Canadian Success: An Interview with JIM JIWANI

FCM 1st article

By Abel Pagaling


Unless you’re born into a wealthy or successful family, success doesn’t just happen. For the majority of us, success is something we need to attain and work very hard to get to. Such is the story of Mr. Jim Jiwani.

Jim is the Dealer Principal of several very successful dealerships in Alberta, including Calgary’s Country Hills Toyota and Edmonton’s Lexus South Pointe. Aside from the dealerships, he manages businesses in the hotel and car parking industry.

It’s easy to marvel at successful people, particularly immigrants, and admire what they’ve accomplished. They’ve done something many of us who come to Canada want to achieve – reach the top. We look at the business or companies they run and hope that one day we’ll have the same success.

I was given an opportunity to interview Jim at his Country Hills Toyota dealership. It was an honor to hear his story firsthand.

Jim was born in Uganda, East Africa. His parents immigrated to Uganda from India.

In 1971, he finished high-school. He wanted to be in the British Royal Airforce and become an aeronautical engineer. He had an option to go to a university in India or take a chance and go to England for the Royal Airforce. “I bought a one-way ticket to go to England,” said Jim. “Then I had to figure out how to join the airforce.”

But Jim wasn’t able to get into the Royal Airforce because he was not a British citizen even though Uganda, where he came from, was part of the British colony.

Jim pursued his other interest – to be a mechanic. He studied during the day, and in the evening, he worked to put himself through college and pay for his fees. “I worked in a chicken factory, cutting chickens at night. I also worked in big laundromats for hotels and airlines,” said Jim. “I worked Friday nights and all nights because you get paid time and a half for overtime. I worked in the weekends as well to make ends meet.”

Jim recalled how some days he couldn’t afford to eat lunch, and he only had a meal a day. There were days when he couldn’t afford to take the bus, so he had to walk to where he needed to get to. “That’s how I put myself through college,” said Jim.

One of Jim’s part-time job was looking after a swimming pool that had a café. When one of the owners of the pool asked why he works so hard, Jim said, “You pay me, so I have to work. And I need to grow. If I don’t work hard, I won’t have any growth.”

While in college, Jim looked for a job in the auto industry but he couldn’t land a job because, “I was immigrant with no previous experience,” said Jim. But he didn’t give up easily. To get his apprenticeship, he asked the shop if he could work for free. He got the job and was paid the miminum wage. That was the starting point of his career in the auto industry.

In 1974, Jim immigrated to Canada, landing a job in Vancouver at a FIAT dealership. It was a gas station that was converted as a dealership. “There were only three service bays,” said Jim, “I was the fourth guy. So guess where I had to work? I had to work outside with the jack and worked in the rain some days. I did that for about the year.”

After FIAT, Jim moved to a Honda dealership in Abbotsford where the working conditions were better. But times were tough back then. Getting ahead was tough. Jim decided to move to Winnipeg and join his family who already immigrated to Canada ahead of him back in 1972.

At a Winnipeg Honda dealership, Jim worked as a technician. Through hard work and dedication to his job, he became a shop foreman, then a service manager in the span of 3 years.

It was in Winnipeg where Jim met his wife. “Winnipeg is one of those places where winters were tough,” said Jim. “Three years were too many years in Winnipeg, but the good thing is I met my wife and got married.”

In 1979, Jim decided to move to Calgary. He tried to get a service manager position at a Honda dealership, but they didn’t have an opening. He took a job as a foreman instead.

Jim’s work ethic would not go unnoticed. From foreman, he moved up to a service manager, then to a general manager position.

Jim worked at the dealership from 1979 to 1991. During that time, there were two changes in ownership. “Every time there’s a change in ownership, you don’t know if you have a job or not,” said Jim. “The new owners could have their own team that they’re bringing.”

When the third time the dealership was put on sale, Jim made a bold move along with his brother-in-law (who also worked at the dealership) to buy the dealership. “We knew the store fairly well,” said Jim. “We know what the pros and cons were. We knew what needed attention.”

Jim soon found that financing was a big hurdle he had to overcome to be able to acquire the dealership. “Who was going to finance us, two young guys?” recalled Jim. They got their break when a venture capital company invested in them. But Jim and his brother-in-law had to come up with their share of financing.

“I had to sell my house and cashed out my RRSPs,” said Jim. “I had some bonds for the kids. I cashed that out. I borrowed money from friends and family, and I even took my dad’s car and refinanced it so I could get some money out of it. I went all in and took the risk.”

Jim and his brother-in-law took over the dealership in 1991. “We did very well,” said Jim. “We did so well in T&T Honda. It was the #1 import store in Canada.”

It wasn’t long before Toyota took notice. In 1993, Jim was approached by Toyota. “One day I got a call from them to consider buying a Toyota dealership in Edmonton,” said Jim. At that time, there was little interest to go to Edmonton, but Toyota would not take no for an answer. “They invited us for golf and convinced us to take a look at the Edmonton store. I went and took a look. It was in a good location, and it had good product and thought we should consider.”

When Jim took over the store, it wasn’t performing well. “But in the first month, we made it into the number one store in the zone in the prairie province. We had put in the right people,” said Jim.

But the success of the dealership meant personal sacrifice for Jim. His family was in Calgary. “The first six months, I drove to Edmonton every Monday morning, then came back Saturday,” said Jim. “I spent time with my Family on Sundays.”

Given Jim and his brother-in-law’s success, they looked at expanding some more. They decided to split up so they could grow independently. “I kept the T&T Honda store, and I took over the High River Stores, and Mayfield,” said Jim. “We did so well in the Mayfied store. In the first year we were number one.”

Jim sold the High River Toyota to a manager and a CFO who was working with him. That allowed him to build the Country Hills Toyota store in Calgary. From day one, Country Hills Toyota became the number one store in the Calgary market.

With a successful management of his existing dealerships, Jim acquired two more – South Pointe Toyota and a Lexus South Pointe.

“In our first year in South Point, it was number 2 store in Calgary after Country Hills. In the Prairie zone, we were number 1, 2, and 3. Mayfield is #1, Country Hills #2, and South Point is #3.”

Jim smiles as he talks about Lexus South Pointe in Edmonton. “It’s one of the nicest dealerships in North America. When we opened the store, the target was about 380 units. In our first year we did 840 units. Edmonton is the only place in Canada where Lexus is the number one in the Luxury market.”

Jim’s success with Toyota caught another manufacturer’s attention. “Nissan approached us and said ‘we’d like to partner with you,’” said Jim. “We had the opportunity to buy an existing store in Oakville – Nissan and Infinity stores. So now we have a Nissan and Infinity store. We’re looking to double the numbers they are doing currently. We’re hoping to take another store in Woodbine.”

While acquiring and managing dealerships, Jim also worked on other business ventures. “We ventured out in the hotel business, which is the Hamptons and Homewood suites by the Calgary airport. We did that with partnerships with different people. And also the Park-to-Go parking in Calgary. And we recently started a Park-to-Go in Edmonton as well.”

Listening to Jim, I’m amazed at what he’s accomplished, not just for himself but also for the hundreds of people that have jobs in all his businesses. These are people with families and kids who have to pay for their mortgages and send their kids to school. “This is my passion,” said Jim. “This is what I enjoy. There’s never a dull moment within the business. And every day that I come, I enjoy what I’m doing.”

Asked if he would consider slowing down, Jim said, “Slow down and do what? I’m doing what I enjoy. Why would I want to give that up? This is what I enjoy and that’s why I push every single day.”

Jim is also a big supporter of communities and charities. “The big one we support is the Aga Khan Foundation,” said Jim. “It’s a non-profit organization that works towards eliminating poverty. They work in all parts of the world. They build schools, hospitals, and universities.”

When asked what it takes to become a successful business owner, “Definitely you have to do your homework,” said Jim. “Understand the business and look at what the public requirements are. And you also need passion. If you don’t have passion towards your business it becomes very difficult. You tend to give up much quicker. But if you have the passion and enjoy what you do. Then the drive will always be there to do better with it.”

On what makes a successful business, Jim says products could be the same, and location might be an advantage, but people is what makes the big difference. “Having the right individuals working with you with the right understanding of our vision,” said Jim. “You want to provide to your staff and your customers something you would want as well.”

According to Jim, one of the most important skills to have in business is to get along well with people. “There are a lot of different personalities you need to work with,” said Jim. “Treat people fairly. Be ethical and be honest in what you do. Provide the service and the environment you want to receive.”

In being a leader, Jim had this to say. “We’re all in the same business with different duties. If I ask someone to clean a car, I shouldn’t be scared to do the same thing as well. Understand the business inside out. Understand the requirements of the business and you become more part of the team.”


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