• Entrepreneurship at UBC

How to Get From Zero to Hero: Six Tips for Developing a Winning Team

Featuring Graham Lee, President and CEO of GSL Holdings

evolution is a podcast shining light on our ecosystem’s stories of innovation, impact and hustle throughout their venture building journey. Join us as we build community and knowledge related to entrepreneurship during the course of COVID-19.

Finding the right team players to help build your company speaks volumes towards the growth of your organization. But how do you start? This week, we had an opportunity to hear from a remarkable CEO, who is not only a big supporter of entrepreneurship@UBC, but an entrepreneur that understands the importance of building a winning team. For this episode, How to Get From Zero to Hero: Six Tips for Developing a Winning Team, we were privileged to speak with Graham Lee, President and CEO of GSL Holdings, hosted by Michelle Sklar, EIR and Head of Brand Marketing at entrepreneurship@UBC.

About Graham Lee

Graham Lee is President and CEO of GSL Group, one of Canada’s leading commercial/ recreational development and operations companies. After founding several businesses in his teens, Graham created a business plan while working on his UBC degree in the commerce undergraduate entrepreneurship program, which set the stage for RG Properties, a unique start-up real estate development company that he founded in 1989 at the age of 25. GSL has long-term real estate holdings in properties developed by GSL, including Planet Ice recreational facilities, multi-use arenas, hotels and shopping centres, residential mixed-use developments, major industrial buildings, construction, the Victoria Royals WHL hockey team, a private airplane charter business, and blueberry farming, as well as operations in food and beverage, concert production, ticketing, ice arena operations, outdoor music festivals, and online fantasy sports (officepools.com).

About Michelle Sklar

Michelle Sklar is a performance driven marketing and communications leader with over two decades of comprehensive achievements in digital marketing, PR, strategic partnerships, community management and numerous entrepreneurial endeavours. She has focused her professional career development on bringing ideas from inception to execution in the Emerging Technology, Digital Media, Events and Nonprofit industries. Her broad cross-functional expertise is in brand and digital asset management, content creation, B2B SaaS, team building, project management and analytics. She thrives in Startups and fast paced environments, where culture and vision match the desire to be transformative. When not working, Michelle can be found travelling, cooking great meals and enjoying live music. Michelle and her partner recently acquired a UVIN (wine making business) and are the new proprietors of the Wine Factory in New Westminster.

Listen to episode 3 of evolution Season 2

To read a full transcript, see below:


MJ: Hello, I'd like to welcome you to our episode today, How to Get From Zero to Hero: Four Tips for Developing a Winning Team with our guest Graham Lee, President and CEO at GSL holdings. We also have a special host. Please welcome Michelle Sklar, Entrepreneur in Residence at entrepreneurship@UBC. Michelle, take it away.

Michelle: Thank you so much for taking some time to chat with us today on our evolution podcast with entrepreneurship@UBC. Graham, we had a chance to have you share some of your thoughts with our community, during our Immersion Week, earlier this fall and really thrilled that we were able to connect again and just kind of dive a little bit deeper into some of your key learnings from your journey as an entrepreneur. For the purposes of our audience who are joining us for the first time, I just wanted to get a little bit of background on you. Now, of course, you are an entrepreneur, you've got your hands in a few different things, but you've got some significant areas that you're focused on. And of course, your connection to entrepreneurship at UBC, is through the support of the Graham Lee Innovation Center, which has been a pivotal space for entrepreneurship at UBC, especially as we were really kind of getting the program up and running. Maybe you can share with us a little bit more about your background.

Graham: Yeah, just quickly, my whole company and business life started when I was at UBC. It was a business plan in my final year of commerce, and it's evolved into something much bigger than I ever imagined. We're now involved in sports and entertainment business, commercial real estate development, and food and beverages. We also own an ice hockey team, it’s very diversified, and that's something I always aimed for. So we could be resilient in times like this where if you don't have all your eggs in one basket, and you can rely on different parts of the business, when parts or certain industries are not as strong as they normally are. This was kind of planned out from a very young age and it worked out well.

Michelle: Excellent. From the beginning, I guess the area for you, when you started to focus as an entrepreneur, did you know right from the beginning that you wanted to be an entrepreneur, did you know what kind of entrepreneur you wanted to be or the types of businesses that you wanted to build and grow? Can you share with us a little bit about your thoughts at the time.

Graham: I had no idea. What influenced me when I was a kid is that I grew up around people that didn't have jobs, they basically all worked for themselves. And that was my dad, my grandparents, and my dad's friends.That was how ignorant I was when I was a kid, I didn't even know there was a nine to five job. From a very early age, I knew that I had to rely on myself. That was always my focus. But knowing or planning to work to be where I am today, and the businesses I'm in, I had no idea, no concept of where I would be, other than the fact that I wanted to be my own boss. I wanted to do my own thing, I wanted the freedom when I got to my age where I'm right now to be able to choose what I want to do. That was the goal. So how did I get there? It was gonna be something, but could I predict what I'm in now? No, there's no way.

Michelle: So you mentioned being surrounded by family growing up who all worked for themselves. And of course, your father is a big supporter of UBC as well. Maybe you could share with us what kind of influence and, I guess, influential role, did your father or even someone else in your family play? And that really kind of helped shape your mindset around entrepreneurship?

Graham: I think to be an entrepreneur, you need to have a positive mindset. So it wasn't really about my dad sitting down and saying, ”hey, son, this is how things work”. He never actually did that. But it was little things I can even remember when I was a little kid going back to when I was maybe four or five, he would always say things like, “be generous and work hard”. And he will say that to me almost every day. And those are positive things. It's not like “don't be this or don't be that” because that's kind of a negative connotation. I recently learned from Qigong, which is an ancient philosophy about the nature of positive reinforcement. Like even when you say things like no problem, they encourage you not to say things like that because that's a negative sort of two words together that create a positive. So anyways, my dad was like that, I don't know if he intentionally did that, say these positive words to me all the time, but my mom was like that too. It was always “hey, if you think you can do it, go for it”, and that's kind of the way I always thought like if there was really nothing I felt I couldn't do, even though obviously, I couldn't be an astronaut or I guess I could have but you know, there's certain things that you feel you have this competence to be able to do something. It really was a nice environment to be around. He was always positive and happy and, and, you know, doing great stuff, great examples to be around. So that was a huge influence on me.

Michelle: You know, I think there's something to be said about, you know, being in a very positive environment, when you are taking on big challenges, like being an entrepreneur, because you know, that you've got to fend for yourself, you are trying something brand new. So you kind of have, I guess, built in challenges. I'm not even gonna say necessarily negative, but challenges, shall we say, when you're thinking about entrepreneurship? So I think it is, I think it's really great that you certainly were surrounded by such positive people, which kind of brings us to the subject that we wanted to discuss in today's podcast around developing a winning team and kind of going from zero to hero. I was wondering if you could share with us at what point as you're building your entrepreneurial career did you know that you needed to start either bringing in a partner or starting to build a team? Was there sort of this pivotal moment for you, where you sort of went from, you know, a team of one to more than that, and was there a mindset shift that needed to happen? Or what was that like for you?

Graham: Yeah, I mean, once you're past that sort of, okay, I'm by myself, I figured this out what I want to do, I've got an idea. And then you go, now what? Right, so you got it, you gotta start thinking about things like financing, risk assessment, all this stuff is a huge part of entrepreneurship. You don't really learn that until you're in it, and have someone around that you can bounce things off, that are questions that are basic, like, they might be very basic things when you're starting about finance. What does a bank want? How do you treat them? What are they looking for? And to have that person around that you can sort of say, I know, this is a dumb question, but I've never been here before, tell me what to do. I think that really helps that base knowledge to get you to that comfort level that you can go and do what you need to do to get to that next level. Also when you get to a point where your business starts to grow, and you realize you need people around you that are actually working with you, not for you. I treat them all, like partners with me. I try to find people that have the same philosophies, and when you're young, you're just trying to find whoever, right. But as I've gotten more experienced, I realized that people that have lasted the longest, and have endured through the trials of a startup like we were, or the people that have the same outlook in life and the same philosophy. That's an important characteristic to try to find, it's not easy. You're going to go through people that don't have it, and you've got to make sure that you move them out as quickly as you can, because it's not going to help. As soon as you realize that people are probably the most important thing to make a business a success, then you start understanding what they want, the culture around that, what makes them happy, and how do you create that aligned philosophy of the purpose of why you're there versus just about the money. Those are the things that really help grow the business beyond what I ever thought. And that was sort of the turning point for me.

"Also when you get to a point where your business starts to grow, and you realize you need people around you that are actually working with you, not for you. I treat them all, like partners with me."

- Graham Lee, President and CEO of GSL Holdings

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Michelle: You mentioned that you needed to surround yourself with people not just for support, but people that have expertise that you don't have. So whether it's finance or operations, or you know, sales, marketing, whatever the case may be. I was curious if you have an experience to share where maybe you hired for skill and didn't hire for fit? How did you navigate that? Or maybe you were hired for fit and not for skill. I’d love for our community to kind of get a sense of maybe the process that you went through to start to get the right people on the bus.

Graham: Yeah, I mean, the beginning you're looking for resumes, who's got the background that you're looking for, and you interview them and you can never tell, right? You can never tell from an interview, what the person's really like, when they start working with you. So like I said, I mean, a little bit of it is trial and error. But I guess over all of our trial and errors, we now go through a much more extensive interview process. And we actually do, we look at what's publicly available out there to get a sense of what they think like, or what they're thinking about, what they're writing about, what they're posting on social media. I mean, those are all things that really help but to get from a resume to a point where you can hire for character, the best people we have found that have really have the same philosophies or people that came through references. So these are other people that vouch for them, people that we relied on, people I know that are caring about our success, and introduce people that were really, really good. And those people have been around the longest. Unfortunately, the people that we just found on the internet, some of them turned out really, really well, but I would say that's a little bit more of a hit or miss. So if you can find even through this whole mentorship process, or people that have helped you in your career, or bankers, or lawyers, some came through lawyers, right, that I'd worked with, and saw what we're doing and understood our philosophy. Then we're able to match up with someone else who's not in the right position where they were, because they're not the right philosophy, and they were able to match us up and that really made a big difference.

Michelle: I think that's a really good point around kind of like the matching and recognizing that you can have really great people. And if they're in the wrong role, then they don't really reach their full potential. So not only is it not great for them, because they're probably not doing the things they really want to do. But they're not truly benefiting the organization that they’re with if the best of them is not kind of being brought up and rising to the occasion. Have you had a bit of a surprise, hire maybe somebody where you weren't sure if it was going to work out. And then as they spend time in your organization, they really kind of blossomed?

Graham: Yeah, we had one role in the company that was really something that no one had ever done before. And it was a crapshoot, and whether anybody could succeed in this role. When the person started, I was getting this feedback, that was not very good, like this person is not doing a very good job. But as I worked with this person, and put everything else aside, just focused on that particular role of what had to be achieved, and also made sure the environment for that person was there to succeed, even though it had never been done before. The financial structure was set up, the downside risk was minimal. The only thing that was available was upside. So that person had all the freedom to do what they needed to do to succeed. And I think they succeeded way beyond what they even expected. It went from very negative reviews and feedback from customers and people that were working with them to say, “Hey, this guy is pretty good”, but it was all around sort of making sure that you spend the time. That may be more of a case of adapting, you know, our particular structure to a person's personality. Both sides sort of navigated through that and adapted, and it worked really well, because the, I think the financial structure, and the way that the base was set up really helped him succeed.

Michelle: I wanted to ask you, Graham, I think there comes a point in an organization where as a CEO or a founder, you may not be able to spend the same amount of time in the recruiting and hiring process, as you did when your company was smaller. Obviously, you've got more things to do. You hire experts and executives to be able to really kind of own those core functions within your organization. But I think it can be a challenge for as an organization really does scale, how does the culture sort of get maintained, where you feel that the people that are coming into your company, that you're either finding ways to connect with them, or they're as connected to the company, in the same way that you wanted them to connect to the company when it was smaller. Is there friction, or how you adjust or adapt to kind of keeping that culture there?

Graham: Well, this is something I've really spent a lot of time on. When I was starting, I didn't have the time to actually think about culture, or philosophy of what we're doing, the bigger purpose. And as time has gone on, I realized that's more and more of an important element of hiring. Passing this on to someone else to do this work for hiring, I've had to make sure that person who's hiring is part of the culture mix within the company. So that person's become way more important than just an HR person. They are basically a corporate partner in developing our businesses. I include that person in everything we do. So the HR department, which is really not called the HR departments, Director of Human Resources, but also of the business development. They understand what I'm trying to achieve as well from a philosophical point of view, which is trying to create a better world trying to create a purpose, trying to bring people together to make their lives better. The more that they understand that philosophy, the more they can understand the type of person we're trying to hire that would fit in the best. Because, again, it's a win win, right? If you find the right person that fits in within that scope, because it works magically. The thing with those types of purposes, which are now a huge part of our business, is they actually are things we're doing. So we are bringing people together, we are creating, like we're doing some businesses that could be very disruptive, but again, it's all with a purpose of creating a better world and a better place around us. Even having my dad's example out there of what he's done for places like UBC, they know, whoever comes into the company knows my family history as well. And that's ingrained within what we do. So all those little things help.

"When I was starting, I didn't have the time to actually think about culture, or philosophy of what we're doing, the bigger purpose. And as time has gone on, I realized that's more and more of an important element of hiring."

- Graham Lee, President and CEO of GSL Holdings

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Michelle: I want to turn our conversation in a slightly different direction, but still talking about, you know, kind of team building and culture and whatnot. I want to talk about the space that is some spaces that are important for cultivating community. I think that in our current COVID situation, the thing that's probably been disruptive for most people is not having that kind of sense of community. When you go into the office every day, and certainly there are some businesses that are able to be open, and they can have some of their team members there. But certainly with UBC, we are going to be remote until possibly next spring, and hopefully at that point, we'll be able to get back onto campus. Your strong support at UBC is so meaningful to entrepreneurship at UBC because of the Graham Lee Alumni Center. As somebody who has spent many years as an entrepreneur myself, in my early days, we didn't have community, we didn't have spaces, we could go and find like minded individuals. And I think that's something that's really become part of the startup or entrepreneurial community is having these spaces to congregate, because of course, when you're building a business, in the very early days, you're either doing it at home, or you're by yourself, and it's very isolating, and all these things that can be really kind of challenging. So I guess I wanted to chat for a few minutes here about the importance of spaces and building community, and maybe you could share with us why, from your perspective, you felt it was important to support a space on campus for entrepreneurs?

Graham: Well, I mean, our business evolves around building community. Our arenas where we bring people together for concerts or sporting events, our community ice rinks, our hotel, our online fantasy hockey site, which is the largest hockey family site in the world. Even though that's virtual, that brings people together, these things are all, you know, a huge fundamental part of who we are and why we do what we do. Obviously, we can't bring people together right now because of the COVID situation, but that's still an important part of what we think we need to do to help make the world a better place. We're gonna continue to do that. Right now, what we do to get through this current situation, we're creating a workplace environment where we meet, almost every day. So I think the collaborative part of any business is so important. When you look at the Innovation Center at UBC, well, the one that I sponsored, it is an open working space with no hierarchy. That’s the kind of situation I've created in my own company, in trying to create a very sort of, “Hey, let's all do this together”. If you've heard me speak before, I think the element of or the research into collective intelligence, and the swarm intelligence is so important, because the more you can actually think together as a group, the more powerful your thinking will be. We're gonna keep going down this path. Hopefully some things will come out of it, but I don't think there's any better way to do or create a culture other than brigning, places of work that all like together and are not isolated. The great thing about what we do when things are normal as we are in the sports and entertainment business, what we're bringing people to our staff to come to a music festival, they're not just coming because we're inviting them there. We're doing it, we're bringing them because that's what we do, right? We actually can tell them everything that's going on, how it works, the inside, and I do that with all of our staff, is explained to explain everything we do, whether it's in the music industry, whether it's only the hockey team, whether it's building the condominium tower, or doing technology work, everybody learns. We can't stop from learning and if you've got people that are very inquisitive minds which you want, you're gonna find it all very fascinating. They will love that culture, and that's the type of culture we've created.

Michelle: Lastly, I wanted to chat with you about resiliency. As we are all working to build back a stronger economy, what would you maybe do differently today than when you were an entrepreneur in the early days?

Graham: Honestly, I don't think I’d changed anything. I'll tell you why, it is because when I was thinking about being an entrepreneur, like I said earlier, I just wanted to have this freedom in my life where I am right now, and to get to that freedom I knew I had to build a base of businesses that would allow me to have that freedom. What's happened over the years from when I was starting this was I always had this mindset of patience, of long term thinking. I think that's one of the things that is a danger right now with entrepreneurship is that people think very short term, they're thinking they got to make that quick buck, they got to make it by the time of the 30. It's possible, but it's probably not the majority of people that are able to get there. When you think long term, like I did, when I was in university, I was still at school, I was thinking, “Okay, how do I build this base?” I have to survive and get through all this, but I want to base something that might be slower growth, which is like our real estate business, Canadian tires, and Save on Foods, as tenants, I mean, you're not going to make a lot. But over time, it's going to be a very stable source of income, and fairly recession proof. To be able to move into the businesses that we're in, like, music and entertainment, and hockey related, which I love, like, I love sports, and the internet stuff we're doing that is higher than cash flow, but less in capital appreciation. So there's that good balance between the two, then it still allows me to do these crazy ideas that we're working on that are not risking the boat. It won't bring the company if they don't work, but if they work, they could really change the world. That's everything that I planned out, I guess not exactly the type of things I would be doing. But the plan of being an entrepreneur and doing my own thing, and having that freedom of thought and mind was always my goal. If you think long term, like I did, I think it's, it's the best way to go. Because you’re your own boss, you can do it. You can travel wherever you want, you can spend your own time doing what you want to do. If you find the right business to work on, work hard. You don't miss anything later in life about missing a party or something like, “Shoot, I wish I could have gotten that 20 years ago”, you're never gonna say that. But you will probably say, “Man, I should have spent a little more time doing that, that business because it could have made a difference in my life”. So yeah, I'm very happy the way things turned out.

Michelle: Excellent. Well, Graham, thank you so much for joining us on our podcast today and really looking forward to connecting with you again soon.

MJ: Thank you for joining us and we hope to see you next time. In the meantime, stay safe and stay healthy.

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