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Michael Kent found a niche that's generated $40 million in revenue since he launched RightDrive in 2007. Born out of a passion for unique and collectible vehicles, Michael discovered market opportunities, battled for working capital, and nurtured a loyal employee and customer base along the way.

#IMadeThis – Innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists

Ever wondered how successful entrepreneurs turn their dreams into reality? What drives them to push the envelope, create change and advance their industries? In our #IMadeThis series, we ask Canadian small business owners how they transformed their ideas, goals and passions into reality.

Michael discusses making difficult decisions, the vital importance of customer service, and the tenacity required to make a growing business succeed.

Q: What is RightDrive’s specialty?

Kent: At RightDrive we import specialty vehicles from around the world, focusing on bringing in bespoke, unique products primarily from Japan and the UK. They are mainly Right Hand Drive (RHD) vehicles, or otherwise very difficult to acquire. We also provide parts and complete service on these vehicles.

We support four categories of vehicle: Sports cars/collectibles; Canada post delivery vehicles (that are a RHD product); a commercial component of small or micro trucks for places like the Toronto zoo; and vehicles for the film and television industry. For the past 12 years we have been the go-to place for vehicles that have to be significantly modified for film and television, appearing as if they are in another country.

Everything we bring in is manufactured outside North America. There are strict vehicle importing rules in Canada. To bring them in, they have to be 15 years old or older. In the United States, vehicles have to be 25 years old or older.

We ship 1-3 containers per week out of Japan. From there, our team works hard to get the vehicles certified and ready to be used safely on Canadian roads. We’re a pretty well-oiled machine at this point – the team knows the standards and is efficient at prepping the cars and getting them ready to drive.

Q: What was the inspiration behind starting your business?

Kent: 12 years ago I was racing and was competing with Nissan products. I got a chance to drive a Nissan Skyline GTR and began researching what it would take to bring the product over here. I then built the business around that.

I started in collectibles only, as I thought that was the only market — cars that are fast, fun and get attention. That’s where I thought the business was going. But then I discovered the commercial needs, finding markets that really would benefit from using a RHD vehicle. As time went on, that market was built. We won several tenders, including Canada post.

Q: What was your biggest hurdle to getting started?

Kent: There were a couple of hurdles. The first one was obtaining the necessary financing support structure and working capital to sustain our day-to-day operations. Predicting what kind of operating capital we needed was tricky.

We are always fighting against margins and there’s not a lot of room for profit. Plus, there are things can make the cost of goods skyrocket unexpectedly — so in the beginning managing capital was very tricky as we had very limited resources. It was therefore hard to accept the bigger transactions because the product takes a month to arrive — so there’s always a big gap between cash outlay and money coming in.

We were forced to choose between going after who we wanted and sticking with stuff we knew. We went with the latter.

It was also tough to get financing at the outset because it’s hard for people to look at 15-35-year-old cars as something of value. All the banks had a hard time with it, as cars are perceived to not appreciate. This is not the truth when it comes to classics, and Japanese classics from the 90’s and early 2000’s are replacing what we know today as a Muscle car. The classic ‘muscle’ so to speak is being antiquated and replaced with these vehicles.

With brand new cars there are metrics in place, but not with used. The bank appetite was quite low. But the beauty is that we now have 12 years of data and growth, and can clearly show there is market.

Q: What are your biggest challenges and how do you overcome them?

Kent: Dealing with growth, and hyper-growth, is very challenging because we need to continue meeting customer expectations. When you have more customers, there is more to manage.

We therefore needed to develop not just a human resources element, but policies and procedures too. We needed our staff and team to be empowered to complete transactions.

Ownership growth can only go so far. When you grow and need to ensure customers are receiving the same experience, an owner alone is no longer able to supply the product at the same standard.

Making sure that the company ideals are in place with HR, we could ensure that our new and repeat customers are having the same experience. We also had to develop a C-suite, with a controller, COO, CTO and I’m a CEO. We had to establish that to manage the bigger moves.

Q: How was it for you not being the only one to make the decisions?

Kent: It was very, very hard. But it’s worth the growing pains and temporary headaches to reach that end goal. Very few companies can operate without owners taking that high level approach. You won’t be able to see whole war if you’re in the trenches.

Q: How do you find the right people to represent your company?

Kent: Luckily, we have a very high retention rate. 90% of our personnel have been with the company for over 6 years. And on the service side, we have retained service techs for 8, 9 and 10 years.

People stick around because they have a good understanding of our company’s vision and where it’s headed. They fully buy in to fulfilling our customers’ experience.

If your company is directionless, then you lose people’s attention. It’s hard to know you’re doing things the right way in that situation.

Having a clear vision and being attentive to staff on an individual basis is key. Our operations manager takes staff out for lunch, one at a time. It lets them know they’re cared for, from top to bottom. It creates a family feeling and keeps things on track.

Q: What are some of the best ways you’ve grown your client base?

Kent: Because we sell a unique product, being referable is the key. The best customer is one who can refer you to another.

In 12 years, we’ve sold about $40 million worth of product with an entire advertising spend of $150,000, which is low by most standards but makes sense for us.

We spend about $10,000 on marketing a year, and focus on doing things that will ensure repeat or referred business — saying please and thank you, doing what we’ll say we’ll do, and getting things done on time. The product and the service drive our business.

Q: Who are your business mentors and influencers?

Kent: Entrepreneurs are responsible for their own successes. Even if you have the best mentor, they won’t move the mountains for you. They might tell you which mountains to move, but they won’t do it for you.

Finding like-minded individuals to share experiences, pain points and HR problems gives you a great sense of camaraderie. Even if it’s a business that has nothing to do with your own, talking with other entrepreneurs is really important. The ones who have been around for a while all have a similar approach. They are there to mentor others so that when they find like-minded individuals, they are usually very open to sitting down with you and giving you a lot of their day. I have yet to meet someone who is very successful who hasn’t accepted an invite to talk.

Q: What is the best advice you received as you started your business?

Kent: Do the most difficult task in the day first. Sometimes it might take 6 hours, but you still have to take it on first – and it usually seems a lot worse and more challenging than it actually is. You can’t use time as a deterrent to get things done.

Q: And what advice would you give an aspiring entrepreneur?

Kent: Stop talking to me and go do it. It’s about doing things, not talking about them. If you have an idea — if you have 100 ideas — even if they’re not good, you’re not an entrepreneur until you actually go do it.

Q; Did you have moments when you thought this wasn’t going to work?

Kent: I never had thoughts it wasn’t going to work — just thoughts that it’s really difficult. The only time you fail is when you have given up. Up until then, you’re technically still working toward you goal. You need a head space of positivity. It’s very hard work, but just have to do it.

Companies don’t just go bankrupt — they make a decision to let it go. No matter how hard things are, you’ve got to be thinking that something will work.