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He Made His Business Grow

"Len Cullen"

As a young teenager growing up in Toronto, Len Cullen cut the lawn and shovelled snow for a Mr. Weall who owned a small nursery. By age 17, Len was working full time there. At 22, he bought the business.

That was 44 years ago and there are now eight "Weall & Cullen Garden Centres" in the Toronto area, to say nothing of their world famous "Cullen Gardens" and miniature village at Whitby, Ontario, a tourist attraction that draws a half million visitors every year.

At age 65 in 1990, Len was not about to retire, but had he ever felt like chucking it in?

"I can't say I ever have. I've always really enjoyed my work. I look forward to it every day. Monday is just as nice for me as Friday."

This positive attitude has kept Len Cullen perpetually young in spirit and he thinks Canada is still a pretty good place for young people to start their own businesses in.

"I think young people in this country today can do just as well or better than I have done. And some of them are. I met a young fellow last Fall who was going to start his own irrigating business, installing sprinkler systems in lawns. He began on his own, then added another fellow and then another. He's going like a house-afire. But I could tell right away that this guy was a real hustler. He's going places.

"There's lots of opportunity in all different areas of business. But, it's important for the beginner to have some experience in their field. Work with somebody who knows his trade and learn from him. It's also important to have some capital, not a lot. Start with a small firm, whatever it may be, work hard at it and give value. That is the whole answer: give the customer more than they expect to get.

"I guess if I had to do it allover again, by and large, as far as the general business and the home life are concerned, I wouldn't change a thing. Not that I haven't had some bad moments. My most difficult decision, bar none, was when we decided to build 'Cullen Country Barns'. It was right in the middle of the 1982 recession. We needed to raise $5 million. I never had so much difficulty raising money in my life. We finally did it but it was a real toughie.

"The side of the business that I get the most fun out of is supervising or working in the gardens, pruning trees and shrubs, planting flowers and bulbs, building rockeries. Unfortunately, I don't get as much of that work as I would like because I have to shuffle paper-and I hate it. I have never been used to paperwork, always been an outdoorsman. When it comes to writing, doing payroll or schedules, filling in forms, I shuffle as much of that off on other people as I can."

Len Cullen and his wife Connie are community-spirited and when the Divinity School at McMaster University in Hamilton needed money, Len came up with a unique idea.

"Connie and I decided we would ride our bikes from Windsor, Ontario to Quebec City. About 800 miles, to raise money for the school. I sent letters to all our friends and to all our suppliers saying that we were going on this ride and asking them to either pledge so much a mile or make a donation. They wouldn’t have to pay if we didn't make it!

"We had a tremendous response. Many sent donations and made pledges. We took along a van which one of us would drive while the other pedalled the bike. I used to like to get up at 5 a.m. and head out while there was little traffic.

"After we got into the rhythm of it and got in better shape, we could go further distances every day. It took us 18 days to do the 800 miles and it was fun all the way.

"We also raised $250,000 for the Divinity School-and we're pretty pleased about that."

Should business executives take an active part in raising funds for charity or good causes, or is it enough to just write a cheque?

"Sometimes I do write a cheque when I haven't got the time to take an active role in fund-raising, but when ['m really interested in the cause, I do a lot of the work. I think it is important that leaders in the community contribute to the community because we get so much out of the area in which we live.

"And we have to put things back." Len Cullen. .. another Canadian Achiever.

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