The Unobvious Ones is a monthly look at movers and shakers who fly below the radar in the Canadian auto industry.
MAKING THE (REALLY BIG) MOVE TO STAY WITH TIRES
Who would travel 8,000 kilometres for a job interview? Okan Sen did, and he became Continental Tire Canada’s national marketing manager for replacement light-truck and passenger-car tires.
A native of Istanbul, Turkey, Sen earned degrees in mechanical engineering and business, and worked for an automotive group that imported Volkswagens into Turkey.
“I was an investor-relations specialist,” he said. “The company was on the stock exchange, so I was reporting information to the investors.
“I was very much into automotive and was curious to find out how cars worked, but I was still discovering myself and liked the management courses more. Marketing and sales was the area that I wanted to work in, and after the auto group, I started working in the tire industry.”
After six years, Sen wanted an international position. Fluent in French, he thought Canada would be perfect. Wanting to stick with the tire business, he found an opening in sales with Continental in 2016 through the professional-networking website LinkedIn.
“I applied for it and they invited me for the interview,” he said. “I was still in Istanbul but ready to make the move. I paid the flight and accommodations, and I took the risk. I was offered the position as a sales-account manager in Ontario.”
Six months later, the position of national marketing manager was available and he got the job.
He supervises seven staff who handle product management, pricing and discounts, warranty and marketing communications. “Meetings take at least 50 per cent of my work time, and then we have product launches, auto shows, and preparation for management.
“I worked with a lot of high-level managers and always learned from them. Those skills, and the right time and place made it all come together.”
PUTTING THE PERSONAL TOUCH IN BUYING AND SELLING
There’s a lot involved in buying or selling dealerships, which is Samir Akhavan’s specialty as managing partner at Templeton Marsh in Toronto.
“I do for automobile dealerships what a real estate agent does for properties,” he said.
When required, Akhavan travels across Canada establishing relationships with dealers who want to buy or sell. “We differentiate ourselves by providing personal service,” he said. “I go wherever the dealers are, to places most people can’t find on Google Maps.”
He studied economics and social anthropology at Toronto’s York University, but while on campus, he bought and sold cars.
“I put up a notice on the board that I’d buy cars for cash. I’d buy it, clean it up, sell it and make some money.”
He saved enough to buy a new car, and in 1978 went to Town & Country BMW in Toronto’s north end to make a purchase, but Akhavan ran into some complications.
“The sales manager said, ‘We’re being taken over by a trustee in bankruptcy tomorrow.’ I said, ‘You go bankrupt and where do I go for service?’ He said they would stay open if they could find a buyer.”
On a whim, Akhavan called the trustee, and a week later he owned the dealership. With little knowledge, Akhavan went into partnership with a family friend who worked in leasing. They later parted company and Akhavan expanded with other stores, until he “took a breather” to spend time with his young family.
With wife Sepy, he began Templeton Marsh in 2012.
“We’re the only two, but our immediate support netork is probably 16 to 20 people,” Akhavan said. “We have a law firm, accountants, graphic artists and website people on retainer.
“I play the long-term game, building relationships and maintaining them. It’s a combination of hard work and good fortune.”
MILDEW HAS THE SMELL OF MONEY
Mould and odour require specialized treatment, and many dealers call Steve Kicksee to provide it. He owns three HealthyCar franchises in Ontario, with mobile service to clean and disinfect vehicles with water leaks and their resulting mildew issues.
“Instead of a dealership having to change a carpet that’s $1,000, we do a process for a fraction of the cost, and they can retain the original carpet and underpad,” Kicksee said.
“It’s not that they can’t do it themselves, but the products are costly, and you’re dealing with bacteria and mould. You don’t want to be handling that stuff unless you have the proper safety equipment.”
Growing up on a farm, Kicksee learned to fix whatever was broken.
“I was always interested in automotive. I didn’t know what I wanted as a career, and out of school I worked at a GM [dealership] as the cleanup guy. I got an apprenticeship at the dealership and was a mechanic for seven years. I excelled in that and realized I wanted to do something in automotive, but I wanted to have my own business. But the cost, the tools, and cars getting so advanced made it hard to have a corner garage anymore.”
The operator who came into the dealership was looking to sell his franchise, “and I got wind of it,” Kicksee said. “We met up and the next thin was, I was buying his franchise.”
Kicksee and two contractors cover areas ranging from London to Windsor, handling about 10 to 15 calls a day.
“There’s a huge market in Ontario, with lots of income and growth potential,” he said. “I want to own more franchises and grow the business, not only in vehicles but in houses, doctors’ offices or gyms. There’s the potential to be in so many markets.”