Entrepreneurial Rock Star

Features - Cover Story

Brad Caton desired to be his own boss, but knew he had to blaze his own path to realize success.

August 27, 2021

Brad caton
© snow magazine

Brad Caton wanted to be a rock star. As a little boy, rock gods like KISS’ Gene Simmons and Alice Cooper were living the dream … or at least Brad’s dream. It wasn’t until his late teens that he realized the real rock stars were entrepreneurs who were their own bosses and who paved their own paths.

As a young adult, his professional journey included stints as a chef to running a martial-arts dojo (he’s a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo), but it wasn’t until he started doing sales for a large janitorial firm that his career path became clear. Six months in he realized from his success that he had arrived at a turning point in his life.

“I threw the anchor off the boat and went for my own thing,” Caton says.

Soon after, in 1998 his company Invictus, was born. Invictus would grow into multiple verticals of business and eventually into snow and ice management and landscaping. Caton sold off the janitorial and the landscaping businesses, and in 2017 Invictus became a snow-only company.

Do you see yourself as a risk taker?

I’m a floatplane pilot. So, you tell me how much I like risk.

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Well, how much of a risk taker do you need to be to become a successful entrepreneur?

It’s interesting. You must be a risk taker, no doubt about it. But everyone’s not cut from the same cloth, either. I have peers who are businesspeople who are more calculated risk takers. And then I have friends in business who are much bigger risk takers than I am.

So, yes. You have to be a risk taker, but you also need confidence as an entrepreneur. You have to believe you can succeed based on you and based on putting people together.

People who aren’t entrepreneurs are the ones who aren’t willing to take the risks. They like the stability of working for someone else, and maybe they’ll start something on the side.

There’s a lot of responsibility in being a business owner and you have to be willing to accept that responsibility.

So how do you balance risk with responsibility? Many people looking from the outside in may consider risk and responsibility to be at opposite ends of the spectrum.

The common denominator between the two is reward. So, you take the risk because of the potential reward or the actual reward. Let’s say you’re a start-up company. You want to do this because you believe you can be successful, and you want to be a millionaire. That’s the reward side of it. And part of that equation is responsibility. You’re not going to be successful if you’re not paying your bills or treating your people the right way. You’re definitely not going to be successful if you’re not accountable to providing good service. You’ve got to plan for those things if you want to be a successful entrepreneur. Because that’s the real gut check – are you going to be responsible for all of the people who and are going to be in your life and take leadership there?

And at the end of the day that’s why you get rewarded. And because of that responsibility that people accept that [entrepreneurs/business owners] get rewarded. If you’re paying someone in your employment $200,000 a year to fulfill a high-end role, then they’re counting on you. In that breath, it’s not like you owe them anything after you’ve paid them because it’s all about time and energy for dollars. I’ve always believed that the employer and employee are at zero – they’ve neutralized themselves out – every two weeks. You put the time in, I’ve made the payment and every two weeks we’re at par.

I’ve kept this as my mentality because over the years we’ve had hundreds of people in our employment. The good ones stay and the ones who aren’t know even without you saying anything they’re not going to last. Either they get laid off, they get fired or they leave on their own.

I have to say, firing someone is the hardest part about being an entrepreneur. I’ve often heard it said that business would be perfect if it didn’t involve people.

Describe your leadership philosophy and how it has evolved.

Obviously, you lead by example. That’s always been my philosophy and I believe it really came out of my martial arts training. How do you do it? You show them and you teach them up.

In the business world, as we started the cleaning company, I went from an executive position in a company to cleaning toilets the next week. But it was my own business, and I was willing to do it. And I still clean the toilet at our office. If we have a cleaning day, then I’ve got the bathroom.

That leadership of leading by example is really important. You can’t expect people to do things you’re not willing to do.

I’ve also realized along the way it’s important to work on the business rather than in the business. So, if you’re working in the business – I’m on a machine doing snow – then I don’t have my eyeballs on the entire show. And I’m finite in my abilities to really escalate and expand the business if I’m actually on the tools.

When I finally understood the concept of working “on” my business by stepping back a few feet – the 50,000-foot view – you get to see much more of things. This has been the transition for me, to be working on the business and hiring the right people to do those jobs. That’s the trick. When you hire the right people, the work gets done. And you’ll know when you don’t have the right people because it will feel, well, wrong and you won’t be performing as well as you can.

And education is key, as well. Our involvement with the ASCA, attending the various conferences, hearing what speakers have to say … I’m constantly online taking courses and listening to people. As a leader you’ve got to be a reader and you have to be learning all of the time.

And you need that little bit extra. What’s the difference between ordinary and extraordinary? It’s just the little “extra.” If you’re willing to do that, and you make it a part of your lifestyle, then it becomes easy and you miss it when you’re not doing it.

Now, you don’t need to be perfect at it. Just don’t beat yourself up. Instead, get back up on the horse and start to learn again.

And that’s what separates people quickly. I look around at the entrepreneurs I know and they’re all constant learners. And those who get stuck in the 40-year deal – work and retire – they don’t choose to go and learn.

Who has inspired you?

One of my first inspirations was [motivational speaker] Zig Ziglar. I remember listening to his cassette tapes on sales over and over again.

[Life coach]Tony Robbins, for sure. I got into Tony rather young and listened to all of his stuff, attended seminars, and I walked on fire with Tony Robbins.

In 2011, I heard Peter Diamandis out of Singularity University speak. Peter had the right message for me at the right time. He expanded my dream and really got me singularly focused instead of trying to do a million things.

Mark Moses has been another inspiration. He was very instrumental in defining Invictus and what it was going to be.

I look at these people and I can see the things that I’ve taken from each of them and applied them to my life to make a difference.

Along the way, who’s been a mentor?

I’ve had people who have volunteered their time to me in the past. But the best thing I ever did was hire business coach, Jason Reed. He’s been at my side helping me along the way. And over the course of that relationship, we’ve developed a real friendship and a trust. And he’s been the cheapest business partner I’ve ever had, even though I pay him a lot of money. The way I look at it, it’s nice to have a person who’s vested in your business who you can run things by, but at the end of the day I don’t have to split my profits with him. That relationship [with Jason] has been instrumental.

Many business owners and managers are apprehensive about reaching out for help. How have professional relationships like these helped you in business?

Well, I remember early on when I first started Invictus in 1998 I read a few books on the business but there wasn’t much out there. One of the books I read brought me to a guy on the East Coast. And I remember just randomly picking up the phone and calling this guy. And he was willing to teach me some things, like how to price jobs and such. Over the years, even in the snow business, I’ve been able to reach out to people who aren’t in my market and just talk to them about snowplows, salters, pricing jobs, whatever. I find that entrepreneurs and leaders and guys who are successful, they like to give back. And if you’re willing to ask them you’d be surprised what they’re willing to give you.

And if I have the opportunity to give back and help someone out, I’m going to.

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Tell me about giving back and how you get involved.

I’m on the board of Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) Vancouver. And I’m one of the chairs of the accelerator program. It allows me to work with smaller start-up businesses doing less than a million in sales and are looking to get going. I provide mentorship to those guys. We set up accountability groups for them. I like to give back that way.

We started a non-profit in 2016 called Abundant Providers. We have a farm where our headquarters is located, and we grow food there. Originally, I was growing organic food for myself and my team, but then we ended up with too much food. So, we started donating it to the food bank.

People really liked the idea that we were doing this, so we’d collect donations and put them towards purchasing seeds and labor to continue to grow the farm so we could feed more people.

To date, we’ve done more than 10,000 meals over the last four to five years. Every year the farm gets bigger and the program just keeps growing. That’s my passion.

Do you encourage the people on your team to get involved with Abundant Providers, or to get involved on their own in their communities?

What’s interesting, our employees … there was a time I’d say take an hour and go work on the farm and get paid for it. Some [employees] liked it, but for some it wasn’t their thing. So, I had to separate job from philanthropy and giving back. Now when we hire people, we let them know the opportunity is there to participate, but by no means is there any pressure to do so.

Tell me a little bit about your family.

I’m on my second marriage. I have a daughter and son from my first marriage, and now two grandchildren.

I got married for the second time a few years ago. I met a beautiful lady, Amy, and we really hit it off. Now we’re happily married and enjoying each other’s company in a big way.

What do you want your legacy to be?

We have an exit plan, which we started nearly two years ago. The plan is to scale Invictus and then sell it. And it’s one of the reasons why we decided to expand into Portland and Seattle. Those two [markets] give us more diversity in our portfolio.

I’ve been running Invictus for 23 years – we started in 1998 – and we started doing snow and ice in 2002/2003. I love the business and I love working, but I’m seeing this industry getting tougher and tougher to operate in with insurance, an increase in competition, etc.

[Commercial snow an ice management pioneer and consultant] John Allin put it to me the best once when he said success is now about the ability to get good equipment and to expand your business. So, everyone has a box plow today, while a decade ago not as many [snow professionals] did. So, you don’t have those same competitive advantages today, though if you’ve got the guts to go with some scale and take on some responsibility, then you do separate yourself.

Just take a look at Jason Case [president of Case Snow Management, Attleboro, Mass.]. Jason is an excellent example of this. He’s generational in that, but he’s still moving forward as a hybrid of contracting out as well as outsourcing [with outside service providers].

But in 2025 the goal is to sell off Invictus.

We’re creating an ice-melt product right now. We’re taking our experience with our liquids and we’re manufacturing a product we’re going to put out for the retail market. We know we have a good product because we’ve been using it within our own business for 20 years. The marketplace doesn’t have a lot of liquid products in comparison to granular. So, I believe I will work on scaling that up as a business. I’ll still be in the snow and ice industry, but on the product side.

So, do you still want to be a rock star and live that lifestyle?

[Laughs] I bought some property about 10 years ago up the coast from Vancouver. We’re going to put in a corporate retreat that will also be open for yoga, weddings and other retreats. We’re building space for 20-40 people to come in and utilize this retreat. That’s where I see myself living that kind of lifestyle. It’s my happy place. I love spending time up there on the ocean. It’s where I’m most content.

I love being in business. But given the choice, I wouldn’t be in business.

That’s interesting because entrepreneurs like yourself and successful business people say they love to work.

I think they’re all lying [laughs].