For a marketer, there’s no greater challenge than trying to differentiate an essentially undifferentiable product. But that is exactly what Charles Chang faced in his first job post-university at Great Little Box Company, a Richmond, British Columbia-based manufacturer of custom cardboard corrugated boxes, displays, labels, folding cartons and protective packaging.
“Here I was, a marketing student, having to differentiate cardboard boxes with a $50,000 budget,” says Chang, now 47. He quickly learned that the key to success was being able to sell on a relationship level, rather than a commodity level. “To lower somebody’s price by 10 cents to sell a box is a pretty tall order.”
In his six years with Great Little Box, Chang quickly moved up through the ranks in sales management, quadrupling revenues and opening two new divisions. When he left to launch his own natural health products company, Sequel Naturals, in 2001, he used the same approach to growing the business. “We didn’t succeed through a lot of fancy, expensive advertising. It was done through major hustle on the store floor. That’s how it was built.”
Most people won’t know the name Sequel, but everybody knows Vega – the marquee product, launched by Sequel in 2004, that would ultimately become the name under which Sequel would do business. Sequel’s (and Vega’s) big break came when Whole Foods started carrying the Vega line of plant-based products in B.C. and, ultimately, across North America. In its first two years, Sequel made “maybe $1 million in revenues,” says Chang. By the time Sequel was rebranded as Vega in 2010, sales topped $25 million; five years later, when Chang sold the business to Denver’s WhiteWave Foods Company for US$550 million, sales were approaching $150 million.
“This is a great entry into peer mentorship, because you learn just as much from the folks in your cohort as you do from the profs and the case studies.”
Chang enrolled in QuantumShift in 2010, a pivotal year for the company – and for Chang. “I’m a huge fan of mentorship, but an even bigger fan of peer mentorship,” he says. “This is a great entry into peer mentorship, because you learn just as much from the folks in your cohort as you do from the profs and the case studies.” For Chang, the experience proved so valuable that he continues to go back regularly for the alumni program, staying in touch with a half-dozen of his QuantumShift colleagues. “It’s a very intense process, where for four or five days you eat and sleep and drink school – and do it with peers who are in the same boat as you’re in,” he says. “You also have a lot of fun doing it. It was very inspiring.”
Chang has taken some of those learnings into his latest venture, Lyra Growth Partners, where he’s using the proceeds from his Vega sale to “invest in fast-growing, high-potential consumer brands,” he says. “Basically, my thesis was: We replicate some of the things that made us successful at Vega with other young consumer brands and help them achieve rapid growth.”
For the lifelong entrepreneur, this shift behind the scenes – helping others grow their business, rather than his own – is a welcome one. “I love it, at the stage of life I’m at. I can’t say for sure that this is all I’ll do down the road. But right now, I’m fully content. I get involved strategically, but I don’t have to carry the bag. It’s really fun.”
A rigorous five-day executive development experience offered through The Ivey Academy, QuantumShift™ annually challenges forty of Canada's most promising entrepreneurs to improve their leadership style, inspire their business partners and maximize their growth opportunities. QuantumShift™ is for CEOs whose businesses are past start-up. They're innovative, insightful business leaders. And they're ready to shift a thriving enterprise to a whole new level of success. Candidates are nominated through KPMG Enterprise and participants are selected by Ivey Business School's Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship.
As QuantumShift™ turns 15, we check in with some of the more than 550 Canadian entrepreneurs who have graduated from the program to see what the experience meant to them and their business.