Prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ian Smart was a successful engineer/corporate manager.

But by September 2021, the way he tells it, “A door was opened that six months before that I wouldn’t have dreamt was there.”

He resigned from his C-suite job and went looking for a small business to buy.

He had worked at StandardAero in Winnipeg for 14 years in senior management. He then followed its former president, Paul Soubry, to NFI Inc., where Smart first ran the bus company’s growing parts division and became president of its Motor Coach Industries division for a total of 10 years.

When COVID hit, it quickly became clear people were not going on bus trips in the immediate future. “Nobody was terribly interested in getting on a bus with 56 strangers. The business was stopped in its tracks,” Smart explained.

After about 25 years in the corporate world, Smart started to think about his future. For some time, he had realized he wanted to own his own business someday.

The disruptions of the pandemic forced a major reorganization at NFI, including a significant downsizing at MCI that Smart felt responsible to stay on and remain in charge of.

When that was done, he realized there may not be a better time for him to take the leap of faith.

He’s now the proprietor of Jan-San Equipment Sales & Services, a Winnipeg company with a staff of 11 that services, rents, leases and sells new and re-conditioned floor cleaning equipment. It also sells janitorial cleaning supplies.

Smart is part of a growing cohort of former corporate executives who’ve transitioned to small-business ownership. It’s likely another one of the ramifications of the pandemic still being discovered.

For Smart, 50, it gave him the nudge he wasn’t fully aware he was looking for.

“I certainly believed I could have stayed at NFI and done something else,” he said. “But I would lie awake at night wondering what it will look like when the dust settles. Will I be a part of it or not? Do I want to be a part of it or not? And if not, what the heck am I going to do?”

He left NFI in September 2021, and spent a number of months talking to accountants, lawyers and business brokers. Fourteen months later, on Nov. 1, 2022, he closed the deal on Jan-San.

So far, so good, Smart said.

It may not sound like a natural progression for a senior executive of a multibillion-dollar corporation, but for Smart, it made lots of sense. “It’s on a different scale, but it’s consistent with what I did my whole career.”

StandardAero services airplane engines for customers; NFI builds buses, supplies parts and support vehicles.

“Jan-San is an equipment dealer and we service the equipment,” he said. “We call our business model ‘service first.’ We believe if we do an excellent job when it comes time to replace the equipment, hopefully, they’ll think of us.”

For Paul Savoie, who founded Jan-San in 2010, the pandemic also provided him with the inclination to sell.

His father had recently died, and his sister, who worked with him, wanted to scale back. For all his relative success at Jan-San, Savoie said he was never able to do the marketing and customer support work he wanted to do, as he struggled with finding the right general manager.

Savoie got in touch with Gary Ostir, at Ostir Business Brokers, to list the company. Savoie’s only condition: he didn’t want to sell to a national company.

In time, Ostir came back with three potential buyers, including Smart, who was agreeing to the price Savoie was asking. In turn, Savoie signed an employment contract committing to stay on at Jan-San for a further 14 months.

He and Smart get along famously and they speak of each other glowingly.

“It’s basically a dream come true for me,” said Savoie. “Ian is a smart and fair manager. I’m able to go out and spend time with the customers and Ian has never once asked for a call report.”

Meantime, Ostir said he has seen strong growth in his business over the years. He, along with Gary Brownstone’s Catchfire Group, are the major players in the mid-market business brokerage, which Brownstone characterizes as companies with enterprise values of between $3 million and $30 million.

Although the popular wisdom might be it’s a buyer’s market, with all those baby boomer business owners out there and no succession planning in place. But that’s not the case, Ostir said.

“The supply and demand dynamic is strongly in favor of the person selling,” he said. “It’s sort of a perfect storm with the demand for businesses from individual entrepreneurs, companies consolidating, immigrant investors and successful corporate executives like Ian who have done very well and always wanted to own their business.

“Everyone sees an exit ramp and figures now is the time. COVID was an accelerator in that respect.”

Brownstone agrees. “Our typical buyer is a 45 to 55 years old, who maybe see themselves with limited runway left in their careers who say, ‘Now I’m going to do it on my own.’”

The market has changed as the world has opened up, he added.

“Maybe 15 years ago, that market (for buyers of Manitoba businesses) was from Manitoba or Western Canada,” Brownstone said. “Now, we are talking to people in California, Arizona, Massachusetts, Argentina, Australia — the global market impact has affected the industry. Also, the idea of going out on your own has probably picked up.”

Smart’s happy with his decision. He’s already expanded the line of products the company carries and has some business development projects on the go. He’s also able to his daughter’s softball games without worrying about a constant stream of work texts and emails.

For Savoie, he’s monetized his sweat equity and gets to spend time with the customers he’s been working with for years. He doesn’t have to work late every night.

And Ostir has another happy customer.


Cash, M. (2024, May 17). Making the small-business dream work. Winnipeg Free Press.…