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Jim Estill of Danby Appliances: “Think downside risk”

Think downside risk. Most entrepreneurs think about the upsides but not so much about the downsides. Early in business, I structured a business deal that ended up losing my investment and found that it was not tax deductible. That painful lesson taught me to think downside. The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. […]

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Think downside risk. Most entrepreneurs think about the upsides but not so much about the downsides. Early in business, I structured a business deal that ended up losing my investment and found that it was not tax deductible. That painful lesson taught me to think downside.


The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.

As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Estill.

Jim Estill is a Canadian technology entrepreneur, a serial innovator, and a humanitarian. He started his first business — distributing computer parts — out of the trunk of his car while in University, and grew that business to 2 Billion dollars in sales. Estill is presently the CEO of ShipperBee and CEO of Danby Appliances


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

When I was in high school, my first successful entrepreneurial adventure was painting houses. When I started painting houses and working for myself, was when I discovered my passion for entrepreneurship. I started my next business when I was in my 4th-year university, and it never occurred to me not to start a company so that’s what I did. That company is the one I grew to 2 Billion dollars in sales.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“What the heck — go for it anyways”. I use this to pump myself up to ask for anything or do anything. What is the worst case — someone hangs up or will not meet me.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Recently I read Give and Take by Adam Grant. It teaches the success principle that giving is often the way to win. This is something I always knew at some level, but the book clarified it even more.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?

While I was studying engineering at the University of Waterloo I wanted to design circuit boards so I needed a computer. I got a better deal if I bought 2 of them. So I bought 2 and soon was buying and selling computers, peripherals and software and that business, which I started from the trunk of my car, grew into EMJ Data Systems, which I sold to SYNNEX. Eventually I reached 2 billion dollars in sales.

I then retired but kept active doing some angel investing, consulting and board work. One of the boards I sat on was Danby Appliances. The CEO resigned so I said “I could run that for a while”. At that time, I realized I liked running a business and Danby was about the right size for me. Danby Appliances makes over 2,000,000 appliances per year. These include freezers, wine coolers, fridges, microwaves, ranges as well as dehumidifiers and window and portable air conditioners (the connection of those to appliances is they have compressors). We sell about 400,000,000 dollars per year. I have also recently started up ShipperBee, in response to how inefficient and energy intensive the courier industry is. We invented a new way to move parcels that reduced greenhouse gas by 73.1%.

What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?

Danby Appliances plans to produce four models of hyper-cold freezers, each able to reach temperatures of -122.8°F (-80°C) for longer-term storage of RNA vaccines like the upcoming COVID-19 vaccines.

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?

Danby Appliances produces over 500,000 freezers a year and I felt we could help with the need for medical freezers when the COVID-19 vaccine goes to market. Danby already has experience making medical fridges with our Danby Health line, a medical-grade refrigerator that is equipped for storing temperature sensitive goods. The current Danby Health lineup is not equipped to reach the low temperatures required for the new vaccines so a new freezer line up is in development and the complexity of building an -122.8°F (-80°C) freezer is massive. It’s not at all a simple freezer, but we make half a million freezers a year, so we can do it.

In researching the market, we also learned that there is a good market for our minus 4°F (minus 20°C) freezers.

New RNA vaccines need these colder temperatures.

How are things going with this new initiative?

We have many orders for our minus 4°F freezers already and production is underway, and we are shipping them daily. We are accumulating orders for the minus 122°F freezers before we start production. It will take about 5 months to have those minus 122°F products ready.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I was 14, I started a house painting business. One of the teachers in my school, Mrs. Bond had an old 3 storey house that needed painting. I approached her and she gave me the contract. The house was huge and my quote was low but that launched Jim’s painting. Her belief in me and my first house painting contract lead to many others. The success I had in that business gave me the confidence to start my second company when I was in university.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

The Covid clinic in my community was located in the city recreation centre. They were slowly reopening so needed a different space to locate to. As it turned out, one of buildings I had rented for my re-manufacturing facility had surplus office space (we were renting it for the warehouse space). So now the Covid centre is located in one of our facilities. This was quite unplanned and by accident.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1 — Seek competitive advantage. This has now become one of my key business success principles. I found early in business, I would attack markets where I lacked advantage and the inevitable happened, we were defeated. Competitive advantage does not have to be one huge thing, it can be many smaller things. For example, I started my business in Toronto thinking that was where we needed to be since everyone was there. This actually put me at a disadvantage since I lived in Guelph (about an hour from Toronto). I wasted 2 hours daily driving. When I moved the business to Guelph, we began to thrive. The cost base in Guelph is just a bit less than Toronto so now we had the advantage.

2 — Think downside risk. Most entrepreneurs think about the upsides but not so much about the downsides. Early in business, I structured a business deal that ended up losing my investment and found that it was not tax deductible. That painful lesson taught me to think downside.

3 — Always give back and try to help anyone you can. I have a giving nature. I will often try to help entrepreneurs that approach me. I freely give them time and suggestions without the expectation of return. Of course, you know what happened. I cannot say how many times people have sent me photos of the Danby bar fridge they just bought saying “Thanks for the help”.

4 — Build in some self protection. This one ties to the one above where I always try to help others. As more and more people approached me, I ended up giving away all of my free time. I would have meetings and calls on Saturday, Sunday, evenings — almost anytime. This caused me to not have time to do my own follow up for my own business. It also crowded out time for family, working out and just having downtime. I have learned that people are not upset when you tell them you are too busy if you are sincere and polite about it.

5 — Health first. I had a health wake up when I was about 40. My company had trucks and so I thought I should get a truck driver license. That meant I needed to have a physical. Sure enough, my blood pressure and cholesterol were both high and the doctor said I needed to lose some weight. That kick started me to a healthy life. I now work it into what I do. Even before Covid, I was known for my walking meetings. I cut out meat and started to eat right.

I learned that better health gave me more energy, so it has, had a positive impact on the business. Time management is really more about energy management than time management. So I focus now on energy.

I have seen many wealthy people who would give all their wealth to get their health back. Health trumps wealth any day of the week.

So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?

You can’t accomplish anything and won’t have much of a life if you’re not healthy. Diet and exercise are important and I also practice meditation. Meditation is a great way to restore and improve your perspective and clarify your vision. I also suggest taking three deep breaths whenever you need to establish a sense of balance and calm, especially since we tend to breathe shallowly throughout the day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

The value of work. We have built a society that often says TGIF and work is bad.

I have seen how work gives self esteem much more than just the money. I am not a psychologist, but I believe one of the best cures for depression is work.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

Richard Branson. He seems to have similar values around saving the world.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn — https://ca.linkedin.com/in/jimestill or follow Danby Appliances — www.danby.com

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