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Company of the Year (1-15 Employees): Lucky 13

"Work as hard as you want to as long as you love it, but maintain a balance with family. It can't all be work and no play."

At the age of 17, when most teenagers were agonizing over what they're wearing to the prom, Ray Seguin and his siblings were arms-deep in the highly competitive world of convenience store retail.

Together with his brother and sister, they picked up their first Lucky 13 store property on O'Brien Street in North Bay in the early 1980s with the help of their parents who co-signed the loan.

Despite their age, going into business for themselves seemed like a natural progression for the entrepreneurial family.

Seguin's mother's family ran a bus line in nearby Sturgeon Falls and his father ran an appliance repair shop. The business world was always in their thoughts. Under the Lucky 13 banner, they quickly grew to five stores.

"I'm sure you heard the expression: grow too big, too fast," said Seguin, who took over sole proprietorship in 1992. A cash flow situation dictated that he downsize to one store on McKeown Avenue.

"I laid low for a few years and worked hard to pay off the debts and bring back the business to respectability," said Seguin, the successful owner of the Lucky 13 chain of seven convenience stores in the North Bay area.

He chalked up those early stumbles to inexperience. "I knew that I had to learn a lot. There's running a convenience store and then there's the business part of it." The next few years were spent listening and seeking advice from his many mentors before embarking on a new wave of expansion.

"l try to listen more than I talk. A lot of my friends are older and were businessmen, and they would guide me."

When some convenience store properties became available, Seguin acquired and refurbished them. He began affiliations with Country Style Donuts, with Chevier Gas at three locations, and introduced his concept of Mrs. Lips Restaurant (named after his childhood nanny) to two locations.

"Basically, I created a plan to rebuild everything."

His focus has always remained on building value at each location and customizing each store to cater to the needs of the area.

In outlying communities such as Corbeil and Callander, he's added conveniences such as a bait shop, fishing permits, snowmobile trail passes, Sears and Canada Post functions.

"One thing I've learned is you can't put the same plan in every location because every area has a different need. "

Though he won't rule out eventually adding more stores, Seguin is keenly aware of the challenges.

"The inventory business is very difficult because not everybody is honest, and it's difficult to fund through the banks so it takes a lot of creativity.

"I grew very big, very fast. I did very well financially but I didn't do well thinking I could hire all my staff and they could be trained overnight. We're spending a lot of time retraining staff and getting our stores stronger."

With other business and community-minded interests to juggle, including buying a stake in a junior hockey team, Seguin has put a strong management team in place, led by general manager Julie Chayer, who handles daily operations and oversees a staff of 17 to 18 full and part-timers.

"We have a daily routine. The big thing is cash flow. There's a lot of budgeting, careful planning and lots of discussion.

"We have a plan every week that we follow and if we need to tweak it, okay, but we pretty much do everything week to week."

His sage advice to other entrepreneurs is simple.

"Work as hard as you want to as long as you love it, but maintain a balance with family. It can't all be work and no play. Try to find a happy medium. Your desk could be piled up with work, but there's always tomorrow."