Almost every important thing that Bill Comrie ever learned about business he gleaned from the game of hockey.
The founder of The Brick furniture stores spoke in Red Deer on Tuesday about getting his sense of teamwork — leadership, competition and other principles that made him one of Canada’s most successful businessmen — from an early exposure to sports.
As a 16-year-old, the Edmonton resident had signed a contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. He was playing for its junior farm team, the Moose Jaw Canucks, when his father died suddenly of a heart attack.
At age 19, Comri e — whose two sons Paul and Mike were to later play for the Edmonton Oilers — had to quit his promising hockey career to look after his mother and younger brothers by taking over the family furniture store.
The business struggled until Comrie innovated the “Midnight Madness Sale” in the early 1970s. Comrie, who was struck by how many people attended late-night drive-in movies, decided to apply this idea to his retail business.
He recounted at the ninth-annual Red Deer College scholarship breakfast for athletics how he went ahead with the midnight sale, despite nay-sayers telling him it wouldn’t work.
More than 1,000 shoppers lined up outside the store, proving him right and requiring Comrie to call in friends and relatives for additional sales help.
He ended up selling $144,000 of furniture in one night — more than his father had sold in the entire previous year.
After being bought out by partners, Comrie opened his own store, which was to become The Brick in 1975.
His keen sense of competition and leadership was evident when he innovated the ideas of same-day delivery and no-interest financing.
Comrie told the audience at Red Deer’s Sheraton Hotel that for four years, his Edmonton store was the only one offering no-interest payments for first six months, then 12 and 18 months. Now it’s common practice for retailers — not only in Canada, but around the world.
Comrie recounted seeing a Scottish store advertising the same deal in its window while he was playing golf in Scotland with Wayne Gretzky and other luminaries a few years ago.
Detractors were once again proven wrong when Comrie successfully broke into the difficult Toronto furniture market, making The Brick Canada’s largest furniture, appliance and electronics chain, with $1.5 billion sales in 2010. It now employs 7,000 people in 250 locations, and has buyers in 20 countries around the world.
Comrie was awarded with an honourary University of Alberta degree and an Order of Canada.
The businessman’s sense of teamwork was best illustrated when he put The Brick on the stock exchange in 2004. He took $45 million of the profits he made and distributed bonus cheques to his 6,000 employees.
The size of the bonus depended on time with the company. Twenty-year staffers got the equivalent of the entire previous year’s salary.
Comrie, who stepped down as chairman and CEO of The Brick, said he went against the advice of his financial advisors to provide the bonuses because he believes, “I didn’t do this on my own. I was part of a team.”
The heartfelt thank-you letters he received from people made Comrie feel “it was more of a reward for me.”
This week, he announced he would fund a $10,000 scholarship for two RDC athletes for the next few years.