Keith Gillis opened his Truro, N.S., computer store over four years ago in a back brace, having damaged his spine in an all-terrain vehicle crash a few days earlier.
Today, after building G & G Computers into a business that generated some $900,000 in revenue last year, Gillis looks at blackened and soggy ruins, the result of an apartment fire in March above the store. Fortunately, it didn’t cost any lives but the store was forced to reopen in a temporary location.
The move, combined with assumptions it was out of business, has made it tough for Gillis, almost as difficult as when he opened the store alone.
“It was a hard fight to get established,” the 27-year-old said last month, recalling the beginning.
Now he has to start again. But not from the bottom, and not alone. In fact, he owes a lot to his customers, for they helped save it from being burned down.
It began as a Saturday “LAN party” for computer gamers in a building up the street from G & G’s Prince Street location, which attracted about 20 high school and university students who live in the town of 12,000.
About 5:30 p.m. Gillis and store manager Mike McGuire decided a few more PCs were needed, so they began walking towards the store.
Then they saw the smoke. Apparently grease ignited while a tenant in the unit above theirs was cooking, which spilled and sparked a fire.
Word got back to the party and within minutes people were driving up with pickups to help salvage what they could.
He estimates that in 40 minutes they pulled out some $70,000 worth of computers parts and business papers.
His insurance company is attempting to dry out what’s salvageable.
Borrowed from parents
Gillis studied computer science for three years at St. Francis Xavier University, then switched to Dalhousie to do a work term.
Unaccustomed to going to school in the summer, he quit to work on a farm for a year, then borrowed money from his parents to open the store, believing he could offer better service than local businesses.
“The town services an area of 40,000 people,” he said, who “would rather drive an hour to save 10 bucks.”
“They’ve been burned by a lot of computer stores, staying open for a year and then closing,” he added.
“So for the first two years I had a lot of people asking if I was going to be around.”
With the help of his father, who built bookshelves and work benches, and his mother, who does the books and helps with shipping, G & G grew to a full-time staff of four.
“People are starting to find us,” he said in an interview just before this went to press, “but we’re still down in walk-in traffic.”
To compensate he often works to midnight on weekdays, and a few hours on Sundays.
The day of the interview he’d just returned from clients in Antigonish and New Glasgow.
So from this survivor, here’s a few words of advice on how to build a popular business:
“Don’t sell junk and treat customers like they want to be treated.
“If you create a relationship with a customer they’re going to want to come back.”
In G & G’s case, they literally rescued the company.