Jim Estill bought Danby Appliances before global supply chains came to a standstill. Here’s how he copes with the new reality

Jim Estill, President and CEO of Danby Appliances.Kyle Scott/The Globe and Mail

I don’t need to work. I have earned my money and I have modest needs. I sold my first business when it had about $2 billion in revenue. I retired for five years, moved to New York and did a bunch of angel and venture investing, and served on some boards. Then my dad got sick, so I moved back to Canada and joined the Danby board. When the CEO resigned, I took over and bought the company a year later.

It’s what I love to do, but I also believe we can use business to make the world a better place. I prefer to meet what I call basic needs, so the Salvation Army and ending homelessness — that sort of thing. And the resettlement of refugees is another basic need. You’re basically helping people through a tough time, and they become self-reliant contributors to Canada and to society. When we started the project for Syrian refugees, I said I would sponsor 50 families, but we continued. For our new Afghan project, we asked the federal government to let us bring in 300 people, but they’ve only given us 10 so far.

Initially, the pandemic was bad for Danby. Everyone was afraid that the sky would fall. This is one of the reasons we started the fan project at our Guelph plant, to ensure continued employment for my staff. This coalition brought together 10,000 fans. It turned out that I didn’t need any extra work (although we ended up hiring the 100 people we hired to build them). Now people want freezers again because they’re worried about the food not being in the grocery store. People buy wine coolers and second fridges because they eat and entertain at home. Sales have therefore increased.

From a leadership perspective, the pandemic has dramatically changed the way I lead. I like to visit factories and talk to people and eat in the dining hall, but I now have a lot of employees that I have never even met because they were hired during the pandemic. I almost feel like an absent owner. It’s harder to be personal with people over the phone and video, so you have to try to communicate too much. And even that has its limits.

Because the logistics are reinforced all over the world and there is a shortage of everything, it forces us to rethink just-in-time delivery. The whole world was heading in that direction. Now it’s like, damn it, maybe we better have a little more safety stock because we might not be able to get it or, if we do, the cost of shipping will double. And if I had more inventory, I could sell more.

In the end, we had to raise prices to cover some of the increased costs, and I see that continuing for some time. It’s just the new reality. So from Danby’s perspective, the outlook is quite positive. I worry about inflation because it erodes purchasing power. But 2022 will be a good year for us. I even think that 2023 will be good, because the logistics backup is so long. We won’t catch up with orders for another year.

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