Entrepreneur of the Year is Matchmaker of Luxury

Joe Poulin started his first business — selling recycled computer disks — at age 11. By 17, working out of his bedroom in his parents’ home in Pincourt, Poulin was designing websites.

When a customer wanted a website to promote a rental property in Barbados, Poulin, who had never travelled beyond Ontario, invested in a plane ticket to Barbados. He spent a week at the villa, soaking up the sun and creating the website. Afterward, Poulin offered to help the customer market the website online. The customer declined. “He didn’t get it,” Poulin said.

That decision may have been bad for the customer — but it was good for Poulin. It inspired him to found Caribbeanway, a web company that connects vacationers with high-end rental properties in the Caribbean, and eventually to add a second brand, Luxury Retreats International, which features properties in such far-flung destinations as South Africa and Thailand. Rather than simply providing listings, both companies match vacationers with luxury properties that have been inspected to ensure their quality.

Rates range from $2,000 a week for a beachfront condominium in Barbados to $60,000 a night to rent Necker Island, Richard Branson’s private island in the British Virgin Islands. That $60,000 price tag includes accommodations, food and beverages for up to 30 people — and a staff of 60 to wait on them.

“As a kid, my aspiration was to make a million dollars. So I did the simple math: A thousand homes at $1,000 a year is a million dollars. Only nobody wanted to give a 17-year-old $1,000 for a newly created website,” said Poulin, now 31.

So Poulin came up with another formula: He charges villa owners a minimum 20 per cent commission on the rental income they collect. Vacationers do not pay for the service.

In 2001, just two years after Poulin’s trip to Barbados, Caribbeanway did its first $1 million in sales. In 2002, Poulin founded Luxury Retreats. Now headquartered in a restored 100-year-old building on the Lachine Canal and staffed by a team of 108 full-time employees in Montreal, the company reached the $100-million sales mark in 2012.

More than half of Poulin’s Montreal team work as villa specialists and concierges. Villa specialists match renters and villas; concierges handle special requests. They arrange for refrigerators to be pre-stocked with goodies, hire chefs and yoga instructors, and have even engaged mariachi bands for private beach concerts.

Recently named a 2012 Quebec Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young, Poulin is self-educated. He dropped out of John Abbott College in his first semester.

“I enrolled there mostly because I wanted to go on a school trip to Venezuela,” he said.

Poulin cultivates a laid-back image: T-shirt, jeans, two-day beard. His intensity emerges when he talks about work and his vision for the future.

“I still work like crazy because I love it,” he said.

Poulin puts in 12- to 16-hour workdays, seldom taking more than one day off a week. He is on the road, or more accurately, in the air, three weeks every month. Air travel gives him time to read. He points to a fat stack of magazines in a corner of his office.

“I read Forbes, Fortune, Businessweek and the Harvard Business Review religiously,” he said.

Several of Poulin’s family members are involved in the business. Older brother Jazz handles public relations, and younger brother James is a network administrator. Poulin’s father, Jacques, runs the company’s on-site restaurant and handles philanthropic projects.

Customers, especially those who travel with a crowd, say the cost of renting a villa through Luxury Retreats is comparable to staying at a high-end all-inclusive resort.

In December, Karen Groom, president of Groom & Associates, a Montreal recruitment firm, booked a villa in St. Martin through Luxury Retreats.

“I would never go back to an all-inclusive. We had our own pool, gardener, and housekeeper. We left knowing we’d be going back,” Groom said.

True to her word, she has already booked another villa in St. Martin for a vacation this April.

Even the downturn in the economy has been good for Luxury Retreats. In the past, people with second and third homes could afford to leave them empty.

“Today, wealthy people want to better leverage their assets to offset their operating costs,” Poulin said.

Poulin points to another trend in the marketplace that has benefited his business — the move to a more asset-free lifestyle.

“For example, wealthy people are chartering a plane as opposed to buying one,” he said.

In 2006, Peter Kern, managing partner at InterMedia Partners, a U.S. media fund, became a minority shareholder in Luxury Retreats. Kern had used the company to plan his vacations. Poulin says he was not after Kern’s capital.

“I wanted to align myself with a very smart individual who could help me to continue to scale the business,” he said.

Last year, iNovia, a venture capital fund, invested $5 million in Luxury Retreats. Poulin plans to use that investment to create marketplace awareness and to continue to build his team. His goal? To do $500 million in annual sales by 2018.

“I’m trying to attract and retain top talent,” Poulin said.

Luxury Retreats currently has 30 positions available.

Employee perks include access to the on-site restaurant, as well as to an on-site gym, and eligibility for the company’s villa stay program, which allows employees to stay free of charge for a week every year in a rental villa.

Chris Arsenault, iNovia’s CEO, said his company aims to back top North American entrepreneurs, and he believes Poulin is one of them.

“This guy is very ambitious and he has the ability to execute. Some entrepreneurs can’t execute on the ambition. He’ll do whatever it takes and he’s smart enough to know it takes a lot,” Arsenault said.