How this entrepreneur risked it all to build a thriving business

5-minute read

Martin Paquette

Martin Paquette is no stranger to starting over. He worked as an educator in a young offenders facility, was a police officer and made his first investments in real estate in his early twenties.

At 30, he started over yet again. He sold his home and everything he had and moved into his parents’ basement to pursue his passion for wellness and nature spas.

Three years later, he opened his first thermal spa, Nordik Spa-Nature, in the picturesque village of Chelsea, Quebec, in the Outaouais region. Now 10 years old, Nordik bills itself as the largest spa in North America, welcoming more than 150,000 customers each year.

A second spa, Thermëa, opened its doors in Winnipeg in 2014, and a third one is scheduled to open near Toronto next year. He and business partner Daniel Gingras now manage 345 employees at Nordik Group and expect much more growth ahead.

Here’s what Martin Paquette had to say:

...on his first job

My parents worked for the government. Entrepreneurial spirit didn’t run in the family. It’s something I developed over time.

I didn’t do very well in school, but I excelled at sports. My dream was to become a professional hockey player.

At 18, I wasn’t drafted into the NHL. I had to find myself something to do, but I didn’t see myself behind a desk.

I was interested in jobs like becoming a police officer or firefighter. But with poor grades in school, it was difficult to get into the police program; instead, I obtained a college diploma in special education.

That’s when I finally began to succeed in school, because I was doing something I loved. My first job was in a young offenders facility.

...on finding his passion

I was making some money, so I bought a four-unit building. I rented out three apartments and lived in the fourth.

While training for the Ottawa marathon, I went to a spa. Within 20 minutes, the sensation of relaxation was similar to how I felt after running for three hours.

I was in heaven. I came home and started thinking about dropping everything and going into health and wellness and opening a spa.

...on starting over from scratch

I sold my house and my four-unit building, and at 30, I completely changed direction. I started over from scratch. I went to live in my parents’ basement.

While I was working on the spa project, I managed construction projects part time to make ends meet. Finally, I bought the land in Chelsea to open Nordik Spa-Nature, my first spa.

Start-ups come with a lot of uncertainty, which is not easy to live with. It took me three years to find funding, obtain municipal approvals and open the spa. People kept telling me that something that took so long would never end up materializing.

...on reaching financial success

I knew it would work. It’s important to keep the faith, to be convincing when you talk to the banks, business partners and clients.

We started out with a $3-million project in Chelsea 10 years ago. This year, our assets will total $33 million. The main objective in creating a business was to be free; it was never about becoming a multimillionaire.

I’ve never paid myself dividends other than the salary I needed to live. Reinvesting our profits into the business has been a key to our success.

...on the challenges of expansion

The biggest challenges come when your business is going well, and you decide to expand. That’s a lot like starting over. You may have a lot of experience, but it’s still a brand-new project.

In 2012, we decided to open a spa in Winnipeg. The location was excellent, as was the clientele.

Unfortunately, winter conditions are very harsh there, and the construction market in Manitoba is different from Quebec. A 12-month project turned into a 24-month one. It was also during this project that we experienced the most cost overruns. We finally opened Thermëa in December 2014.

We learned a lot from this experience—in particular, the importance of working with the right people. Having competent, involved partners is crucial.

...on accomplishing his vision

Nordik Group is taking off in different ways. We buy properties, we develop spas and we’re also working on becoming spa operators for different owners. Now we’re working on a third nature spa in Whitby, outside Toronto, which we plan to open in 2017.

We’re looking into expanding the spa in Winnipeg, probably in the next 24 months. We also want to build hotels in Chelsea and Toronto. Our vision is to create a unique and unforgettable relaxation experience in all our locations.

When a business is growing, it’s impossible to control everything. When you have a good team, you can lighten your load, and you have more time to think about business strategies and attain your objectives. We have a team of highly competent managers.

...on doing what you love

I’m part of a group of business leaders called TEC Canada. There are 14 in my group and we meet once a month. When we have a problem, we can discuss it and ask the others for their opinions. Most of the time, other group members have gone through something similar, and they can give you advice.

Often, when you go into business, you set objectives but forget what’s most important—having fun along the way. I like to break a big project into smaller pieces, then celebrate when we’ve dealt with one of these pieces. At the end of the week, I really enjoy having a beer with my team and saying, “We got a lot done.”

My eight-year-old daughter comes first and my business, second. In raising her, I place a lot more emphasis on developing self-confidence than on academic success. It’s not that I don’t think school is important, but self-confidence is essential.

It took me a lot of time to develop the confidence I needed to go into business. I believed only people who excelled in school were able to start a company. However, as soon as I started doing what I loved, everything fell into place.