Back in the early 1960s, Derek Tennant revved up his entrepreneurial career by selling high-end, gas-guzzling sports cars while attending the University of Western Ontario.
Today, the 64-year-old is still putting the entrepreneurial pedal to the metal - only now he's somewhat of a 'greener' entrepreneur. He drives a fuel-efficient Toyota Prius to his Toronto office and he gets his kicks building environmentally friendly wind farms and promoting an international literacy program for girls.
There isn't much Tennant hasn't done during his nearly five decades as an entrepreneur.
After cutting his teeth as co-founder of Sports Cars Unlimited, Tennant geared up his career by operating car dealerships in Ontario in the 1960s and 1970s. Then he shifted into overdrive by founding Holiday Rent-A-Car International, which he built into a company with 350 North American locations before selling it (Holiday Rent-A-Car eventually became Thrifty Car Rental in Canada). He later made his mark as a real estate developer in the commercial, residential and recreational markets.
|Brennan O'Connor, Business Edge|
|Derek Tennant says focusing on other people's goals - and aligning them with his own - has been one of the keys to his success.|
These days, Tennant is still driving hard in business and charities in Ontario and around the world.
While the bulk of his time is spent with his $22-million wind-generation project, Flesherton Wind Energy Inc., which he founded in 2005, he has several other irons in the fire.
He is also president of Cedar Highlands Golf Club in Ontario, president of real estate developer IQ Properties Inc. and owner of Silver Springs Retreat near Collingwood, Ont., which is operated by his wife Sue, a partner in the Children's Technology Workshop and a driving force behind the FreeSchools World Literacy program.
1. Who was the mentor that made the greatest impact on your career?
"My father (Hawley Tennant) grew Avco Financial from really nothing into a fairly big company in the late 1950s and he was certainly always a mentor when I needed one. I guess the most important thing I learned from my father, some of it hindsight, was the value and the power of relationships. He really did instill loyalty in people. That was really helpful when we grew Holiday Rent-A-Car, because some of the people he had business relationships with became franchisees and we had a really strong business core. My father invested in Sports Cars Unlimited (Tennant's first business venture), which I started when I was in university. He helped us get it off the ground, but otherwise he didn't finance anything else that I was involved in. How could you when you've got five boys and five girls?"
2. You've been involved in numerous businesses. What are some of the most important lessons you've learned along the way?
"I never worked for a big company and never really had a job. I was always an entrepreneur, so I didn't even know about fundamental things like delegating. I thought you just work hard and do it all yourself and everything will work out. I learned the value of delegating and following up. I learned the value of policies and procedures, so you didn't have to make a decision on which way the guys park the cars every day and that kind of thing. In terms of working with people, I learned to trust them more and follow up. I learned to pick who you're working with more carefully. And I learned the absolute value of maintaining a relationship over and above any particular transaction. Holiday Rent-A-Car might have been the most successful business. It was successful because of the people and the unique marketing initiatives we had. We were very shrewd in terms of buying the key things for a rent-a-car businesses, which were cars and insurance."
3. To what do you attribute your success?
"I am really focused on other people in terms of their goals. By lining up with them, it's unlimited what you can achieve. I kind of learned the hard way, but those are true lessons. But once you know that you can do it and you realize what the other person's goals are and you tie the two (sets of goals) together, it makes a difference."
4. What advice would you give a young entrepreneur?
"The best thing I ever did was to get a little peer group of advisers and run things by them. You have to be thoughtful and strategic in what you're doing. Entrepreneurs are impulsive and there are gut reactions. But you've got to be smarter than that. The guys that really make it are the guys that line themselves up with people that will look after what they can't look after. And you've got to choose those people wisely and really value them."
5. How do you view business leaders such as Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, who lie and cheat as we've seen with the Enron debacle?
"I have to tell you, it turns my stomach. It undermines everything we stand for as a good people. It's laughable to think these people think they can get away with that manipulation and selfishness. It's pathetic. It just disgusts me. It undermines our whole free-enterprise system, our democratic system and our system of valuing people. It's very sad. My wife (Sue) is an interfaith minister and faith is defined for us as just believing a little bit more than you can prove. These guys have no faith. The corporate culture that allowed it is bad. It's based on wit and charm, not any values that matter. Our system's in trouble. People are smartening up now and they're realizing that if you just go for the bottom line and work on the leverage of using people's weaknesses, it's not going to last. It can't last."
6. What's your major business focus these days?
"I'm focused on our wind energy project (Flesherton Wind Energy Inc.). I'm also involved in the Children's Technology Workshop where we teach technology to children. We have 80 camps worldwide and we're growing very, very fast. We have a wonderful curriculum and program. It's really the best in the world. We also operate the Silver Springs Retreat where we do interfaith retreats. My wife runs that, and she's a very astute businessperson. I guess one reason I'm happily married is that we don't work day-to-day on the same things. Silver Springs Retreat is not for profit. We help pay for that with corporate retreats, culinary retreats and wine education."
7. Can you talk about your involvement with FreeSchools World Literacy (he is a co-founder of the organization)?
"With this program, I think we can change the world by empowering women. We have 44 schools after a year and we'd like to have 44,000. We've got to get that feminine side more involved. These little girls in places like Indonesia, India, Thailand and Burma are treated like dogs. If they can read, then they have some status and they can teach their brothers and they can teach their parents. And the model is so efficient that it only costs us $15 per year per little girl. And that includes a lunch and a set of clothes. It's just an unbelievable concept. We think that's the only hope. These women are the untapped resource of the world. You can't just ignore them. When you see something like that and you get some feedback, it actually energizes you."
8. What motivated you to go into the wind energy business?
"Alberta's leading Canada in wind farms. Next is Quebec. Ontario isn't on the map yet and they've got to get on it. I thought, well, 'I'm the entrepreneur, somebody's got to do them (wind farms) so I'm going to do them.
"I think we can create sustainable long-term energy - not only energy, but revenue. And I've got lots of uses for the revenue in terms of what we're doing with FreeSchools. We'd like to tie them (Flesherton Wind Energy and FreeSchools) together. The wind farms (business) is the kind of thing where you do your testing and it probably takes 18 months before you have any hope of any revenue. So you've got to have working capital to do it. But once you do get things set up, you've got a 20-year contract at a fixed price to sell your power to the Ontario Power Authority. There are a lot of potential challenges in this business. There's a bit of a minefield you have to work yourself through in terms of approvals, connections of the grid and negotiating land leases."
9. Do you view wind farms as an alternate source of energy that can have a real impact on the issue of energy shortages?
"Europe's 20 per cent wind power, Germany's 30 per cent and New Zealand's 50 per cent. I would consider that a significant impact. Ontario's zero. You've got to go with things like wind. But to have it happen, people are going to have to get politically committed to (alternative energy sources), politicians are going to have some backbone and people have to support them. We can't have any more of this oil-driven stuff. The environment is a serious, serious issue."
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10. What else do you think needs to be done about the energy issues?
"I think the answer to the problem has got to be a combination of things. But I think the big answer is that we've got to get smart. I mean, I'm driving a Prius hybrid. If I try, I get 80 miles a gallon with it. If I drive the crap out of it, honest, I get 50 to 60 miles a gallon with it."
11. You don't own a gas guzzler?
"I don't. I've got five cars and the worst (for gas mileage) is a Mercedes. Yet, I rarely drive it. I drive the Prius every day and I've got two of them. The emissions for a Prius are 10 per cent of a normal car and your mileage is about three times (many other vehicles). If everyone was driving a Prius, we wouldn't have this war in the Middle East. Yet, I know that's not going to happen overnight."
12. How is your ski club business (Cedar Highlands Ski Club, in the Hockley Valley, northwest of Toronto) doing?
"It's a grind. There's a lesson for you - make sure you have some exit strategies. I thought I could sell more memberships than I've been able to. I've had it five years now, I guess, and I've not had a good year. If you don't get going before Christmas, you know it's a problem. It's great - it's kids, it's families, it's a private ski club for people who really care about their kids. It's where my heart is. If you drive in and look at it, you just fall in love with it. But it hasn't been a good investment."
13. Can you get in trouble following your heart when you're an entrepreneur?
"Oh, absolutely, whether you're an entrepreneur or not. But you have to go with what you believe in. I guess that, looking back, you should try to take an extra day to make some decisions and know when to say you made a mistake sooner. I'm very tenacious and very stubborn and I follow things through. I always fight my way out. I've had a lot of businesses and I get much more enjoyment in initiating and getting them going than I do running them long term. That's what entrepreneurs are."
14. What's been the lowest point of your career?
"It's funny, because once you get through them you don't think of them as low points anymore. You just kind of keep going. If you're talking strictly business, it was when the bottom was falling out of the real estate market back there in the '80s. That was really tough. We had to really work hard to reorganize and make sure everybody got paid back and that kind of thing. It was probably harder on other people than it was on me, because I always knew I could just go out and do another deal. In those situations, you have to be proactive in dealing with the stakeholders, whether they're buyers or suppliers or lenders. You can walk in there and say, 'Look, this relationship we have with you is more important than this adversity.' Then, they'll work with you. But if you try to figure out things and they don't know what you're doing, then they get scared. So the lesson is to be very forthright and use your communication and strategy skills."
15. You went into bankruptcy in 1990. What was that experience like?
"You know what? It's not the worst thing in the world. I still had all my credit cards and everything. If you do go bankrupt, you can keep your credit cards. You just pay them. You just have to start over. It's not hard. I think it's seven months that you have to wait to get a discharge. So for the seven months you tell everybody exactly what you're doing. After that, you're on your own. So you just start up another deal. You don't have money, so you find partners and away you go. You make damn sure you make money for them and make money for yourself. Listen, it's not something I enjoyed, but I don't really have a lot of regrets on it. No little guys got hurt. Just some big guys got hurt."
16. Who's the entrepreneur you most admire?
"The guy who has definitely stood the test of time is Donald Trump. He's been up and down and broke. And I admire the way he never turned and ran from $900 million (US in debt). Here's me ducking at $30 million. It's kind of embarrassing (laughing). I also admire (British tycoon Sir Richard) Branson. What he's doing is not that easy. But these guys know they have to have the right guys with them. They've got the detail guys walking around with them, joined at the hip."
17. God taps you on the shoulder and says you can change one thing in the world. What would it be?
"A whole lot less hate and a whole lot more love. We have to change the whole paradigm. This focus on destruction and hatred has got to stop. It's got to stop."
18. What's your life's proudest achievement?
"Getting to where I am today, where there's nothing I need. Not one thing. And I really can say that whatever I'm doing, I'm doing to help others. There's nothing in the world I want that I can't have. It's embarrassing. I'm proud to have made it where I am right now."
19. What's your greatest regret?
"The regret that I would have is the times of separation from my family. And the couple of times when there was separation, there was some pain. It wasn't necessary. You know, men do funny things. But then, so do women. Sue and I were divorced for four years (in the 1980s) and then I got her to marry me again. We always loved each other. The best thing I ever did was marry her twice."
20. What's your next great challenge?
"I don't like to talk about this but I've got some health issues with breathing and asthma. It's very disappointing because it sucks my energy a bit. I've been struggling with it for about 20 years. So I've got to deal with my health. The big challenge I have is to try to grow the wind farms, now that I'm at a spot where I know it can be done."
* Titles: President, Flesherton Wind Energy; president, IQ Properties Inc; president, Cedar Highlands Ski Club; partner, Children's Technology Workshop.
* Born/raised/age; Windsor/Montreal/64.
* Education: University of Western Ontario, studied business and psychology.
* Family: Wife Sue Tennant, four children.
* Lives: Silver Springs Retreat (near Collingwood, Ont.).
* Career: Tennant launched his career as co-founder of Sports Cars Unlimited and then operated Ford dealerships in Ontario. In 1975, he founded Holiday Rent-A-Car International (now Thrifty Car Rental), expanding throughout North America before selling the company. He spent several years as a real estate developer - in commercial, residential and recreational markets. In 2003, Tennant purchased 35 per cent of Children's Technology Workshop, a global organization that operates technology camps for children. In 2005, he founded Flesherton Wind Energy, a Toronto-based company with a $22-million wind-generation project. He also owns Cedar Highlands Ski Club in Hockley Valley, Ont., and Silver Springs Retreat, an interfaith and corporate retreat run by Sue Tennant near Collingwood, Ont. (the Tennants live at the retreat).
* Global Pursuit: Tennant is co-founder of FreeSchools World Literacy, a global literacy program for girls (www.freeschoolsworld.com).
* Mentor: Hawley Tennant (his father).
* Escapes: Snowboarding, skiing, trail riding, mountain biking.
* Drives to work in: Toyota Prius.
* Recommended business book: Massive Change by Bruce Mau.
(Gyle Konotopetz can be reached at email@example.com)