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ZAG founder not your typical CEO

ZAG founder Steve Curtis - raised in Burnaby from the age of seven - did not take the typical path to the top. His company is a diverse conglomerate of many businesses, ranging from health products to marketing, and represents Curtis's many facets.

ZAG founder Steve Curtis - raised in Burnaby from the age of seven - did not take the typical path to the top.

His company is a diverse conglomerate of many businesses, ranging from health products to marketing, and represents Curtis's many facets.

While other CEOs usually credit a strong educational background and decades of hard work for their success, Curtis dropped out of Burnaby South Secondary at the end of Grade 9.

He credits his mentors for his success in business.

Remembering his time at Brantford Elementary in South Burnaby, Curtis says school was never a good fit for him.

"In elementary school I was, I think, the chief trouble maker," he says. "I spent a lot of time in the hallway.

"Very energetic is an understatement," Curtis says of himself as a child, adding that many of his former teachers probably remember him as "the bane of their existence."

Curtis could solve math equations quickly in his head, he says, leading his teachers to believe he was cheating.

In high school, he loved sports and learning - but instead of learning in the classroom he would skip to go to the library, or out to the University of British Columbia and sneak into classes there, he says.

He dropped out after being suspended for skipping.

Curtis' mother, who was raising him on her own, was upset by the decision, Curtis says.

While he says that decision eventually worked for him, he now volunteers with an organization called Take a Hike, which provides adventure-based learning, counselling, academics and community involvement for at-risk youth.

"I was one of these kids that caused a lot of mischief and had a lot of issues with authority, and my mom couldn't really help," Curtis says. "This program helps those kinds of kids stay in school and get through to Grade 12."

After school, Curtis worked as a travelling salesman for a Burnaby company called Table Charm, selling dish sets and cutlery at fairs.

"I was this 14-year-old kid who joined a sales team of maybe six or seven people that were between the ages of 30 and 60," he says. "I learned a lot quick."

Next, Curtis tried out auto sales in Burnaby but was fired after two weeks; however, his boss introduced him to Accurate Effective Bailiffs, which sells repossessed vehicles in New Westminster.

He worked under sales manager Marvin Bowman, who taught him to be a better salesman, he says.

"It took me about a month to sell anything," Curtis says, but adds that within three months of being the first one in and the last one out, he was the top selling salesperson out of six people.

Bowman helped him with "mental gymnastics," which included everything from reading sales books to reciting the alphabet forwards and backwards, Curtis says.

Bowman left the company, and then contacted Curtis about a dotcom banner advertising business opportunity, so Curtis switched careers at the age of 17.

He was as driven as ever, he says, but had his pay cut and left the company at 18.

At 19, he started his own online marketing company, Simply Marketing. Curtis contacted marketing executives for major companies such as Pitney Bowes first thing in the morning and sold them on marketing techniques like search engine optimization, he says.

The conglomerate - now called ZAG Group Inc. - has expanded into other areas over the years, from importing absinthe from the Czech Republic, to marketing hip hop clothing, to creating anti-stress beverages, and herbal and natural pharmaceutical remedies.

The more health-based focus came about after Curtis was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma when he was 25.

When he started his business, he says, he lived a very stressful lifestyle, not trusting anyone, working long hours and drinking too much.

When he was 21, the company had about 20 employees and $2 million in revenue, according to Curtis. "But nobody was happy, and turnover was really high," he adds.

"I was 25, and I started to get really sore stomach (aches), that was the first thing," he says. "I started to get spontaneous itches, all over my body itches."

Next he saw a little spot on his skin. "There was no treatment for it, and the prognosis was 24 months," he says of his diagnosis. "I was like, oh wow, I really screwed this one up."

So he decided to go a different route and changed his entire lifestyle.

"I just said, 'Everything I was got me here, and there are some successful parts, but there's a whole bunch that made me sick, so I'm going to change who I am,' and started a process of reinventing," Curtis says.

Inspire Health, an integrative cancer centre in Vancouver, helped him with the lifestyle shift - adding green vegetables to his diet, suggesting exercise, introducing him to meditation and suggesting he resolve issues with his mother.

Today he's a vegan, exercises every day, has cut his work hours, takes vacations and quit drinking, says Curtis, who now lives in Gastown.

He also used an obituary writing exercise to determine what kind of legacy he wants to leave, he says.

"I wrote the obituary as what I wanted it to say and said, 'Wow, I've got a lot to do,'" Curtis adds.

It has been six years since Curtis was diagnosed with lymphoma, and he is a much happier person today, he adds.

He gives back to the community through Take a Hike and other initiatives, and he has incorporated giving as a major aspect of his business. He and his employees feel much more fulfilled by their work, he says.

"You've got to see it as a gift," he says of his diagnosis. "For me the gift at 25 was to be confronted with legacy. What do we want to leave behind?"

"Do I want (people) to say I'm this drive hard, doesn't care about anybody, doesn't trust anybody alcoholic who needs to take pills to get to sleep and is always angry, and he was terrible to date, and I hated him?" he says laughing, adding, "No. That's not what I want them to say."

"Do I want them to say, 'He was an inspiring, amazing leader who was always happy and brought joy to people's lives and inspired them to accomplish things they thought they never could, and built amazing companies around the world that made the world a better place'?" he says. "Yeah."