Nicole Verkindt is passionate about leveraging the talents of entrepreneurs. The founder of OMX (Offset Market Exchange) and the newest Dragon on CBC’s Next Gen Den, she believes in the role of entrepreneurs to grow the economy and help solve global issues. Below, she speaks to her leadership style, and describes the approach that’s taken her so far:
In the ageless debate over whether great leaders are made or born, Nicole Verkindt’s story argues firmly for both sides. When action has been called for, she hasn’t hesitated to jump out in front. Yet when the quieter attributes of planning and strategy were needed, she learned the importance of advisors and mentors.
All of which suggests it may be time to start a new debate. Because Verkindt’s career proves that when the right skills emerge from both within and without, the leadership arc may be unstoppable.
At 32, Verkindt has already compiled a track record of success. Brought up in her family’s textile business, GMA, which produced high-tech military shelters and coverings, she founded her own company to supply lower-cost product to the family firm. She’s also launched an association for Ontario businesses serving military contracts. And in 2012 she founded OMX, a Toronto firm that helps businesses across Canada benefit from military contracts. After a rocky start, she is now expanding OMX into new verticals – mining, energy and infrastructure development – and new markets such as Spain, Brazil and India.
In her spare time, Verkindt has played the role of Dragon on CBC’s Next Gen Den, an online spinoff of Dragons’ Den. While she still identifies more with struggling entrepreneurs than dragons, Verkindt found the experience priceless: “It was a really good experience, being on the other side, asking tough questions,” she says. “It will help me if I’m pitching for money again – and I’m sure there will be a next time.”
For now, however, Verkindt is “all in” on OMX – Offset Market Exchange – and her mission to help small suppliers partner with multinational contractors. Defence may be a traditionally male-dominated sector, but Verkindt grew up in that world. Her parents’ company, Guelph, Ont.-based GMA, produced a high-tech camouflage netting system used to shelter tanks and other military equipment from prying eyes.
But GMA struggled to contain costs while increasing production. Verkindt helped out by opening her own manufacturing firm, Tiburon, in the Dominican Republic, to produce components for GMA products. After two years, she was just starting to sell to other markets when her parents learned the U.S. Army had “overbought” GMA’s products. As its sales plunged 60%, Verkindt joined that firm, first as director of sales, then as CEO.
While at GMA, Verkindt realized small businesses needed more help to land military contracts. She launched the Southern Ontario Defence Association to help suppliers meet and learn from each other. It now has more than 70 members. Before long, Verkindt was advising on the development of a new federal Defence Procurement Strategy to promote Canadian manufacturing, innovation and job creation.
In 2011, Verkindt oversaw the sale of GMA to a private-equity firm. Two months after leaving GMA, she launched OMX, a digital platform to help small suppliers better manage military and government procurement. “The wheels got turning,” she says. “I had this rich understanding of government procurement, and I thought we could innovate in this sector.”
Verkindt founded OMX to bring to light niche opportunities under federal “offset” requirements – the tradeoffs through which Ottawa requires multinational military suppliers to buy from local businesses and suppliers. The new company started with an investment by Verkindt, government grants, and $130,000 from Toronto investor Rob Segal, a digital marketer who could supply the web knowhow Verkindt needed.
While Verkindt went on to raise another $1 million in investment, she admits the startup was rocky. Big contractors have long buying cycles. For eight months, a countdown timer on Verkindt’s whiteboard showed the company just five weeks from bankruptcy. But she built trust by creating an advisory board of industry experts who helped shape the exchange’s evolution. This early collaboration with key stakeholders ensured OMX’s success, says Verkindt: “They felt that it was their platform, not ours.”
Prior to OMX, there was no central registry where suppliers could learn about offset contracts, or where big contractors could identify potential partners. Today OMX’s subscriber list includes 80% of the big global heavyweights, such as Boeing, Lockheed and British Aerospace, and 40,000 smaller firms selling everything from machine-shop services to insurance, packaging and circuit boards. “There’s always been the perception that contracts were awarded through some kind of dark-room deals,” says Verkindt. “Now it’s more open-source. And that’s really important when you’re trying to get more regional input.”
Verkindt always felt her selling skills could power her through any problem. But she had an epiphany after landing a $12,000 loan from startup lender Futurpreneur. The package included monthly mentoring sessions that Verkindt tried to wriggle out of. “My leadership style is, I just execute. I don’t spend a lot of time strategizing.” But Futurpreneur insisted, so Verkindt finally gave in. “It ended up being the best thing I ever did.”
Verkindt says her meetings with her mentor turned into “therapy sessions.” Life in a startup is hard, she says: “There are things you bottle up inside you that you have to talk about.” Verkindt’s mentor helped her prioritize problems and identify options – and forced her to accomplish the tasks she set after every session. “He got me out of my ‘execution’ bent, and gave me practical, achievable things I could work on,” she says. “It’s nice to be accountable to someone.”
Verkindt says demand from member contractors is driving OMX’s expansion into new sectors and geographic markets. It is also driving her mission: to promote offset-contracting markets for major projects in capital-intensive industries around the world. For instance, she says experience proves that when big mining companies develop new mines, things generally go better when they work with local communities, and not just impose their own ways of doing things. “Having the right community offsets is the cheapest, best and lowest-risk way to build a mine.”
With OMX’s growth and profitability, Verkindt says the company needs no additional investment to become a world leader in offset contracting. Which is good, because it’s not just a business to her. “It’s always felt like a crusade to me,” she says. “I have always wanted to fight for the little guys. The small firms that don’t have big budgets, don’t have lobbyists in government.” From her experience at GMA, she says, “I can relate to that so much.”
For other woman entrepreneurs who want to disrupt their industry, Verkindt offers this advice from a decade of rocking the boat: “Don’t think too much about it. Just go for it.” She says many women are held back by lack of confidence, especially when trying to break into industries traditionally considered “male.” “It’s easy to feel extra-conscious because you’re not part of the boys’ club. But if you’re not thinking like everybody else, it’s easier to innovate.”