Strategy

Live & Learn: Bill Comrie

The founder of The Brick Warehouse talks about the art of no-interest financing, his love of sports and more.

Born June 29, 1950, in Winnipeg • Founder of the Brick Warehouse • Sports fanatic and doting father

A lot of people believe in setting goals and all that. I have not been a big goal setter. I like to live every day. The No. 1 priority in my life is my family.

When I was five I had hand-me-down skates from my cousin that were about two sizes too big. They were from my girl cousin, who also gave me a coat. It buttoned the girl’s way. I didn’t realize it buttoned the wrong way, and I got teased about it. My mom said, “If you want to go skate, that’s the coat you have to wear.” I wore it.

I just couldn’t be on the ice enough. Every day I’d go to the rink and skate and play hockey.

My dad was a salesman. He had just started a little furniture business when he died. It was about 2,000 square feet. I was supposed to go to play for the Chicago Blackhawks, and instead I just stayed at home, taking care of my brothers. My mother was in a panic. We had no money. I don’t think I even thought about playing. It was just survival.

All I knew was I had to sell furniture. I started typing letters to all my friends, using two fingers, saying, “I’m in the furniture business now. Let your parents know and I’ll give them a deal.”

I went to a midnight drive-in with my girlfriend when I was 19 years old. The parking lot was full, and I went, “Wow, I should open my furniture store at midnight.” We both kind of laughed about it. The next weekend I gave it a try.

At about nine that Sunday, I heard a noise and I walked to the front window. There were over 1,000 people outside that door. The people came in at midnight, just stampeded in, buying anything they could. At 2:30 in the morning, the crowd started to dwindle, so we stacked the invoices. I added them all up. We did $145,000 worth of business, more than my dad brought in the previous year.

When I had the Brick, I did my own television ads at first. I didn’t like doing that. They were effective, and they were working, and we took a risk when I stopped, because at that time I was the man that everybody associated with the company. People recognized me everywhere I went. I didn’t want that.

In 1975, we went to our finance company and asked if we could offer our customers six months with no interest or payments. We gave it a try. We advertised six months, pay no interest. We had people lined up around the block.

Not one competitor copied us for over three years. I even told my car dealer friends that they should try this. Now anywhere you travel, you see “Do not pay.” It started because we wanted to sell more furniture in a little store in Edmonton.

I coached my daughter’s soccer team; I coached both my boys’ hockey teams, and they both ended up playing in the NHL. That was when I was growing my business, and later when my first wife died. Everybody says, “How did you have time?” I treated my kids’ activities like business meetings. If they were playing at six on Thursday night, I’d put that in my schedule first. I wouldn’t book a meeting that would go past six, so I could get to the kids’ games.

We were supposed to have dinner with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Mila at a friend’s place in Edmonton. There were only going to be eight couples, but my sons were playing hockey. I would have liked to have gone to that dinner, but I went to my kids’ hockey instead.

I played every sport: tennis, squash, racquetball, Ping-Pong, golf, hockey. Whenever I beat someone, I used to stick a little card in their shoe or something like that. It was a caricature of me with red hair and freckles, and it said, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, nobody beats Bill Comrie.”

Stepping down from the Brick was pretty easy. I felt Kim Yost was the right guy to take over. I decided not to keep an office there, and not to be on the board, so nobody could second-guess Kim. I cut the cord, and let him run the company.

Work hard is always the advice people give. But one of the most important things is to follow your passion, not your paycheque. It’s not always about how much money you’re making.

I don’t miss anything. I’m in California now, and every day you wake up it’s beautiful.

I play hockey with a bunch of younger guys, like Jeff Friesen and Travis Green, who played in the NHL. We play against a lot of college kids, ex-pros and all that. We play Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at noon. I’m doing pretty good, actually. I got the winning goal the other day.