June 2, 2022Print | PDF
Every student’s academic journey at the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics is unique. From the students in their classes to the clubs and organizations they join to the co-op placements they choose, there is no one-size-fits-all experience.
For Owen Allerton, a 2007 graduate of the Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) program at Wilfrid Laurier University, his journey included two first days of school separated by a break to discover what he truly wanted to get out of pursuing a degree in business.
After graduation, Allerton took a role at Research in Motion (RIM, now known as BlackBerry), where he quickly rose through the ranks as the smartphone pioneer grew. In 2016, BlackBerry sold the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) division of the company, and Allerton found himself leading marketing for a division of an Indonesian-based company.
That was the start of a fast-paced three years of learning and pivoting as the BBM brand went up against major messaging platforms, including WeChat and WhatsApp. In 2019, BBM shut down for good and Allerton took another break—this time as a mentor for startup founders at Laurier’s LaunchPad (now StartUp Lab). Mentoring led to a role at a cannabis tech startup where Allerton discovered a new market for his experience.
Today, Allerton and his wife are the owners of Highland Cannabis in Kitchener, Ontario. The store is currently one of the top 10 stores in Ontario out of over 1,300 licensed Cannabis retailers and was recognized with a first-place win in the Commercial Design category of the 2021 Decorating and Design Competition held by the Decorators & Designers Association of Canada.
We sat down with Allerton to learn more about how his time at the Lazaridis School has helped him in his career.
You took a break from school after your first term—what was the motivation for that?
I started off diving into a double degree—computer science and business. Instead of five credits a term, I took six with courses including physics, computer science, algebra, and calculus. After not doing well on those exams, I decided to drop those courses and finish the first-year business courses. It was a significant decision, but I knew I needed to take a break and figure out what I wanted to get out of my degree.
What did you decide to do while figuring out your next education steps?
Taking a three-year break ended up being a great move as it was where I got my start in wireless. I started at a Rogers Wireless store, and then a friend and I decided to open our wireless dealership. We started with direct mail and ended up with seven stores.
Was it a difficult decision to go back and complete your degree with that success?
I knew that I did not want to be a wireless dealer for the rest of my life. While I was working, I retook a few courses. My marks dramatically improved—the difference was wanting it. The lesson was that motivation is one of the most essential things in success.
You changed your program when you were re-accepted. What was your focus then?
I decided to go back and focus on the BBA program with a concentration in Finance and a minor in Global Studies. I have always been a marketing guy, and marketing people are usually into advertising and branding. I thought it would be a great way to differentiate myself by being a marketing guy that’s good at numbers.
It’s great that you were able to complete your degree. What was your next step after graduation?
It was good timing. Everyone I knew from Rogers had moved over to RIM while finishing up my degree. When I finished, a gentleman named Brad McElroy offered me a chance to work for him on the T-Mobile team [at RIM].
Most product marketing was managed by the carriers that distributed BlackBerry smartphones when you joined BlackBerry. You were part of the transition to creating direct marketing to consumers. What was that experience like?
I started in channel marketing supporting dealers in the United States, which was a natural progression because of my experience as a wireless dealer. I knew the mindset. I understood who our customer was. We built programs to support the dealers who were selling to our customers. I did that for two years and then joined their first product marketing team.
How did you transition from working on smartphone product marketing to the marketing efforts for the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) platform?
There were product marketing teams for each sub-brand—Bold, Curve, and Pearl, which I was responsible for. Pearl was the most consumer-facing one, so when they created the product marketing team for BBM, I was picked to lead that.
How were you able to apply what you learned at Laurier in that role?
At that time, BBM saw tremendous growth in Indonesia, and Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie -- the company’s original CEOs -- wanted to understand that growth. We were involved with some of the ethnographic studies and research that was happening there, and together with the finance team, we were tasked with developing a model to understand why BBM grows the way it does in different places.
We built a model that overlaid Hofstede indices with different population sizes, smartphone penetration, and other data that could forecast BBM growth by market. While it was very accurate, there’s also a whole curve of growth, plateau, and then death with tipping points and network effects. That was an exciting period working on that.
BlackBerry sold the BBM division to an Indonesian company in 2016, and you and the BBM team moved with the sale. What was that experience like?
John Chen, BlackBerry’s CEO, was trying to reconstruct the narrative that BlackBerry is strictly an enterprise company. BBM didn’t fit with the narrative. At that point, we were still growing in Indonesia. Matthew Talbot [BBM CEO] built a business around BBM that had significant revenue that Chen could not ignore, and that’s when BlackBerry struck the deal and sold the business. I was suddenly VP of BBM Marketing.
When you’re young, you’re ambitious; you want to climb, climb, climb. You get so excited about making it to this level. But suddenly, you get to that level, and it is just being yelled at all the time. It was a tough two to three years. There is a 12-hour difference, so my morning kickoff was at 8 p.m. The old-school corporate mentality was ‘you have to suck it up and be tough’. But trying to suck it up and be tough for three years was rough. Then the business started to drop because of the dual juggernauts of Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp; they began to gain more and more traction, and our numbers began to slow and go down.
BBM eventually shut down in 2019. What was your next step?
I wanted some time to recuperate, but I also wanted to stay busy. I’ve always stayed connected with the Laurier community and knew a lot was happening there with entrepreneurship and student innovation.
Every year while I was working at BlackBerry, I’d go back and judge New Venture and PepsiCo Pitch competitions, so I reached out to the team at Laurier Launchpad [now StartUp Lab] and asked if they needed mentors. I started mentoring and connected with a startup that needed help driving consumer adoption of their platform. They pitched me on a role, and I joined them [after self-selecting out of the mentorship role]. That experience was eye-opening, and I learned a lot about the regulated cannabis industry there.
That experience led you to your current business. How did that come about?
Originally, licenses for [cannabis] stores were not widely available [in Ontario after it became legal to sell cannabis through a provincial lottery system, a program that was discontinued in 2019]. But then the government opened up licensing. It was a critical point in my career. I was either going to go hunt for a corporate role or do something completely different. Going back to my earlier entrepreneurial roots, my wife and I decided to open a store.
Your career has taken you around the world and back again. How did your time at Laurier help?
I found that in the corporate world, I was able to use my learning in multiple ways. You might use a little bit of marketing or finance in one place and then be able to apply those same skills differently on another project.
Launching our store, though, I never imagined I would use so much of what I got in the degree. Every day, it feels like I’m using something from one of the courses. I’m using operations, accounting, stats, marketing, and strategy. So many different aspects of it come into play all the time.
Why would you recommend choosing Laurier and the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics for a prospective student looking for a business career?
The folks that came out of Laurier are some of the most talented people I’ve ever met. I find the caliber of businesspeople coming out of the program is way above average. If you have any desire to be an entrepreneur, build your own business, and operate it yourself—Laurier is the right choice.
Every last minutia of what you need to know is covered in that program. One of the classic things where a business fails is managing capital as you grow because growth drains capital fast. When we started the business, I wasn’t starting from scratch because even though it has been 15 years and a career at BlackBerry later, the spreadsheets, modeling, and forecasting performance are things that I repeatedly did in the BBA program.
The BBA degree plays into all of my success because it’s [like] a multi-tool, and it fully equipped me with the tools I need to understand and tackle whatever business challenges I’ve faced.