Episode 04: Adapt or Die



Lee Wise is president of Arbell, a Canadian high-tech company. Growing up, Lee was heading with confidence towards an exciting career in retail by joining the very successful family business, the Wise department stores. His dreams came crashing down when big corporations like Walmart entered the Canadian market and sent the Wise stores out of business. Lee quickly managed to get back on his feet and find a new direction in electronics, but it sure wasn’t the last time he would have to adapt to survive…

Lee’s Growth Story book title: from the business book “Who’ve moved my cheese?

What you’ll learn:

  • Lee grew up in the retail world, his father was always working on Saturdays and traveling the province. By the age of 10, Lee was passionate about retail and couldn’t wait to join the family business.
  • Arbell is a national distributor in Canada that sells production supplies for the high-tech electronic industry. For example, solder paste that sets an electronic product like airbags, alarm systems, fire detectors.
  • The Wise stores were founded by Lee’s grandfather, Alex Wise, in 1930. they had 165 stores, and almost 300 million in sales.
  • Lee always thought he was going to join the family business after college, he never had a doubt that this career was waiting for him and that his path was traced.

Notable quotes:

  • “If you don’t have sales, you don’t have a company.” – Lee on the importance of the salespeople at his company.
  • “I am more of the big picture guy. I ask how are we moving forward? How are we gonna grow market shares and sales in a flat economy? That’s my focus.” – On his role as president at Arbell.
  • “When I started at the Wise stores, I started in the toy department. And the university, it could be the best university in the world, it doesn’t teach you how to buy a toy.” – Lee on how university is really important to shape you and teach you how to learn but won’t teach you a job.
  • “My whole world of going to retail comes crashing to an end. This is 1995, I am 28 years old, and I’m like, whoa, now what do I do for life?” – Lee on a first realization that life is not always what you expect…
  • “Better ask for forgiveness than permission” – On starting a production supply division at Future, without really having the green light to do so…


1:50 – Lee is very invested in the Montreal philanthropic scene and an avid supporter of the JPPS Bialik school.

3:05 – Arbell is a national distributor in Canada that sells production supplies for the high-tech electronic industry. For example, the solder paste or “glue” that sets together electronic products like airbags, alarm systems, fire detectors.

4:39 – Lee’s company is about 22 employees forming a team of outside sales, inside sales, and warehouse.

7:14 – Lee comes from a long line of entrepreneurs, his father had a very good career with the family business that his grandfather had started.

9:10 – Lee’s great-grandparents moved to Canada from Russia.

11:48 – Lee attended the University of Western Ontario to study business and political science.

11:54 – Lee started working for the family business when he came back from university.

14:50 – In the 90s, a lot of stores were closing up because of new big retailers like Zellers, and Wise was still going. But when Walmart came in the picture with its prices and grand openings, it began to be too hard to keep up.

15:20 – The Wise stores had a lot of debts at the time, from a company that they had just bought, so they were forced to liquidate.

23:05 – After 1995, Lee was done with retail, he didn’t want to be a part of this industry where you have so little control over your success because of things like the weather.

26:05 – Lee’s story continues as he moves to the States to work for Future Electronics and quickly gets promoted to a manager role.

30:30 – Lee gets the idea for his own business while working in the high-tech industry at Future Electronics.

33:00 – His new division at future was going strong but Lee, who was now married, realized that this path didn’t have the entrepreneurial spirit he was seeking, and it wasn’t really compatible with the quality of life he hoped to have with a family.

35:00 – Having a wife in the portrait was not so much a problem with the risk taking of starting his own business as she was very supportive. But Lee thinks if he had had kids at the moment, he probably would have played it safe.

35:15 – In 2003, Lee bought the Canadian division of the stores he had started with Future Electronics. He had an amazing deal with a great payment plan, but still had to dig deep into his own savings and his father became an investor in his company.

37:00 – In 2005 he launched his outside sales force, and their biggest competitors were the company Arbell. Lee loved this company, he looked up to Arbell, and was slowing taking their market shares.

38:00 – In 2007, Lee buys Arbell with the help of Desjardins banking.

42:00 – Then comes the 2008 Depression, the crash of Blackberry, and online shopping gets bigger and bigger. Crappy years come one after the other: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013…

44:00 – Lee decided to sell the physical stores at any price, no matter the losses, in order to stop losing from them and be able to focus on the profitable areas of Arbell.