Cymax CEO Rizwan Somji leaves it all on the table
The Burnaby-based executive leads the furniture e-tailer into the future with lessons from his past.
In the fall of 1991, 14-year-old Rizwan Somji and his family found themselves swept up in the chaos and corruption that was the hallmark of General Mobutu Sese Seko’s authoritarian reign of terror in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).
Born in England to a British mother and a Tanzanian father, Somji was living in the Congo where his father had moved the family to Kinshasa to run a trucking business with his brother. Their lives changed forever in one night when soldiers, reacting to Mobutu’s refusal to enact a long-requested pay raise, took to the streets. Soldiers stormed and ransacked the city, including the Somji family home, where they rushed in firing automatic weapons into the ceiling. Somji watched as a young soldier held a gun to his father’s head demanding answers about how to start the car they planned to steal.
His father managed to de-escalate the situation and the family was able to flee with nothing more than what they could carry; first to a safe house in Kinshasa, then across the Congo River to Brazzaville, then to Germany and finally to London. The family were technically refugees — foreigners in a foreign land without documentation or passports. Eventually, they made their way to West Vancouver, safety, and a new life.
It’s an episode that Somji hasn’t forgotten, and one that has helped shape the way he operates as CEO of online furniture e-commerce marketplace Cymax Group. Somji and others around him say that he sees the world consisting not of winners and losers, but simply winners; that achieving one’s goals doesn’t need to come at the expense of others.
“I saw firsthand that there is so much desperation, and when desperation kicks in, people are willing to do almost anything, both good and bad,” he says. “I always try to put myself in someone else’s position to understand how they think, to understand how we can all move forward without leaving people behind to take what’s left . . . to create stories where people win, not lose.”
It’s a philosophy that has served Somji well in his emergence as the leader at Burnaby-based Cymax Group — a global online furniture marketplace that competes with the likes of Wayfair and Amazon and does “big and bulky” e-commerce better than anyone else. Cymax also has a shipping and logistics division, Freight Club, that provides its customers with last-mile delivery solutions.
While Cymax is a private operation, a 2020 Globe and Mail article pegged Cymax revenue at more than USD $300 million. Somji wouldn’t disclose current revenue but did say the company has seen 82 percent growth since 2019, with Freight Club more than doubling in revenue year-over-year since its 2018 launch.
Casting a net
Started by founder Arash Fasihi in 2004, Cymax gained traction as primarily an SEO play, establishing product-specific websites like TVstands.com in the early days of e-commerce to meet consumer demand for hard-to-move products like furniture. But in 2011, as Cymax started to scale, Google changed its algorithm, putting a significant hole in the business. The company needed to shift strategy and find an injection of capital. B.C.-based investor Marcus Frind (founder of dating site Plenty of Fish) provided both.
Frind led a USD $25 million round in 2015, and Somji joined the company shortly after as part of the technology and product team before becoming COO in 2016. Frind says he found in Somji somebody who could help him dig deep into the details to set Cymax on the path to consistent, large-scale growth.
“It’s not like the company was broken when I made the first investment,” Frind says. “It had almost $200 million in revenue and was close to breaking even. If you could drive some margin into the business, it becomes a much larger business.”
But Frind says not everyone saw the work that needed to be done at Cymax like Somji did.
“An online marketplace runs on incredibly tight margins and you need someone who understands the consequences to the business of every decision,” Frind continues. “It’s not like a SaaS business where the margins are huge and it doesn’t matter if you lose a couple of hundred basis points here or there. In this business, everything matters, and Riz gets that.”
When the company decided it needed to replace Fasihi’s focus on vision with a more rigorous commitment to execution, the board looked in-house to Somji, who took over as CEO in January 2019.
Death by a thousand cuts
While this is Somji’s first stint as a CEO, he’s no stranger to being in the upper echelons of the organizational chart. He co-founded ResponseTek Networks in 1999 while still a computer science student at UBC, and served as the company’s head of technology. ResponseTek developed one of the world’s first customer experience management solutions, eventually working with Fortune 500 companies and growing to more than 200 people and $20 million in revenue. He left to join Cymax in 2015.
The timing was fruitful for the company, according to Andrew Lugsdin. “What Cymax needed was someone focused on the details and able to optimize how the company was run,” says Lugsdin, a partner at Framework Ventures (the Business Development Bank of Canada has a minority stake in Cymax and Framework manages that investment) and a member of Cymax’s board.
“Riz is a very analytical guy and unlike a lot of CEOs, he knows every little lever of the business and how it runs from one end all the way to the other.”
For his part, Somji points to the complexity of the Cymax business to illustrate the need to have someone at the helm who understands how it all works together. Cymax serves more than 400 vendors in North America with more than 500,000 products across multiple online marketplaces linked to more than 30 transportation carriers in both the US and Canada — all happening in real-time, 24/7, 365 days per year.
“The risk is death by a thousand cuts,” Somji says. “We are moving data and product we don’t own or touch around North America. Because we are moving things in so many places, if you get that wrong, it can chip away at your ability to sustain the business.”
Frind says the impacts of Somji’s focus on the data and execution were felt almost immediately, as the company shed unprofitable pieces of the business while bringing a more singular, disciplined approach to the work. Still, it was Somji’s first time in the CEO’s chair, something Lugsdin says doesn’t immediately come naturally to the 44-year-old.
“Riz isn’t a big ‘rah rah’ guy and if you asked him, he would probably say he saw himself more as a 2IC, more in the background,” he says. “But the more you work with him, the more you see his attention to detail and his focus on building relationships that allows him to lead in a different and really effective way.”
Management consultant, author and business coach David Lapin agrees that Somji leads from a different place, but says that difference is part of his strength.
“Riz is culturally flexible,” says Lapin, who has been working with Somji since 2019. “That allows him to get people, to understand people, and to channel his ambition into ambition for others. It has helped him to step into the leadership space extremely well.” Lapin also believes Somji’s background as an Ismaili Muslim and the model his parents provide of service to others combine to define who he is as a person and as a leader. Somji agrees.
“From both my mother and father, it was always go and support in service to others and the community,” Somji says. “I was told you give and you get . . . and [as a result] I don’t need personal gratification. I don’t need reciprocation when I do things. For me, it’s always about giving back. I do things because it’s the right thing to do, and if all I get at the end is a story to tell of someone else’s success, that’s enough.”
Celebrating other people’s success and building win-win relationships is not only important to Somji as a person, but also core to the business at Cymax. The Wayfairs, Amazons, Overstocks and others focus on the end consumer (putting vendors under extreme pressure in the race to the bottom and the lowest price possible), whereas Cymax takes a “vendor-first” approach — helping them make sense of how to market, sell and deliver their products to their customers better, simplifying what can be a very daunting process.
“We’re like the knights in shining armour for the vendors. We win when they win,” Somji says. Cymax’s tools allow furniture manufacturers to focus on what they do best: design, manufacture and market their products. Cymax, in turn, does the heavy lifting when it comes to making sure those products are visible, listed and promoted on the more than a dozen leading online marketplaces and two Cymax-branded websites (HomeSquare.com and Cymax.com) where the end consumer does their furniture shopping. Because Cymax lives and breathes their vendors’ data, they can go so far as suggesting new products and identify white space to vendors they may not have considered based on what’s selling or on trend.
“The data helps at every step of the way and that allows us to be a true partner in our vendors’ success,” Somji says. “That excites all of us.”
Take the punches
There’s perhaps no better example of Somji’s effectiveness as a leader than Byron Thom. Thom, a former principal with Framework Ventures, was involved with Cymax as an investor but recently left the former to join the latter, first as senior director of strategy and advisor to the CEO, and now vice president of corporate development and strategy. Why the move?
“While working as a VC and an investor, I met and spoke with hundreds if not thousands of CEOs,” Thom says. “Through my relationship with Cymax at Framework, I saw that Riz was always very receptive to discussion and debate and ideas, and had the technical chops to take those ideas and turn them into some type of action. That gave me confidence in his ability to seize the opportunity in front of us and it was something I thought I would work well with.”
Thom joined Cymax 10 months ago, when the pandemic was pumping oxygen into the Cymax business like never before, while at the same time sending the team scrambling as they managed the new world of remote work. Thom says one benefit has been that in early COVID, he and Somji and their EA have often been the only people in the office, and it has given him intimate access and exposure to how Somji operates.
“There have been incredible challenges in the furniture world and with the supply chain in the last year in the e-commerce world,” Thom says. “It’s been really impressive, watching him take the punches as they come and using our data and technology to come to our vendors with solutions, because it’s been really hard for them to manage what’s coming at them.”
Thom says it’s that latter bit, the ability to relate to Cymax’s vendors in an authentic way, that is key to Somji’s success.
“He is able to have down-to-earth conversations with vendors day-to-day, to show empathy for the struggles they are having and work with them and partner with them to come up with solutions that can be win-win for everybody.”
Somji’s commitment to helping others grow and thrive reach beyond his role with Cymax. Sport has been a big part of his life since his earliest childhood memories growing up in the Congo—“soccer, badminton, floor hockey, tennis. You name it, we played it. It’s all we did,” he says. For the past 20 years he has been a player, volunteer coach and builder of the Burnaby-based Shaheen Football Club. He was introduced to the club by his wife’s brother while in university and Somji has been helping ever since.
While he loves soccer and loves the competition, his interests in the club are bigger than what happens on the field. The club has been a magnet for new Canadians landing in the Vancouver area, a place where people find community and support as they make a new life in a strange place. Somji says the soccer club becomes their network, and he and others help new club members find jobs, places to live, apply to universities and more.
“It’s such a great feeling to see what we are able to do beyond soccer,” Somji says. “To see how young teenagers who joined our club many years ago as young immigrants now with families of their own and successfully integrated into the community, who in turn continue to give back. Their stories of triumph are chapters in my story and that is so rewarding.”
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