In this episode: Hugh Lawson, Director of Business Development at Staples Promotional Products Canada, joins us to share the ups and downs of his career in entrepreneurship and sales. We tackle building a business while you’re playing professional football, getting back on your feet after you’ve been knocked down, and lastly, setting yourself up for success –both in life and your career — by playing the long game.
Hugh Lawson, Director of Business Development at Staples Promotional Products, Canada, shares the ups and downs of his career in entrepreneurship and sales.
Welcome to the seller’s journey, the podcast where we speak to great Sales Reps and Leaders and share their real stories from start to sales success.
Joseph Fung: Hi everybody, I’m Joseph Fung, and today we’re speaking with Hugh Lawson, the Director of Business Development at Staples. Hugh, thank you for joining us.
Hugh Lawson: Thank you. Thanks for having me. It’s an absolute pleasure.
Joseph Fung: Likewise, I had a chance to learn a little bit about your story, and I’m really looking forward to digging in. We’ve got some fun stuff to cover today!
Hugh Lawson: I’m very excited. Fun is always exciting.
Joseph Fung: So, I’ve had the chance to get to know you. Maybe you could start off with the basics to help our audience. Where’d you grow up? Where’d you go to school?
Hugh Lawson: Okay, so I was born in Toronto. Actually, my parents are of Jamaican descent. We immigrated back to Jamaica in the early 70s. But then, we came back to Canada in the late 70s due to the political turmoil in Jamaica, and then I basically grew up in Mississauga. So, I went to high school, Mississauga Elementary School. But then I went to Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo and graduated. I guess with a degree. A major in football and under and a minor in communication studies.
Joseph Fung: In that major footballing, we were often curious. Where did people go right after schooling, and football was that passion? Right?
Hugh Lawson: Yes, it was. It was at the time, you know, as a 21 22-year-old and I ended up, I was privileged enough to be drafted by the Toronto Argonauts, and I ended up playing about a year, although I hate games with them and then, but at the same time my mother had somewhat of a passion for entrepreneurship and I think that carried over to me. So, while I was playing, I was actually building a business plan and what little money I could put together from a meager CFL salary. They actually started a business, a promotional products company, so yeah so that that was my transition, the distant, but the Argyll’s was great. But I was kind of really looking forward because I just, it wasn’t that I hadn’t enough of money that I couldn’t buy gold teeth or Rolls-Royce with the salary and my dad was still hitting me up for rent even those living in a basement and I was one of his own, but yeah so it was a, I mean it’s a character-building that’s what dads do.
Joseph Fung: Yeah, that’s the job. I liked how you spoke about starting your business, but from my understanding, that wasn’t how you cut your teeth in sales. You should share some interesting stories.
Hugh Lawson: So, a couple of interesting stories; I actually started cutting my teeth in sales in grade five, as a boys government, and what I mean by that is that, at that time, every Boy scouted a Girl Guide or brownie or beaver would be obliged at some point in time in the deepest coldest time of winter. They stand in front of an LCBO and sell apples to raise funds. And you know, as an 11-year-old does, the last thing you wanted to be doing at a time, but the one thing that I got out of that in all my nervousness and just actually just downright freezing to death as I met some interesting people and the Scout leader, I remember one time the Scout leader said, “oh my gosh! that’s Russ Jackson”, or like who’s Russ Jackson but now looking back on my playing career risks, Russ Jackson was you see if I like on it, difficult Roughriders but he was a local principal of local high school. And just the fact that I got to meet Russ Jackson by selling apples it’s almost like a precursor to what’s happened for the rest of my career. So sales selling apple green in grade five and then fast forward you know 16 years later, I had a buddy who ran an embroidery shop while I was at school and I actually had a landlord that just didn’t show up for six months, and as a result, I actually ate all my red money, and he came looking for to six months, I didn’t have it, but then with my buddy, I wind up and start selling shirts on campus, so if he had the floor and residence and guy and I get to 40 you know sweaters for the floor, I put them a little bit on top of it, my buddy and I would have to bankroll it, and I pull his money in my pocket, and I’d give it to the landlord so he wouldn’t put me out on the street and then fast-forward over a year, I started looking at isn’t doing math and going why don’t I just do this for a living. So that’s where I aimed at starting a business and promotional products. And then a lot of the students or my classmates that graduated, they graduated from the business school there, they got jobs in marketing, and they started calling me for 30 shirts for a floor they were calling me for 200 shirts for a marketing campaign and that evolved to starting that business of which I did that for eight years until age 33.
Joseph Fung: Yeah, that founding story is remarkable. We really speak about success in sales is often tied to just how much of hassle, how much effort you put in, but you can tell you really had to there. That must have been terrifying, actually.
Hugh Lawson: When you are 21 years old, I don’t think you had to really get stressed about it too much. You just kind of lie low and make yourself fear until you come up with the money. And you know fleet-footed twenty-one-year-old soon to be a professional athlete. Running fast and running far wasn’t my opposite dream, and my landlord counterpart maybe wasn’t as nimble as I was, so I could probably stretch it out two weeks before I came up with the money.
Joseph Fung: There you go. So, you’re building out this practice, and some time at the Argo is you launch it professionally. Being an entrepreneur is tough, and you know I have so much respect for you know the way you got into it and the way you scaled it, but I’d like to continue a little further in that joining because you shared a bit around how I joined the turmoil of September 11th. You know it forced you to revisit that business and look and take on a sales role somewhere else. Can you share a little bit about that journey?
Hugh Lawson: I could share. I really put it in a very nice diplomatic spin. I didn’t revisit the business, the business revisited me and probably put me out on the street. I made a mistake like a lot of business owners where you put your eggs all in one basket and not preparing for the most extreme of circumstances, whether it’s a pandemic or a set of planes hitting buildings and a Pentagon and changing the world forever. I was on a really good run, but 80% of my volume resided with roughly 2 3 accounts, so in the branded merchandise space, promotional product space, it is one of the first budgets the goal, when companies go through a tough go. So when the economy changed drastically after 9/11, I probably lost eighty percent of my business, and I was forced to close summer 2001 or no 2002 knowing that you know I was two years into a marriage, months away from my you know my first child being a year old and a mortgage hanging over our heads and just not seeing any knowing that it would probably take 3-4 years to bring the company back to work once it was. So I actually decided, you know, I don’t want to chase receivables anymore I don’t want to have to stall and juggle paying suppliers and paying my staff. I just want to work and do what I do best. So I took what I knew and what I learned in that entrepreneurial skillset into an Account Management role that a company called Corporate Express, which is now Staples today.
Joseph Fung: Nice. So in that situation, you know what was that change like for you? You’re going from being an entrepreneur to kind of carrying a bag for another company, I mean a lot of flickable lessons, but it’s definitely a change. What was that…
Hugh Lawson: It was absolutely disastrous. It was absolutely disastrous. And it was earth-shattering, it was an incredible blow to my self-esteem, my ego, up to that point I could do no wrong and I think in many cases, just my run of success whether it’s at a sporting level of the school, friendships, meeting people, the optimism of running your own business probably created a lot of humorous where I didn’t manage my business property so when we had to shut it down, it wasn’t shut down, it crashed, and when it crashed, it brought an incredibly high level of doubt and cynicism around my credibility as a person, my honesty with my family and friends most importantly my wife, my own self-confidence. And it also brought a lot of anger because that wasn’t part of the plan. I was going to be a successful business person, I was going to have an island in a boat and retire when I was 50, and now I’m gonna go look for a job, and you know got your credits ruined, and you’ve got dust yourself off put on a good face for these interviews and prove to everybody all over again that you’re worthy of a job. And then, on top of that, mend fences, mend relationships with suppliers you’ve let down because you’re still in the same industry, so they’re gonna run you into the events. But you know we came out of it, and I learned a lot and at the same time, my business partner, later on, that year had a massive heart attack and died at the age of 36. So I lost one of my closest colleagues and friends all within the same year of crashing a business. So it was an absolutely disastrous year, but it gave me a lot of skill sets that I still apply to this day, and I’m in many ways it’s actually preparing me for what we’re going through right now.
Joseph Fung: I’m sorry they had to go through all of that. My heart goes out to you.
Hugh Lawson: No, it’s all good. I got a whole lot of leather in my Back. So, I can play the long game as good, or its better than most of them because of that experience.
Joseph Fung: You highlighted something interesting there. You said it’s kind of prepared you for what we’re experiencing right now. We speak to a lot of people that are going through career changes, looking for what you know, what their future holds in sales. What are some other parallels you see? What do you think they should keep in mind?
Hugh Lawson: I think, well, if you’re to you know hindsight’s, always 20/20, if you want to because it doesn’t sound like this is gonna be at, if, anymore. These circumstances events are gonna be wins, and they’re gonna happen in a reoccurring pattern. So in hindsight, I think diversification, I see a lot of you know I’m going to talk like an old man now and saying to the younger generation, and I see this a lot of people I’ve met from Europe, that live in Europe. Everybody has got a side hustle. I think he just got to have a bunch of eggs in the basket whether it’s your client base, whether you know, you diversify your client base by sector, by the revenue it’s just don’t put your eggs all in one basket because when stuff hits the fan, it’s completely out of control. Now, if you get into present site where you’re in the middle of it, I just think whether you’re sales professional or just anybody who just try to make it through this, you got to come up with a toolbox of coping mechanisms or ways to endure this to be resilient to see this through to have a plan. I’ve seen that with my older daughter, who suffered through severe anxiety early on when she first entered high school, working with professionals, she built a toolbox of ways to deal with that anxiety. Because the anxiety you can’t control when it comes, but you can control how you respond to it. So and I think the other thing too that’s rather fascinating is, when I lost my business, I actually, and I’m not like a church-going overly spiritual person, but when my buddy and my partner passed, he actually, I believe to this state, he visited me in my sleep, about three days after he passed. And I saw him in full sight, and he said to me, “Hugh, no matter what happens to you, you gonna be okay, you’re gonna.
Joseph Fung: And I think it would be so impactful, and you only imagine how that must have felt.
Hugh Lawson: Well, to this day, I still and maybe it makes me a little left, it makes me a little too laid back for my own good. But I just try not to die a thousand deaths. This too shall pass, we’ll get through this, just control what you can, but at the end of the day, if you deal with this properly, you will be okay. And that’s the one thing I got out of that visit to this day, and it’s actually run true like every time we’ve had a challenge at work, every time we’ve had a challenge at home, anytime there’s been a loss in the family, this stage of my life has seen a lot of loss. But you know people are just getting on in years. And though the whole the ground doesn’t open up and swallows all. You will live to see another day.
Joseph Fung: I love the way you speak about it. And I think I can see how you have such a big impact. I know you do some mentorship on your side and volunteer, and I could see how you must help a lot of people. You could share and characterize and empathize with that.
Hugh Lawson: Yeah, and the funny thing is that I actually learn from the people that I mentor because a lot of the people I mentor are either student-athletes, my older model or new arrivals to the candidate that are professionals, that are looking to find gainful employment at the level of expertise that they held from where they came from. So there’s a moment in time where you’re in the middle of the storm, these are people, older people new to Canada from India, Nigeria, Eastern Europe, South America, and they’re burning through reserves, and no one’s really giving them a shot at an interview but. Where you run wrong and where you go wrong, and you risk the chance of really burning those reserves is when you lose your medal and maybe go for something that’s not quite right because you lose your poise and those that can kind of stick it out a year from now they look back and go well that was a crazy time, but I’m totally in the job that I’m in, and I find that lesson revisiting yourself over we get so many in most cases the people that are looking to me for guidance. I’m actually learning from them, and it’s reinforcing and reminding me that you know what, you got to play the long game, and you got to set yourself up for the marathon and not the sprint, and just stick it through like you just look through all of you block out all the noise you know just look through the, you know, the forest through the trees there’s sunshine on the other end you just got to keep your eye on the prize, and I learned that a lot. I learned more from the mentees than they learn from me as a mentor.
Joseph Fung: That’s been incredible. I appreciate you opening up so much and sharing so much about your story. We hear so many sales leaders and sales are up speaking that you know a large part of sales is mindset and resilience, and I think your story is going to resonate with so many.
Hugh Lawson: Joseph Fung, I’m glad to be that, to be able to assist that story.
Joseph Fung: Now, I know that when we first got together and I invited you out and as I promised that I wouldn’t take too much of your time. Do you have time for a few rapid-fire questions before we wrap up?
Hugh Lawson: Yea, sure! My pleasure.
Joseph Fung: Okay, let me right into them then. So you’ve got this great career kind of spanning your own company, you know larger enterprise, but across all of that, what would have been your favorite sales tool?
Hugh Lawson: My favorite sales tool, that’s right, now is I’m actually leveraging software called Video, which is essentially like a video messaging platform. And my team and I were having some good success at a time where no one’s really trying to hear from a salesperson right now, but it’s a very visually stimulating tool. It’s embedded in your inbox or in your email and how I set mine up with my “picture on the Cameo and with what I want to talk about as my backdrop, others you wave first. And then you could put in a thumbnail so that literally when they look in their, in the mail they’ll see me waving at them and it prompts them to click open, and I just find that it’s been very good and people been quite impressed by it. We’re not selling anything at this time, we’re just checking in to say hello, giving them updates, what we have on the go, and it seems to be working right now.
Joseph Fung: That’s fantastic! I imagine for something such a physical product like promotional products, it gives you a lot of opportunities to leverage that Video. That’s awesome!
Hugh Lawson: Yeah, we’re going to write it down that rumor right now, we’re not selling anything. We just say, just checking in, saying hi we’re here you know this too shall pass, we’ll touch base when the time is right.
Joseph Fung: Okay. Now, I know that we’re going to know you a little bit better, but let’s take a bit dig in a little bit more. What is your favorite movie?
Hugh Lawson: When I think about that, I wish you could have said movies, but we don’t have time, so I’m just gonna go to one, and I’d say, Malcolm X, Spike Lee director of that film. It was a privilege, it came out in my kind of my exploratory years in university was trying to understand my identity as I was a young black man, and in the Diaspora and what I like about Malcolm X, you know when people think of them, they think of them as maybe a divisive figure in terms of race relations, and you know as a such a stark contrast to Martin Luther King. But what I see in Malcolm X is someone constantly reinvented himself. You know there’s a pre, Mecca, there’s a pimp, does jail time Malcolm little and then there’s Nation of Islam, somewhat antagonistic civil rights leader Malcolm X, and then there’s the post-visit to Mecca when he realized there’s so much more to Islam than just color, and he opens himself out to collaborate with other members of the community and in the world looking for social justice, so that’s what my intake from that movie was that it still resonates to me today.
Joseph Fung: I love the detail. Thank you for sharing.
Hugh Lawson: No problem!
Joseph Fung: Last quick one, and I’ve got a couple of guesses, but we’ll see if I’m right or not. When you were a kid, what did you want to grow up to be?
Hugh Lawson: You’re not even gonna get it right, you’re not even close, you know, it’s not all I wanted to be a football player, you know, what I wanted to be, a race car driver.
Joseph Fung: Oh, that’s good. That is a good one.
Hugh Lawson: That is my passion for this status, although I play football for a little bit, but, number one passion that everybody knows me is auto racing and I actually, my idol is a kid Rachael Wilmoth. Piccolo kind of Daisy, when he died in 1982, I actually took two days off school. I was so devastated.
Joseph Fung: I’m sorry to hear. Like, it does tell me that when we get you back on the show, we’re gonna have to spend some time talking about formula E in cars for a bit.
Hugh Lawson: Oh yeah, I’ve actually been to a couple of races, and I have a close friend who is a race engineer, yapped team for howdy, so I’ve actually been in the pits it’s pretty cool it’s the future.
Joseph Fung: That is awesome.
Hugh Lawson: Yeah.
Joseph Fung: Here, thank you so much for opening up, sharing your story, and spending the time with us. This is a remarkable conversation. So glad you could join us.
Hugh Lawson: No, this is my pleasure. I got to give you credit. When you got a voice like yours, a Velvet fog, it brings the best out of people. I gotta tell you like, let’s keep in touch because when I’m in my 80s, and you know at my hard time, sleeping at home, you just give me a call, put you on speakerphone, read me a children’s story, and I’ll probably go out like that.
Joseph Fung: That sounds like a deal with you. Thank you so much.
Hugh Lawson: No, thank you, thank you so much.