Meet the Wholesaler: Georges Abaji, Made in Canada
Company: Willis HVAC
Location: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
No. of Branches: 4
No. of Employees: 30
Year Founded: 2006
Question: You are new to the HARDI organization. Give us a thumbnail sketch about yourself and your company.
Georges Abaji: I was born and raised in Montreal. My father was in the textile business, employing 40 dressmakers catering to 600 boutiques between Montreal and Toronto. At the height of his success, he acquired a 60-unit apartment building. His primary focus remained on his first venture. As you know, textiles were the first of many industries that got crushed by Asia. By the mid-1990s, only 20 out of the 600 boutiques remained open for business. We had to shut the doors to the clothing business, and my mother decided to relocate the family into the Sunset Suites [the apartment building] in order to improve the administration of the property. But when the recession hit us in the 90s and the interest rates skyrocketed, it left us in a precarious situation. My mother came up with the idea to offer furnished apartments with weekly cleaning service, cable TV, phone, internet — a real turnkey apartment. My father, being a great salesman, saw the potential. My mother always had a great business mind.
While my family kept running the apartments, I made my journey to Stenden University in the Netherlands to study international hotel management. As a college student, I had the chance to know exactly what I wanted to do: I wanted to manage Sunset Suites and grow the family business. Prior to starting my university studies, I already knew my first obstacle: In the early 2000s, most of the units were still in their original state of 1963, and the few that were renovated had been done so modestly. I learned a lot during my first year at university and tried to apply everything I learned to the family business right away. After my first semester, instead of coming back home for Christmas, I went to China to find a source for the products to refurbish the Sunset Suites.
While in the Netherlands, I was able to integrate GDS [Global Distribution System], an intranet that connected hotels with travel agencies, airlines, and car rentals prior to the internet boom. This increased the building visibility online. People were now renting without visiting our apartment the same way a hotel room is booked. However, our apartments were not up to par compared with luxurious hotel rooms. Events such as the Formula 1 and jazz festival were booking at 600 percent earnings. That accomplishment reaffirmed my earlier fear that our units needed to be renovated. While our clientele was well satisfied with our service, they still complained about the outdated amenities of the building.
To tackle this issue, I returned to China to attend the Canton Fair, the largest trade show in Asia; I was able to furnish Sunset Suites with much-needed articles like furniture, soaps, cutlery, chinaware and products with our logo. For example, one of the first small improvements was to replace our old wool blankets with high-quality duvets, giving a much richer customer experience. During that trip, I placed my first large order of mini-splits, as our property had old and inefficient through-the-wall units that were producing more noise than cooling.
While installing mini-splits in the Sunset Suites, I realized there was a great demand for this product and started selling them “cash and carry.” I quickly realized that offering the product with the installation and service could generate much larger profit. I started building my own installation teams while still attending the university.
Upon my return from the Netherlands, I continued to oversee the management of Sunset Suites alongside building the HVAC business and importing construction materials from China.
I had a very humble beginning in HVAC, selling mini-split as a turnkey solution out of flea markets and with advertising in local newspapers. The business took off mainly because of referrals. It took 10 years for me to get my first shot at distribution.
Ever since then, we have expanded in numerous distribution channels and maintained a double-digit growth every year.
Q: I’ve seen you at every HARDI Focus Forum, and you seem to be a spirited participant in various seminars. Can you tell us why?
Georges Abaji: The HARDI membership was strongly recommended to me by William Rau, our vice president of sales in the U.S. who was the general manager of Mitsubishi Electric for nearly 20 years. In his own words: “Anybody who is somebody in the industry is there!” I followed his advice, became a member and started by attending the yearly conference in Orlando. I instantly fell in love with HARDI. When you start a business, you often learn to improve by trials and mistakes. HARDI allows us to learn and improve by participating in the seminars and using the available resources. Cherry on top: it is a great way to mingle with other industry leaders and learn from them, maybe even partnerg up on some ventures.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge in conducting business?
Georges Abaji: We have a very aggressive expansion plan, and properly managing our cash flow is crucial. On one hand, it can be a limitation if we aren’t willing to risk enough; on the other hand, risking too much can be like digging your own grave. Traditionally speaking, the air conditioning season is not a year-round, steady day-to-day thing; you plan it as best you can in the winter and you run with it in the summer. It is very hard to properly forecast your upcoming season, especially when you are opening up new territories. a wise man once told me, “The profit is in the purchase.” I think he was right.
I also have to mention the importance of being surrounded by great people. Now more than ever, I feel that our growth is well managed and our internal processes are improving rapidly as we build a great team where everyone is committed to the success of the business. I basically now have a second family with all our employees and all our great reps.
Q: What is your favorite drink?
Georges Abaji: Old fashioned cocktail.
Q: What interest(s) do you have that very few people know about? Tell us something about it.
Georges Abaji: Aside from my business, and as cliché as it sounds, I like to travel. There is an intangible wealth one can obtain by meeting people of different cultures and backgrounds. I also absolutely love music; I would rather be blind than deaf. My favorite sport is skiing, and I love extreme sensations. Every summer, I go bungee jumping at least twice.
Q: Do Canadian business people like yourself face special challenges when doing business in the U.S.?
Georges Abaji: I feel blessed to have a great team in the U.S. Also, no matter where I go, everybody I meet is just so friendly and welcoming.
Understanding the applicable laws is a little bit of an issue, as there is drastically less litigation in Canada than the U.S. But many things are easier to deal with in the U.S. than in Canada. For instance, we sell in the same currency that we purchase, while it is trickier in Canada, as our purchases are made in USD and we sell in CAD [Canadian dollars].
Aside from that, if you work hard and conduct your business the right way, the U.S. is the perfect place for Canadian business people. Especially since the U.S. market is more than 10 times the size of our local market. Furthermore, Quebec is by far the largest market per capita for mini-split in North America. We took the ductless road 10 years earlier than the U.S.
Having been a local contractor in Montreal, a city of extreme temperature (90°F to -40°F), since 2003, my company has installed thousands of ductless mini-splits. In the last 15 years, we have experienced and resolved every single troubleshooting issue imaginable. Because of this, we are better equipped to deliver training, live support, service and spare parts than our competitors. Contrary to the U.S. market, for many HVAC contractors in Quebec, mini-splits are their real bread and butter and not simply gravy.
The fast growth of mini-splits in our province was caused by the gigantic hydroelectric dams built in Quebec. These large projects were conceived to supply electricity for air conditioning to the U.S. during the peak period. In the winter, the U.S. heats mostly with gas. As we needed to continue to use the electricity in winter, our provincial government encouraged us to build homes heated solely with electric baseboard. Now that we need more electricity for home appliances, I feel it’s a crime to continue using those “toasters on the floor,” which are the least efficient way to heat a home. With baseboards, you don’t need ducts, hence the fast growth of mini-splits in Quebec.
Q: Is there a business leader (or someone from any discipline or profession) whom you admire and even try to emulate? Why?
Georges Abaji: I was really taken by Marc Randolph [co-founder of Netflix] at the HARDI annual conference. He is the best motivational speaker I have ever seen. Over the past few months, I’ve started implementing the business philosophy he presented at Willis HVAC as well as in my own personal development.
I also admire his determination and his dedication to being the best at what he does. The battle between Netflix and Blockbuster is a perfect example of David beating Goliath. I can only dream of achieving a fraction of what he did but in our own industry. The Good Lord made me a believer and also a dreamer.
Q: It would appear that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will face each other in the presidential election. Does it matter regarding any effect it might have on business relations with Canada?
Georges Abaji: No matter who wins, there will be opportunities, and I just hope we will be clever enough to jump on them.
Q: What is your No. 1 tip for business people, especially young individuals who are just starting out?
Georges Abaji: One of my favorite quotes in The Art of War by Sun Tzu goes as follows: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” One of the biggest mistakes I made at first was to start too many simultaneous ventures. They were all great projects, but without the proper team, you can’t invest the time required to succeed in every venture. In other words, surround yourself with great people. A qualified team will bring their own expertise and is more capable of succeeding. You have to aim to hire staff that will be brighter and more efficient in their jobs than yourself.
Q: What do you do to relax?
Georges Abaji: I find that exercise and jogging really helps to clear my mind. Also, a five-day vacation in any new destination is great to refuel one’s spirit and soul. My favorite relaxation activity is taking a 30-minute nap; it allows me to have a double-shift workday.
Q: What do you feel is the greatest misperception Americans have about Canadians or doing business with Canada?
Georges Abaji: I think that Americans often assume that all superstars are from the U.S., but many of them are actually Canadian, such a Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, Justin Bieber, Drake, Pamela Anderson, Ryan Gosling and Jim Carrey.
Q: Georges St. Pierre (former UFC Welterweight Champion) lives in Montreal. Do you know him, and have you ever fought him?
Georges Abaji: I never met him, but our General Manager Bill Caille met him once, and I can tell you that, just like in his interviews, he is a real class act. None of us would ever be foolish enough to engage with GSP in a fight.