Reselling on a shoestring budget

For Don St.Germain, the tricky part about being the boss of a major IT retailer is dealing with people’s reaction to his age.

Germain, a 26-year-old president and CEO of Sneakers Computers and Advanced Technology Ltd., who founded the Victoria, B.C.-based company in 1995 at the tender age of

18, says although he’s young, he manages to go head-to-head with the likes of Dell, IBM and Gateway, and offers customers more than they bargain for.

So what’s the twist? Unlike other retailers of computer parts and systems, Germain – who abhors the term white box — says Sneakers offers customers a lifetime warranty with its products — something relatively unheard of in the computer industry. “”We’re the first company to offer a lifetime labour warranty,”” which is great for the folks who own older PCs and still need service.

What does a typical day entail? Along with a staff of 20, he custom builds computers as well as performs the day-to-day tasks of shipping and receiving, dealing with RMAs, as well as marketing the company and wearing the corporate hat.

Today, Sneakers is a chain, albeit a small chain. There are seven stores in B.C., five of which are franchises of St. Germain’s original concept. The stores cover Vancouver Island from Sidney to Courtenay, plus a new one in Kamloops.

Looking back to his early days, he cracks a hearty laugh about his inexperience. “”When I first opened, I wasn’t old enough, or legal, to get a business license . . . I didn’t even know what PST or GST was,”” and had some minor hiccups with the tax department.

But after some brief moments of panic, Germain got on the right track and became more confident in his business plan and vision of offering “”quality, customized product with enhanced customer service.””

Although not a self-proclaimed tech-head, he says he was always interested in computers and immersed himself in the world of IT back in high school.

During the boom tech days of 1995 (when everything was fresh and new), Germain hatched his first store with his Dad and never looked back. “”For the first four months I wouldn’t go to sleep, but the long hours were worth it,”” he says, adding he built up a good clientele, which today mainly consists of residential and SMBs. “”Over 50 per cent of business in Victoria come from SMBs.””

And while he’ll openly admit “”one of the main reasons I wanted to open a shop — and carry a business card — was to meet chicks,”” the wiser and more centred Germain says he has come a long way and enjoyed success because of his sheer determination and ability to learn on the fly. “”It’s not as easy as you think it is. About 80 per cent of new businesses fail – and we’re the largest and longest running one of this kind in B.C.””

And the hard work is paying off – the firm is over the million-dollar mark in sales. In June 2002 it was ranked Canada’s 170th fastest growing company by Profit Magazine.

Like a Flight Centre for the computer world, Germain says Sneakers offers comparable prices — another factor contributing to the company’s success.

“”Whenever we sell something, we’ll match it. So you can’t go to a Future Shop if you haven’t been to a Sneakers. You haven’t shopped,”” he chuckles.

Other noteworthy moves at Sneakers include the addition of a custom system builder aspect to the Web site (launched in February 2002), which lets users build a customized system and get instant quotes.

The company is also heavily involved in community service activities (providing used computers to classrooms) and a host of recycling efforts.

In recognition of his contribution to IT, Germain was recently awarded a Torch Plaque by the Better Business Bureau of Vancouver, and nominated for the West Shore Chamber of Commerce’s Entrepreneur of the Year award.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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