The Advancing Leadership Blog

The Making of a Successful Entrepreneur: An interview with Entrepreneur of the Year finalist Derek Bullen

To echo Ernst & Young (and we agree), Entrepreneurs power Canada’s economy. When it comes to stimulating economic growth and getting the country back on its feet, it’s entrepreneurs who lead the way. They’re the people who have the big ideas and take the bold actions needed to innovate, create jobs, generate wealth and invest in the well-being of communities from coast to coast.

Cue Derek Bullen. A TEC Canada member and speaker, Derek is the president of S.i. Systems, a national supplier of on demand professionals and one of North America’s largest staffing companies. The quintessential entrepreneur, Derek founded S.I. Systems in 1994 and has worked hard bolstering the business from a small start-up in Calgary to over 1,600 I.T. professionals across the country. S.I. Systems has frequently appeared on fastest growing company lists in both Alberta and Canada.

This past July, in recognition of his company’s exponential growth (among other key factors), Derek was also named a finalist for Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year (EOY) Awards in the Prairies division.

Similar to TEC Canada, EOY celebrates many great business and personal accomplishments of Canada’s business leaders, particularly in areas such as leadership, vision, innovation, financial performance, personal integrity and influence.

We were thrilled to hear of Derek’s achievement and shortly following the announcement, we were lucky to speak with him, gaining a deeper insight into his well-rounded leadership approach.

TEC Canada: Congratulations on being named an E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist!  What was your reaction when you found out you were selected?

Derek Bullen: I was very excited. As a perk, I get to go down to the Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum in California this November. I went a few years ago as a guest of Ernst & Young. It was truly a first class event where I was able to bring back some great strategies, viewpoints, and energy from top tier entrepreneurs such as Howard Shultz, Magic Johnson and Herb Kohler. The ideas at this event are mind-blowing.

TC: What is your definition of leadership?

DB: I would say relentlessly moving the story forward regardless of the events of the day. Also, good leadership is not always popular or comfortable, but over time it becomes respected. My favorite quote is, “The leader gets up every day to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I am pretty sure I heard that in a TEC executive session once.

TC: What are the key qualities a successful leader must possess?

DB: Assertiveness to the point of being internally referenced. If you have to look around you and ask other people how you are doing each day, you are in trouble already.

TC: What is the best business decision you ever made?

DB: The best decision was to invest 100K in a business plan in 2001 with a new group of venture capitalist launch consultants. Even with a great business plan, at that time we were barely profitable (half of our annual profit is what I had invested). The business plan, however, ended up paving the path to our expansion across Canada and more importantly, it prescribed raising $2 million to write an end-to-end system for the IT staffing industry that became our growth engine. I thought I was way over my head, but it played out very well. We went from $8 million in sales to $100 million in four years, and then kept on going. It was a great plan.

TC: Looking back, what were the most difficult parts of launching and building S.i. Systems?

DB: You have to say “no” to your family along the way. Sometimes it’s about money, as capital needs to go back into the business when it is young. Sometimes it’s about time. You need to travel when you are national, and often, you can’t be there for your family. Sometimes it’s just about presence. Like when your body shows up, but your mind is at work still grinding away at a problem. You definitely have to make a plan for your family on how to make up for the withdrawals along the way.

TC: The IT business is always changing. How do you adapt the business to stay current, to align with client needs?

DB: Marketing. You have to regularly run client surveys, go out and meet your customers, watch what they do and listen to what they want. Ultimately, unless you are the person to invent the next iPod, your fate and direction will be determined by the customer. Look at RIM – all their issues come from an arrogant disconnect with the customer experience three years ago.

TC: What is your/S.i. Systems’ involvement in the community?

DB: We have over 1,600 consultants and staff and they get involved in everything under the sun. If it is a charity run, race, bake off, whatever, we will match their monies raised dollar for dollar up to $500 per person.

TEC Canada is proud to have six members in total represented in this year’s Ernst & Young EOY Finalists (click here to view). The official winners will be announced this coming October.

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