The Mentor

Story by Mario Toneguzzi


Photos by Kristy Reimer

For the past three years, aspiring entrepreneurs in Airdrie have been given a boost from a unique training program that utilizes the skills and experience of successful mentors like retired businessman Sid Van der Meer.

The former owner of Northwest Equipment Ltd. has been a key part of the SMARTstart entrepreneurial training program since it began in 2014. The program is the brainchild of three organizations: Community Futures Centre West; Airdrie Chamber of Commerce; and Airdrie Economic Development.

“I was a streetfighter. A Grade 12 graduate. Had to learn on the street. I learned everything I know about business from other mentors, from attending courses, from trial and error and it was a lot of it we had to go through,” says Van der Meer, adding he learned from many people along his entrepreneurial journey.

“Going through the ups and downs in Alberta, we learned a lot as we went along.”

Since 2014, Van der Meer has been a mentor to seven aspiring entrepreneurs.

“It’s been interesting going through the process with them. To be a mentor initially I thought great, I’ll work with these people, give them the guidance and help them learn things I had to learn the hard way and help them out,” says Van der Meer. “But I had to learn that the SMARTstart program was there to give guidance but we’re not there to give them answers. They have to make their own choices.”

He says a key piece of advice he gives to entrepreneurs is that they understand their product, their service and their marketplace very well.

“And also understand that they need to really grasp the financial aspect of running a business. That was a hard lesson for me,” says Van der Meer. “That’s quite often the hard part for most entrepreneurs to get their head around. They have a great idea. They want to get out there and get going but they don’t put all the pieces together to understand how to keep track through business.

“So it’s helping them put together a vision, a business plan, and also understanding the financial, and all the legal, all the government, part of it. Dealing with employees. Dealing with the banks and lending facilities. Those types of things.”

The 60-year-old Van der Meer was born in Calgary and graduated from Dr. E.P. Scarlett High School. He moved to Airdrie in 1978.

In 1979, he was offered a position selling air compressors. He eventually became a partner in Brittania Compressor Ltd. and then the company bought two competitors. The company was sold in 1997 but Van der Meer remained with the new ownership until January 1999.

He started Northwest Equipment Ltd. in 2000 and sold it in September 2014.

Van der Meer still has a holding company, NWEL Holding Ltd., which owns an industrial building in Airdrie.

“We feel so blessed to have Sid part of the SMARTstart program. We joke that Sid ‘came out of the woodwork.’ He contacted us out of the blue in 2013 when he saw an ad in the paper that we were looking for mentors,” says Sara Chamberlain, member of the SMARTstart program organizing committee.

“He was heading into retirement from business and wanted to give back.… Sid has far exceeded our expectations as a SMARTstart mentor. Every entrepreneur who has been paired with Sid absolutely loves him. He exudes optimism and confidence and it’s infectious. When you’re around Sid, you can’t help but feel excited about your business and what the future holds.”

Margo Drever, of Cumberland Accounting & Bookkeeping Consulting Ltd., has had an ongoing relationship with Van der Meer through SMARTstart, beginning earlier this year.

“He’s been fabulous. A great support. Great ideas. Input when you need it and he’s only a phone call away,” says Drever. “I can’t say enough about him…. The program has been great. He has left the door open that anytime I need to talk to him I can call him.”

What’s the biggest thing she’s learned from Van der Meer?  “That you can do it if you’re surrounded by the right kind of people. The support is the main thing,” says Drever. “You can’t put a dollar value on the knowledge he has shared.”