Michael Benoit took a risk when he launched Total Hockey Inc. in 1998. He had torn up his knee playing basketball and initially chose hockey as a sport, one he could play with less wear and tear on his legs. As he became more intrigued with the game and less excited about his job leading a health benefits consulting business, he decided to take a shot at building a business that sold hockey equipment.
The 210-employee company has grown steadily and earned revenue of $18.6 million in 2010. Benoit, the company’s founder, president and CEO, has high hopes to keep it going in the future.
He discovered one of the keys to successful growth is to not take the entire burden of building the business on your own shoulders. Take the lead in that effort, but don’t be afraid to accept or even seek help.
“I’m just as likely to be putting a fixture together as analyzing financials as negotiating with vendors,” Benoit says. “So I’m involved with a lot of different things. That said, I try to give our staff a lot of rope. The worst thing somebody can do is overmanage people. The best approach is to find good people and let them run. I like mistakes.”
Benoit describes the state of the hockey equipment retail industry as “primitive” when he first started his business.
“You could easily imagine you were back in the ’50s doing retail,” Benoit says. “It was very fragmented with a lot of mom-and-pop, single-store operations. We’re part of this drive bringing a much more modern, much more disciplined approach to the business.”
Benoit relied heavily on his people to help develop a modern identity he hoped would be attractive to both shoppers and investors. He wasn’t afraid that these people might make a few mistakes along the way.
“If you expect people to work hard and innovate and you expect them to make mistakes, you’ll be OK,” Benoit says. “Eventually, there will be a mistake. There will be problems and there will be things that are done that aren’t done the way you would do them. But that’s OK. Most companies suffer from overcontrol on things.”
So if one of your supervisors wants to put a line of equipment in one part of the store and you think it should go somewhere else, you have to ask yourself a question: Is this a battle you need to fight? Or are you better off letting your people do their jobs and trusting that they know what they are doing?
“When you have people out there trying to make things happen, there are a lot of times where I don’t agree,” Benoit says. “Whether it’s before the fact or after the fact, I’ll say, ‘Boy, I wouldn’t do that.’ The thing that is very important to me and what I insist my staff be conscious of is a sense of integrity and a sense of doing the right thing. Beyond that, I’m all in favor of them taking chances and trying to create new things and experimenting.”
Benoit believes that many entrepreneurs lose that willingness to trust as the years go by. They start out as very bold and open to taking a few chances to achieve their dreams. But somewhere along the road to growth, they lose that edge and become more conservative.
“If you’re not moving and innovating and encouraging people to fail, your days are numbered,” Benoit says. “They might be numbered in years, but they are numbered. We’re kind of always living on that line. That’s the target. We want to be just safe enough.”
As you ponder the growth of your business and the wisdom of a particular risk, ask yourself a question.
“What happens if you don’t do this?” Benoit says. “If the answer is, ‘Everything is OK,’ then it probably doesn’t make sense to do it. But if we will lose ground to someone who is willing to take that risk, that raises the importance of it and maybe you need to give it some more thought.”
How to reach: Total Hockey Inc., (866) 929-6699 or www.totalhockey.com
Stay true to you
When you’re trying to sell people on your business, you can’t put on a show that isn’t true to what you’re all about. You may win them over that day, but it won’t work for very long.
“The biggest mistake I’ve seen is trying to act like what you’re not,” says Michael Benoit, founder, president and CEO at Total Hockey Inc., a 210-employee hockey equipment retailer. “Trying to mirror the listener or prospect too much. Trying to tell them what they want to hear as opposed to what you’re all about. If you’re true to yourself and true to your market, you should be OK. It’s not always an easy environment, especially in the last few years with respect to financing.
“The banks aren’t terribly imaginative these days. But that still doesn’t mean you can afford to try to be what you’re not.”
When you’re trying to expand your business, don’t be the only one talking to potential investors or customers you want to engage. Let other people in your organization represent you, even if they aren’t managers. And don’t give them a script.
“I would rather trust,” Benoit says. “It’s better that way and much more natural. People can read preparation. That’s hard to disguise that somebody has been prepared.”