NO RISK, NO REWARD (MILES)

In Business & Technology /

BY AMANDA CUPIDO

Robert Gierkink was never afraid to take risks.

Using a hotel room as an office in Toronto, Gierkink was joined by Sam Duboc and Craig Underwood to start something Canada had never seen before.

They used a Daisy Printer, similar to a typewriter, to print letters to potential business partners. The noise was so loud they were forced to pause every time the phone rang. After eight weeks in the hotel room, they knew they were on to something big.

This program is now known as Air Miles, the loyalty program in Canada where consumers earned points for spending money at certain stores.

“From the very beginning I was intrigued by the idea,” said Gierkink, who graduated from Ryerson business in 1986 and then Harvard in 1991. From there, he was made aware of a business opportunity for Air Miles in Canada.

“We worked very hard to get it off the ground,” he said. “Everyone’s been really happy since then.”

As of 2009, 70 per cent of households in Canada are using Air Miles, said Gierkink.

“It certainly turned out to be successful,” said Gierkink. “Beyond our dreams.”

Growing up on a farm in Souffville Ont., Gierkink knew what he wanted to pursue. “I always had an interest on how business worked,” he said. He chose Ryerson to pursue an undergraduate degree fulltime. “I was challenged by the program,” he said. “But it was tremendously developmental for me.”

Right after graduating he worked as a sales manager for the Yellow Pages Group but started to consider applying for his MBA. Getting accepted into Harvard was a pay-off for Gierkink.

“I worked very hard, long hours and I was rewarded for that.”

After bringing Air Miles to Canada, he went on to do the same in places like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. He had learned that getting a major grocery chain on board was ideal, which was one bit of knowledge that allowed him to bring the idea to other areas. “We knew what we were getting into,” he said.

By 1999, Gierkink was the CEO of Loyalty Management Group, based in the UK. He started the Nectar program from scratch and turned it into the biggest loyalty program in the UK. “It’s nice spending a lot of time and effort building a business,” he said.

In 2000, while still working in the UK, Gierkink received the alumni achievement award from Ryerson. “I wasn’t expecting it at all,” he said. “It was very special.”

After continuing to build Nectar, in 2007 the company sold to Aeroplan, Canada’s premier loyalty marketing company, for $717.5 million.

Gierkink refers to this as the most rewarding moment of his career. Gierkink went on to being the entrepreneur in residence for General Catalyst Partners and is now the CEO and chairman of Data Logix, located in Boston, Massachusetts.

Most recently, on Oct. 29, Gierkink closed a deal with NextAction — the leader in multi-channel marketing, data and analytics — for the company to be rebranded as DataLogix.“It’s very rewarding,” he said.

His advice to students is to find something you love to do and pursue it. “All the successful people I know work really, really hard,” Gierkink said. “But it’s difficult to work really hard at something you don’t love doing.”

Going all in is also a key element. “There are some career-fulfilling accomplishments that come with taking risks.”

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