Profile: Chris Sinclair and Shaun Lichtenberger
Work Hard, Play Hard
Shaun Lichtenberger and Chris Sinclair are a package deal. Whenever they’re approached for an interview, they insist on doing it together, just like almost everything they do.
Both raised in farming families, Lichtenberger grew up in Fort Erie, Ontario, on 90 acres that, before his time, was Lichtenberger’s Dairy. Sinclair jokes that Lichtenberger was a “city farm boy,” unlike himself, who grew up on a working farm in Owen Sound, Ontario.
From an early age, both learned the power of a strong work ethic. “My parents got me working at a hardware store when I was 13 or 14 years old. Since then, I’ve always had multiple jobs,” says Lichtenberger.
Similarly, Sinclair grew up working long hours at a golf shop. “I learned to work hard on the farm,” he says. “You don’t last without work ethic. And the more I worked at the golf shop, the more I didn’t have to work on the farm,” he laughs.
Lichtenberger and Sinclair both pursued marketing degrees early on in their careers. They continued on their parallel track, graduating from Dale Carnegie and then practicing leadership training, which was an important career influence on both men. They first met as coworkers in a marketing firm and hit it off from there.
“Working together as colleagues, we became friends,” says Lichtenberger. “Our sense of humor was always similar, we were both having success at a young age and we learned to trust each other early on. It was an easy decision for us to join forces.”
From their shared experience at their employer, they were inspired to create a company based on what not to do. Fueled with high expectations, they worked constantly. Lichtenberger explains, “Our vision was, if we work like crazy, then the people we bring on will hopefully do the same. And in doing that, it made it easier for people to see who we really are. It bled into everyone else and was the foundation of our culture.”
Sinclair adds, “Once we figured out who we were, we tried to go against the grain, including our marketing and our process. The Facilisgroup community was big for us early on. In addition to their technology platform, one of the best things has been the access to over 100 partners and like-minded people. If anything, we’ve taken the best of what we learned from our mentors and peers, and then put that formula together to find what makes sense for us.”
The pair established distributor Brand Blvd in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 2007 with an approach similar to a traditional advertising agency and a focus on creating brand name recognition through branded merchandise. They describe the company’s agency-type model, with its full design team and extra services that traditional distributorships may not offer, as a big differentiator in the industry. “We’re always pushing away from the commodity of what our industry is, and I think this is a big reason why we were strategic with this approach,” says Lichtenberger. “It’s not about the product, but what we can do with the product.”
One obvious indicator of the progressive culture at Brand Blvd is the absence of catalogs in the office. Rather than pursuing specific products, the team invests in the prospect and illustrates its marketing capabilities early on through the design department.
“We don’t always do what the customer thinks they want to do. We drill down to find the best solution that the customer may not be able to see from the start,” says Sinclair. “For example, so many clients say, ‘I need an online store,’ and it’s not always the best fit for them.”
The duo says they focus on saving their customers time and money, getting innovative ideas in front of them and selling what the product can do and how it makes people feel.
True to its origins, the corporate culture at Brand Blvd is “work hard, play hard.” Describing their team as the “Brand Fam,” the priority in hiring is cultural fit, not a skill set. Close-knit friendships are common, and a relaxed, fun work environment is key. But Sinclair clarifies that fun is not what defines their culture; it is also about transparency, core values and integrity.
Rejecting conventional wisdom, new hires are scouted from outside the industry to bring a fresh perspective. Both Lichtenberger and Sinclair also feel strongly about organic growth and promoting from within. “It’s so rewarding to watch someone start at reception and progress to the management team,” says Sinclair. “We don’t want people to be stagnant; we want to grow leaders.”
Lichtenberger and Sinclair stress that they are constantly stepping back from their roles and reevaluating people and positions to make sure that the company is optimally structured. “We try to focus on people’s strengths and put them in a position to succeed,” says Lichtenberger. This philosophy applies to them, too—Lichtenberger’s position is currently Govna, or The Boss, and Sinclair’s title is Minister of External Affairs, or The Good Cop. They have recently challenged each other to shift focus from “leading by example to leading our leaders.”
The offbeat approach seems to be working. They reminisce about staying afloat in the beginning, and then setting a growth goal of $5 million. After reaching that, they doubled their goal. At the company’s 10-year mark, they’ve made it to the $9 million range, and counting. “It’s not always about the top-line number,” says Lichtenberger. “More important is growing in different avenues, people and the services we offer. But we strongly believe if you’re not growing, you’re dying, so you have to keep evolving.”
For these two workhorses, time outside of the office is a luxury. Lichtenberger and his wife have two young children, so he concentrates on spending time with his family when free time arises. Sinclair confesses that he is trying to find more down time and resist the urge to put in even more hours at Brand Blvd.
A likely result of their farm roots, both Lichtenberger and Sinclair are most comfortable when they’re busy. Self-professed “putterers,” they like to tackle projects that allow them to work with their hands, such as woodworking. Sinclair quips, “If I sit around, I get too antsy, so I have to keep doing things.”
“Yeah, moving keeps us out of trouble,” laughs Lichtenberger.
But the truth behind the self-deprecating humor and fun is that Brand Blvd was built—and continues to run—on elbow grease, and the results speak for themselves.
Terry Ramsay is associate editor of PPB.