When you meet Percy Hoff, the owner of Diesel Services Group, founded in 1983, you’ll meet an energetic, yet content, individual. You learn quickly that there are years of wisdom to be shared behind his sincere nature. He is content not in a complacent way, but in a confident way in that he knows that whatever experience comes next, he will make the best of it.
For Percy, if a learning experience is missed, it’s a sad waste. Mistakes will be made, and he admits to having made plenty. But, he says, “It’s always important to me for someone to benefit from those mistakes.” The learnings come from his experience growing up in rural South Africa, immigrating to Canada in the 1980s, and decades of leadership developed through a passion for entrepreneurship and coaching soccer.
“That’s how I really got my start: a bad situation that turned out to be a great situation.”
Your Business Story Started Long Before You Immigrated To Canada . Can You Share An Early Story That Influenced Your Business Today?
In South Africa in the 1970s, the apartheid political system existed – a policy where the government believed that every racial group had to be segregated and live on their own. To get the apprenticeship for my trade as a diesel fuel injection technician, I had to get special permission from the government; it was reserved for whites only.
As I started this little business, I was buying parts but paying cash every time. It was inconvenient, as I had to go to the post office to pick up parts and pay cash on delivery. After about a year, I called my supplier (a big company) to ask if it was possible to start an account so I didn’t have to be paying cash all the time. He asked me to come and see him, which was a couple hundred kilometres away.
When I walked in, this guy came over and said, “Yes?” and I said, “I am Percy Hoff and I phoned yesterday.” He said, “We don’t sell to Indians,” to which I replied, “I am not Indian, I am half Dutch and half African.” His reply was, “We don’t sell to non-whites.” My only response was, “That’s very interesting,” and I left. I had a nephew who made a bit of a breakthrough at that time, becoming a sub-editor for the big local newspaper. I went straight over and told him the story and it was in the next morning’s newspaper. The owner of the company then phoned me from the head office and said, “I would like you to get on an airplane and come see me. I’ll pay for the ticket and I can’t apologize enough for the behaviour of this manager.” I did go, and he was very nice to me and took me out for lunch. At the end of the day, he took me around to look at his machinery, and he had a lot of good used stuff.
He asked, “Is there anything that you can use from here?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Take it and when you feel that you can pay me, pay me.”
That’s how I really got my start: a bad situation that turned out to be a great situation.
Why Did You Immigrate To Canada?
It came to the point where we couldn’t vote and there were certain jobs we couldn’t do. The big kicker was they downgraded the education system, which was part of a plan; the government thought that if they kept everyone “dumb” they would solve political problems and be able to maintain power forever. My wife and I thought it wasn’t fair for our three kids to grow up this way – they were all under seven at the time.
My family was already living in Winnipeg, and I went to visit them to see what business like this there was in Canada. I secured a job opportunity in Canada during that visit if I wanted it. When I got home, driving back from the airport I was pulled over by the cops and beaten up for the fact that I went to Canada (they looked at my passport). It was the education system, and incidents such as that, that all added up. We needed to get out.
The immigration process took forever. I sold my business in South Africa to a couple of guys working for me. Eventually, I got to Canada and started working in Winnipeg around 1982.
How Did You End Up Starting Diesel Services Group In Saskatoon?
The economy was terrible at the time – remember, interest rates were 18%. During the time since I had first met the owners and finally immigrated, the company had laid off a whole bunch of people. It was a unionized shop and the owner basically said, “I hate to tell you this, but you are going to have to wait until everyone is rehired, unless you want to go to a place called Saskatoon. My response: “Where’s that?” I really didn’t have much choice.
I worked for them for about a year at the branch in Saskatoon, but it wasn’t going well. One of the sales guys said he was leaving to start his own business and we made the decision to go together. It worked out well.
What Makes Your Business Different?
We realize we have a small market. Bad news gets around quickly. Customer retention is very big. Since the 1990s our industry has opened up with the internet. Anyone could find what we have anywhere. What we worked on and what sustained us is the way we treat people. We know in this kind of business there are always things that are going to go wrong. It’s how we deal with it. I always say to my team there is never “no.” We look after the customer experience – that’s the only differentiator we have.
How Has Coaching Soccer Across Canada And Around The World Contributed To The Success Of Your Business?
I love coaching and I’ve learned a lot from coaching about leadership. So many things cross over and can be transplanted from the business world to the soccer world and vice versa: Understanding how to get the most out of people. Watching kids develop and seeing how they react to adversity. You see traits in different people and you think they’ll never have a chance of being a decent player and all of a sudden, they develop into something. Never underrate them. Never deselect them too soon because every kid has a gift; they just open them at different times.
There are two kinds of successful leaders – some get things done by pitting people against each other and forcing things through. Others lead through working harmoniously together. I tend to get people to work together.
First published in the December 2018 edition of The Business Advisor.