Simon Southwell is a successful businessman. He can rhyme off the financials related to his growing enterprise like a pro; his dynamic sales pitch has wowed judges and got him inside the corridors of power. And he’s just 12 years old. “I guess you could say I’m on the ball,” Simon, who has autism, says with a smile. Three years ago, the Beaverton boy decided to grow pumpkins – not the ones you carve and put outside your front door at Halloween. His pumpkins are gigantic, tipping the scales at an average of more than 400 pounds; last year, he nurtured a gigantic gourd that swelled to 933 pounds. “That one won second place at the Bracebridge Fall Fair,” said Simon. “One of my goals is to grow one that weighs more than 1,000 pounds.” But his primary goal is to ensure his business, Simon’s Display and Specialty Pumpkins, turns a profit. Last year, he earned $2,000 and this year, despite a poor summer growing season, he is on track for another profit-making year. The enterprising youth sells his massive pumpkins, primarily, to grocery stores that use them as eye-popping props that attract attention and spark sales of much smaller pumpkins. “I sell them for 50 cents a pound and, now that the price of gas has gone up, I charge $20 for delivery,” said Simon. “In the States, they sell for $1 a pound, so I thought I could get lots of sales if I just charge 50 cents.” He made his first sale to Fisher’s Your Independent Grocer in Beaverton. Then, he approached the Loblaws in Lindsay, which quickly agreed to a purchase. That deal opened the door to the Loblaws chain; he has since closed deals with many other stores in the chain including Keswick, Newmarket, Uxbridge, Port Perry, Orillia and Toronto. Despite his youth, he is no stranger to making a pitch. Last year, he participated in an entrepreneurship program at the Brock Youth Centre after officials agreed to let him in even though the competition was for people aged 15 to 29. The program culminated with a Dragon’s Den-style competition. “I was up against teenagers and adults … and I won,” said Simon, who noted the title came with a $1,000 purse. While the entrepreneurship program was helpful, he also worked with the Orillia Area Community Development Corporation to develop a comprehensive business plan for his enterprise; it helped him become successful. “I started the plan at the Brock Youth Centre and the CDC helped me refine it,” says Simon. While Simon runs the business, his mom, Sandy, stands behind him and helps when and where necessary. “The problem Simon has run into is that most programs are not meant for people his age,” said Sandy. “The CDC has been great. Simon did a business start-up seminar with (CDC general manager) Wendy Timpano and she gave us a lot of ideas, especially about marketing, and made some great suggestions … They’ve been very helpful.” One thing Simon has learned is there’s no substitute for hard work. Like many entrepreneurs, he is both CEO and front-line worker. “I am up every morning watering the pumpkins at around 5 or 6 a.m. and then I water them again every night – usually after soccer,” he says. “It takes 120 days for the pumpkin to grow and each pumpkin needs 100 gallons of water a day. And you need a lot of space; it takes 25 by 25 feet for each pumpkin.” Simon uses a former horse paddock on the family’s 13-acre farm as his pumpkin patch. Over the years, he has invested profits into a tablet computer, a rototiller, fertilizer, piping and seven 1,000-litre water storage containers. But it takes more than water, Simon says. “The secret? It’s water, fertilizer, lots of love and genetics,” he said, noting he purchases select seeds from the Howard Dill Seed Company in Nova Scotia. “I also put sand underneath the pumpkin so it doesn’t rot and a blanket on top so it doesn’t get sunburned. I’ve learned a few tricks.” While most of the profits are pumped back into the business, he is also thinking about his future. Working with a financial advisor, he has a registered education savings plan and a retirement plan; he put $500 into each this year. “He looks after the pumpkins, runs the business, figures out the budget, negotiates with stores … he works hard and he gets the rewards,” said Sandy, who home-schools Simon. “School wasn’t a great fit for him; this works out much better and he’s learning so much.” She ensures he still has time to be a kid; he loves playing soccer, fishing and enjoys going to the local Boys and Girls Club. He’s also taken up painting and has sold his work. “I was at Starry Night in Orillia and I did really well,” he said. Sales from the paintings have aided the Boys and Girls Club; proceeds have been used to pay for a birds of prey exhibit and an arts teacher. Mom says she’s proud of her son. “I’m just tickled pink and purple. There’s just the two of us because his dad passed away, so we’re on a pretty fixed income. He wants to go to college and he knows what he wants to take but I know what tuition costs …. This takes the burden off.” Simon hopes to study finances at college. “I’d like to be a teller at a bank. Maybe, if it goes well, I could be a financial planner,” he says. But he doesn’t dwell on the future. “I always hope for the best but expect the worst,” he says with a maturity that belies his age. For now, he’ll continue pursuing his passion for pumpkins. “If you can grow a pumpkin over 1,000 pounds, you can sell the seeds for $20 each,” he says. “I think if the weather was better this summer, I would have had a couple … maybe next year.” For more information about business coaching, professional development or business loans with the CDC, please call us at 705-325-4903 or visit www.orilliacdc.com. The CDC is a federally supported not-for-profit organization, working with community partners to develop and sustain the local economy through:
- Business Financing
- Business Counseling; and
- Community economic development projects.