreneurship but the people judging took this philanthropy into account. I am also certain it played a part in my Order of Ontario and Order of Canada (Canada’s highest civilian honor). Danby is a consumer brand and we have benefitted from a huge amount of positive press on our initiative.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Persistence. During my first 3 years in business, I made virtually no money, and what money I made was re-invested in inventory and receivables. During those years, I would paint houses on the weekend as a “sure way” to make money for food and rent. I had the philosophy that doing a different type of work was as good as taking a break.

Creativity. One of my personal strengths is creativity. I attribute much of my business success to that. I recall thinking of new products and changed my thinking to “we are not a company that makes appliances — we are a company that makes big boxes”. That idea spawned the Danby Parcel Guard — a smart parcel mailbox that stops parcel theft, notifies users when they have parcels, and provides security with a camera, motion sensor, and tamper alarm.

Work Ethic. This has allowed me to be highly responsive. I actually like working so a high work ethic is not a problem or a negative thing to me. I worry as I get older, that I need to revisit this character trait. I do work on my health but I am still worried about the energy levels needed to maintain my work ethic.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Taking my company public. I was advised this was the best way to fund growth. So we went public. That shortened our time horizon (although we fought hard to try to make it not happen).

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

To properly answer the question, we have to understand what causes burnout. Burnout happens when people are stressed. The two primary stressors are doing things that are not in line with their values and working with leaders and peers they do not trust. Solve those two problems and burnout rarely happens.

Yes, it is important for people to look after themselves too. Health is one of my primary values (I call myself a health guy) so people need to feel supported to look after themselves.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

Trust comes from being vulnerable — not from being omnipotent.

Credibility comes from doing what you say you will do.

Authority comes from sharing thought leadership in a field. Thought Leadership comes from study, listening, and immersion in a field. The simplest way to do that in this era is on social media. I happen to choose LinkedIn since it is more of a business platform.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

Trust, credibility, and Authority attract people to work with you and encourages companies and consumers to do business with you. Consumers increasingly are looking to buy from companies they respect and trust.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The biggest problem I see is overthinking and overstudying. The solution is just to do it. Try it and see what will work.

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

Entrepreneurs by definition take risks. Not all risks work out, but some pay off hugely. Entrepreneurship is a series of wins and a series of losses. The key is to “Fail often, Fail fast, Fail Cheap”. Move on from the lows quickly and make sure they are not fatal. Failure often comes from not trying at all, rather than trying and losing some.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

I recall feeling elated and almost surreal doing a speech for the University of Guelph graduating class on the day I received my honorary Doctor of Laws. It was the business success that got me there and now over 1,000 people in an auditorium were listening to my “words of wisdom”.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

I was cheated by a business partner who I considered to be my closest friend. Discovering that was a real kick in the gut. I was in mourning from losing a close friend and at the same time, in rage at what he had done.

Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

I think my failure philosophy helped me to bounce back. Repeat often “having a failure does not make you a failure”. “Failure is education, and I am a constant learner”.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. I think the most important thing is to not take yourself too seriously. None of us are as good as people think when we win and none of us are as bad as people think when we lose. I recall being an early investor in Blackberry and joining the board before they went public. I served on the board for 13 years. In the early years, everyone thought I was a genius for picking Blackberry. What they did not see were the other 150 technology investments I made in that same timeframe. I left the board in 2010 and shortly after I left, everyone was talking about how bad Blackberry was. They were both — great and not great. Just like we all are.
  2. I believe strongly in health and self-care. I recall once buying a company that was failing, to integrate it into ours. The company we bought had 127 employees and we had to let 100 of them go. That was a terrible day. Very difficult to feel like you are playing God and playing with peoples’ lives. I got home late but found the energy to go for a good one-hour run. It really helped reduce my stress. Find the positive things you can do for yourself in times of high stress.
  3. I have a mantra or sayings I repeat often — “Successful People do Tough Things”. I recall getting up at 3:30 in the morning to drive to the airport to catch a flight. It was cold. I was tired. I simply repeated my mantra — “Successful People do Tough Things”. It drove me since I wanted to be successful. It was only later in life that I began to value sleep.
  4. Another mantra I have is “What the Heck go for it anyways”. I am a bit shy naturally so reaching out to someone at a high level was intimidating. I recall doing quite a bit of business with Apple (well a lot of business for me) and we were having issues. I reached out directly to Steve Jobs. He responded and over the years I met with him, traded calls and emails. It was one of the best things I could do for my business — all spurred by “What the Heck go for it anyways”.
  5. Entrepreneurs need a strong set of stress tools. Things we can do when we have stress. For me, this includes working out hard, walks in nature, meditation and I speak to my brother.

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

I define resilience as the ability to bounce back. Resilient people learn from failures and do not dwell on them. Resilient people do not define themselves solely by their work. This gives them the ability to be more objective when business trials and tribulations happen.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

Nothing builds resilience like losing money. I worked hard from a young age and saved every dollar I earned. I did everything from shoveling snow, raking leaves, delivering papers, raising cabbages and other vegetables, and selling them, to painting fences. By the time I was about 13, I had some savings. I decided to go into business with a friend-raising rabbit to sell for food. I have read a lot about rabbits and how efficient they were at converting feed. I invested 600 dollars. We built the cages and set everything up (but in an amateur way a 13-year-old would who was not a skilled carpenter) in a corner in a barn.

I knew at the time I had hay fever, but I was not aware of how deathly allergic I was to rabbits. It turned out I could hardly be near them without sneezing and wheezing. When it came to caring for them, I was not good.

Bottom line, we lost all the rabbits and my 600 dollars which was close to my life savings. But I survived and added it to my “school of hard knocks” lessons.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

I would like to say I do keep a naturally positive attitude but realistically I have to work at it. I have had to train myself to compartmentalize difficult things, so they do not impact my whole life. I have spent a lot of time on the difference between worry (often catastrophizing and thinking the worst) which does not help, versus problem-solving. If a challenge can benefit from problem-solving — then do it. If not, it is likely to worry and should be dropped from the mind.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

Positivity does not work without realism. The team and the customers know what is really going on and will not respond well to “fake” positivity. I spend time on making sure there is a plan that has a good likelihood of working, then presenting that plan as transparently as possible.

When new companies or businesses are started, they are based on assumptions. I recall a company I started that simply was not making the numbers that were in the assumptions and it looked like there was no way to make those numbers. We decided to sell the parts of the company that had value. This was very positive for those in the company. Not only did they get continued employment but having an “exit” on their resume certainly looked good. The company was being sold to a larger, well-funded company that could take the technology to the next level and really make a difference in the industry. This would fulfill much of the original vision.

I approached it with a positive attitude. This infected those involved to see the upsides and not dwell on the possible downsides (likely shut down). The key was, I had to be honest, transparent, and tell people like it was.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

“The greatest pleasure in life is doing those things people say you cannot do”. This ties to my business success. Many people said I could not do it. This drove me to persist and to succeed.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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