Mike Wahl is excited, and with good reason. Earlier this month he won the provincial round of the 2011 Student Entrepreneur competition, a national contest presented annually by ACE (Advancing Canadian Entrepreneurship), and next month he’ll be representing the province at a regional level.
Wahl will be up against bakers, internet retailers, and floral designers, all students with CV’s as long as your arm and profit margins to drool at, but he should be able to stand up to the competition. After all, he’s co-owner of Definitions Wellness Safety Services , an international company with 22 employees and clients like Transocean, Husky Energy, and Canship.
To hear Wahl tell it, Definitions started 8 years ago, almost by accident, when he met Mike O’Neil, the second half of the company.
“I met my business partner and we just kind of hit it off. We both had the same view towards what we thought was wrong with fitness and we started a facility and that was it,” He says.
“I moved into his house about four days later, sold my car, started renovating a building, had a lease signed, and we were in … So I changed my entire life within four days, lived in his basement on an air mattress for two years, didn’t draw a salary….it was the real deal, right?”
Definitions started at, and still runs, a boutique gym in St. John’s, but the bulk of the business lies in corporate wellness consulting, mostly in heavy industry. They do health and safety work on oil rigs and ice breakers, places where employees are often away from home and family, surrounded by unlimited food but with limited access to the outdoors.
Somebody who’s a roughneck for twelve hours a day working 21 days straight, they’ve got a huge caloric demand, and they can’t eat rabbit food and carrots and salad and diet food, right?
Wahl’s background (he has a BA in kinesiology and a masters in applied exercise physiology) is in athletic training, and a lot of that applies. “We call the people we work with Industrial athletes,” he says.
“So with my background in sports nutrition I realized that somebody who’s a roughneck for twelve hours a day working 21 days straight, they’ve got a huge caloric demand, and they can’t eat rabbit food and carrots and salad and diet food, right? So we had to try and tweak it, there was nothing to fit that audience. Eat a lot, but eat the right stuff and you’re going to be healthier.”
More recently, they’ve been focusing on the safety angle.
“We went out there [to the rigs] and found that mix of how to deal with people and be respectful of what their limits are for wellness … and then the safety people starting going, ‘wow, we’re getting a lot less injuries, this is pretty good — do you think you can put more of an emphasis on that even?’ And then we turned into a health and safety company.”
Definition’s newest facility is a work simulator, where prospective employees can be screened for health risks. Wahl says that it’s a good way for people in any industry to find their weakness, and try to fix the issue before it becomes a health problem.
“So the employer doesn’t have to worry about somebody maybe being prone to illness or getting worse as they go, they can actually improve … you can’t say someone can’t work for you [because of health related issues] but you can turn around and say, ‘look, you probably need some improvement’ and so that’s… going to be pretty big I think.”
In his blood
Wahl comes from New Brunswick, and a family of entrepreneurs: His grandfather owned a mining business, his mother ran an online real estate firm. He started his first venture, a volleyball camp for 300 kids, when he was 15.
“It’s just in my genes, I suppose,” he shrugs.
And he wears his dedication on his sleeve, or rather, under it. Early on, Wahl and O’Neil got tattoo’s of the definitions logo. He wouldn’t take off his shirt, but that kind of commitment is telling. The whole time he’s been building definitions, he’s also been in school (currently doing a Ph.D in Epidemiology), working 16 hour days more often than not.
At this point, advanced degrees are both a means and an end. The initials after his name lend credibility to Definitions as a brand, and his masters research directly contributed to their product development. Wahl says he’d also consider returning to the Academy as a teacher, later in life, when he has kids.
As easy as it would be to characterize Wahl as married to his business, he isn’t. He has a wife (a Newfoundlander), and hobbies. Art, like entrepreneurialism seems to run in his family; the definitions logo is his design.
It shouldn’t be surprising, but it is; for all of the work, and the focus it’s taken to build the company, Mike Wahl actually seems like a pretty normal, likable guy.
He might be from away, but he seems like a good candidate to represent Newfoundland. At 32, he’s built a successful business, and one that is primarily aimed at increasing the quality of life for commute workers. It almost doesn’t matter if he wins.
“I think I have a chance,” says Wahl, “but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter to me. I get a chance to represent Newfoundland…that’s almost a win itself.”