WHY HE'S A TOP 40: He took a eureka moment and built it into a national retail chain with 21 locations across Canada.
KEY TO HIS SUCCESS: Never give in. "You have to be persistent and never quit."
Darren Bondar's timing was perfect when he opened the first location of Watch It! on Whyte Avenue in 1999.
The idea to create a high-end watch and accessory shop struck him during a trip to New York with his wife. He realized that department stores like The Bay and jewellery stores like Birks were the only retail outlets in Edmonton where people could find a half-decent timepiece — there were no stand-alone stores dedicated to watches.
"I saw a watch store there [in New York] and I was like, ‘Nobody in Edmonton is really doing that,'" Bondar recalls. "I, literally, on the spot said, ‘Somebody should open up a watch store on Whyte Avenue and call it Watch It!' It just kind of came to me, and three weeks later, that was me opening a store on Whyte Avenue."
Three years after that, Bondar opened a second location in West Edmonton Mall and, in 2003, another in Edmonton City Centre. In 2004, he began selling franchises. Today, the Watch It! retail chain employs 170 people in 21 stores across the country. The chain's system-wide revenue is expected to surpass $13 million
Last year, Bondar won a Canadian Franchise Award of Excellence bronze medal and the Henry Singer Award for University of Alberta alumnni who have made a career in retail. Since 2005, the U of A's faculty of business has invited him to speak to MBA new venture classes about his experience building the Watch It! chain from the ground up.
Bondar's advice to them, or anyone, is it's essential to enter a business you can be excited about. "You have to be passionate about it," he says. "You have to believe in it and sell every day, whether it's selling a watch or selling yourself or a franchise or whatever it is."
As well as selling, he recognizes the value of giving. The chain has donated hundreds of watches to Canadian charities and has given $50,000 in gift-wrapping proceeds to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada over the last 11 years.
"My grandfather was afflicted with MS, and he loved retail and had a furniture business in Calgary for 50 years," Bondar says about his biggest role model. "One of the commitments I wanted to make was — wherever we can, as big or as little as we can — we wanted to do something for the MS [Society]."
Bondar's success with his growing empire has been attracting high-end clientele. Recently, he sponsored NASCAR driver Joey McColm, whose car can be seen whipping around the track with "Watch It!" splashed across the hood. Bondar has crossed paths with celebrities such as Robin Williams, who was seen scooping up an armful of Oakley sunglasses in the Vancouver location, and Tommy Chong, who browsed the Edmonton City Centre shop. But he knows it's his everyday customers who deserve his thanks.
"It's nice to have the store recognized by celebrities, but I think it's the everyday customers that drive our business," he says. "My roots are in Alberta. It works for us — we're well-connected here in Edmonton and I think it's a great city."