The light went on for Steven Gula and his partners John Bacher and Paul Jean back in 1997. The three businessmen had sold their Canadian home improvement products company and were facing what Gula calls “boring retirement.” In their respective basements, Gula in Vancouver, Bacher in Toronto and Jean in Montreal, they came up with an idea for decorative garden lighting that would not only be cheaper than the competition, but work both on timers and motion sensors so customers would never have to stumble around in the dark when they got home late from the office.
By 2003 their company, Northern International Inc., added another line that was also pretty and useful. “We were associated with engineers who found a circuit that would allow a light emitting diode to have a random flicker,” Gula says. “One of my partners said, ‘Let’s put that up the bottom end of a wax candle and see what happens.’ ” Complete with wicks, their Flameless Candles are recognized by the Congressional Fire Services Institute in the U.S. for their safety. Today with some 150 employees world wide, Northern sells millions of units a year from both lines via retailers in Canada, the U.S., Latin America, Europe, Africa, East Asia and the Pacific. Says Gula, “Part of the challenge has been keeping up with the growth.”
Right from the beginning, the partners were determined to market and manufacture offshore. “Once you start to view the world as not having any borders, that opens up so many opportunities,” Gula says. They researched factories in China, attended trade shows in the U.S., and snared their first big customer, Home Depot, with a lively presentation in Reno. “The night before, I called one of the company’s founders at his office and left a message on his machine at 2 a.m., when I could be pretty sure he wasn’t at work,” Gula says with a knowing chuckle. “I said, ‘If you want to see something phenomenal, come to our presentation.’ He showed up and it was like God entered the room.” Home Depot offered the fledgling company 25 stores. “And we said, ‘We have to do moulds, we have to do packaging, we need to get approvals, we have no factory.’ They said, “Take it or leave it, and we need it within three months.’ I flew to China the next day.” Those 25 stores in the U.S. have since multiplied to 2,000.
If Gula makes doing business internationally sound easy, it is all in his attitude. “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right,” Gula says. He even defines stumbling blocks as challenges. For example? “Our first line of credit was $100,000 and our first major order cost $500,000. We were able to negotiate so we collected our money before we had to pay it. Good relationships helped us.”
He advises other Canadians with big ideas to attend trade shows and find out how their products fare. “Going international is going to expose you to competition and if you have good ideas, everybody will jump on the bandwagon,” says Gula. Homework comes first. “We invested the time and money to patent our products,” he says. “Our Flameless Candles are the only ones that have a faux wick within a well. Everybody else is forced to have a goofy looking bulb and the only thing they can offer is a lower price. You never want to be me too.”