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2011 Distributor Entrepreneur of the Year: Mark Graham, Rightsleeve
By C.J. Mittica
June 2011

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The lemonade-stand kid was ready to grow up. Entrepreneurship always coursed through Mark Graham’s veins (Exhibit A: the window-cleaning business he started in college), but at the crossroads of his adult life, he chucked it away for the long hours of investment banking. “I thought it was the real grown-up thing to do,” recalls Graham about his time on Bay Street (Toronto’s version of Wall Street). “I got there and I felt like a fish out of water.”

Six months later he ditched finance and started Rightsleeve (asi/308922), creating a youth-driven clothing company that became a full-service distributorship by 2000. “I started the company with $500 in my wallet,” says Graham, the company’s president. “It was literally just my savings coming out of school.”

Graham may have lacked funding, but he was flush with convictions: that there was a market for retail-inspired clothing; that technology was an absolute necessity for future success; and that the ad specialty industry criminally ignored the idea of branding. “The approach that I was always looking for,” says Graham, 36, “was how I could be different from, what I perceived as, a very crowded, mature and traditional market.”

Standing out was never a problem for Rightsleeve. Hardwired for creativity and branding, the Toronto-based distributor has grown into a 17-employee outfit with annual revenue of $4 million. Graham’s aspirations? Growing to $50 million in the next decade.

The company’s initial emphasis on design and technology allowed it to instantly gain traction. But with its small size and Graham’s admitted naïveté, the first five years were fraught with hurdles. When the competition undercut its prices, 65% of the distributor’s business instantly shriveled up. “I was not really fully aware of the risks that came with running a business like this,” Graham says.

The company righted itself by refocusing on corporate clients across a broad range of industries. Now, Rightsleeve continues to develop the infrastructure it’s created in the last half decade, which Graham calls the company’s “second phase.” Heavily invested in technology, the distributor applied those solutions internally with a custom CRM system, a Facebook-like newsfeed and an early involvement in social media. The distributor has created an automated public feedback tool for customers to respond to; good or bad, Rightsleeve can immediately respond and use it as a relationship-building opportunity.

“What I wanted to make sure,” Graham says, “was that we never lost that personal connection with the customer.” – CJM

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