Meet Jim Estill – owner and CEO of Danby Appliances. They sell about 2,000,000 appliances per year – mostly fridges, freezers, wine coolers but also window and portable air conditioners, dehumidifiers(the common theme – they have compressors). And microwaves, stoves, dishwashers, laundry, etc.
Jim has been an entrepreneur for his entire life. Growing a technology distribution business from the trunk of his car to more than $2 Billion in sales. He is an investor, advisor, and board member to many technology businesses, including Blackberry – formerly Research In Motion (RIM) – where he served as a founding director for 13 years.
He has also written two books. One on time management called “Time Leadership: Using the Secrets of Leadership for Time Management,” and more recently “Zero to $2 Billion: The Marketing and Branding Story Behind the Growth.”
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Table of Contents
Welcome to your ValiantCEO exclusive interview! Let’s start with a little introduction. Tell us about yourself.
Jim Estill: I grew up in rural Ontario Canada. I always had an entrepreneurial streak. For example, while in high school, I started a painting business and hired my brothers and friends, and ended up painting dozens of houses in my town. I went to University and graduated with a Systems Design Engineering degree.
While in my final year of school I needed a computer to design circuit boards. I got a better deal if I bought 2 of them. So I bought 2 and sold one. Then I bought 2 more, then a printer, then some memory etc. Soon I was buying and selling computer products. I grew that business to $2 Billion in sales.
Along the way, I invested in, advised, and mentored over 150 tech businesses. The most famous one was Blackberry. I joined their board before they went public and remained there for 13 years.
After I sold my business and retired, I missed being a CEO. When the opportunity to buy Danby Appliances came up – I bought it. So now I run a mid-sized appliance company (we sell about $400,000,000/yr)
I am a healthy guy (eat well and work out). I am a gardener. For fun, I trade stock options.
NO child ever says I want to be a CEO when I grow up. What did you want to be and how did you get to where you are today? Give us some lessons you learned along the way.
Jim Estill: Actually from a young age, I did want to “run a company” which I guess could be interpreted as “Be a CEO”.
I think the most important lesson I learned was to try. To not fear failure. My trajectory was not straight up – I had many small failures. That has lead to my “failure” philosophy. “Fail Often, Fail Fast, Fail Cheap”. Having a failure does not make you a failure. And failing is “not trying”.
Tell us about your business, what does the company do? What is unique about the company?
Jim Estill: Danby Appliances makes and sells appliances like fridges, freezers, wine coolers, stoves, microwaves etc. We also sell a lot of air conditioners and dehumidifiers (the commonality with appliances is they have compressors). We sell about 2,000,000 appliances per year. Most in the US and Canada.
Our niche in the appliance business is we make smallish large appliances (EG bar fridges). We want to be your second appliance in most cases. Not your main fridge but your garage or basement fridge. Your kegerator. Your wine fridge. Your chest or upright freezer.
How to become a CEO? Some will focus on qualities, others on degrees, how would you answer that question?
Jim Estill: Each CEO does things differently. I became a CEO by starting and building a company under me. My primary style would be as a marketing CEO but there are many other styles that also work – accounting CEO, sales CEO, engineering CEO, production CEO, etc. All CEOs need a bit of every style to succeed.
I am an entrepreneur CEO so much of my success has been around creativity.
What are the secrets to becoming a successful CEO? Who inspires you, who are your role models and why? Illustrate your choices.
Jim Estill: I believe constant learning is the key to success. When I was running a $10,000,000 company, I studied CEOs that sold $25,000,000. When I was doing $100,000,000, I studied CEOs doing $500,000,000. One of my heroes was a Hungarian refugee – Frank Hasenfratz who started a machining company – Linamar Machines from scratch and grew it to billions in sales (with the help of his highly competent daughter, Linda who now runs it)
Most role models, I took parts from. I do not emulate any one leader. I do read business success stories for fun.
Many CEOs fall into the trap of being all over the place. What are the top activities a CEO should focus on to be the best leader the company needs? Explain.
Jim Estill: The larger the business, the more important it is for the leader to coach on culture and let other people make decisions. As an entrepreneur, I am all over the place and it actually has served me well. BUT I do surround myself with a crack execution team. Success is more about implementation than ideas.
The Covid-19 Pandemic put the leadership skills of many to the test, what were some of the most difficult challenges that you faced as a CEO/Leader in the past year? Please list and explain in detail.
Jim Estill: The primary change is leading by video and communication. My previous CEO style was to be highly present and do “management by walking around”. This was how I learned things. This what how I communicated things.
Now I need to be highly deliberate. Good CEOs need to get good a using video.
What are some of the greatest mistakes you’ve noticed some business leaders made during these unprecedented times? What are the takeaways you gleaned from those mistakes?
Jim Estill: I think many CEOs catastrophize and jump too soon to “the sky is falling”.
The bigger problem though is CEOs who define their business too narrowly. We can see that in the restaurant trade. There are restaurants that say “no one eats out” so they shut and other ones who figure out how to do take out who are struggling to keep up with growth.
The pandemic creates change. And entrepreneurs thrive on change.
In your opinion, what changes played the most critical role in enabling your business to survive/remain profitable, or maybe even thrive? What lessons did all this teach you?
Jim Estill: We need to speed up. Changes needed to happen almost immediately as opposed to happening gradually.
Fortunately for us, consumers felt a need for more food storage so things like freezers and fridges were in great demand. So much so that production was the limit – not sales. And logistics continue to this day to be challenging.
What is the #1 most pressing challenge you’re trying to solve in your business right now?
Jim Estill: We have a somewhat divided staff group. The pro-vax vs the anti-vax. It has almost gotten political. And views are extreme.
Balancing safety/comfort and even just tension/stress is a huge issue.
You already shared a lot of insights with our readers and we thank you for your generosity. Normally, leaders are asked about their most useful qualities but let’s change things up a bit. What is the most useless skill you have learned, at school or during your career?
Jim Estill: Calculus. I am an engineer and recall spending hours learning it. I have forgotten all of it and never use any of it. But – realize I am an engineer who has pivoted to business so do not do any real design. And I can justify it as a “mind-stretching” puzzle. It is always a good idea to have a challenge so perhaps it was not a bad thing.
Thank you so much for your time but before we finish things off, we do have one more question. We will select these answers for our ValiantCEO Award 2021 edition. The best answers will be selected to challenge the award.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make, this past year 2021, for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts?
Jim Estill: I think the most difficult decision was actually coming up without vaccination policy. It is so emotionally charged for people. And it touches on health and safety (health trumps wealth). I know this does not sound monumental with all of the other business issues but it is/was.
Mike Weiss, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Jim Estill for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Jim Estill or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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