Anatomy of a Leader: Pino Di Ioia, CEO of BeaverTails

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For more than 37 years, Pino Di Ioia has lived and breathed the BeaverTails brands.

His journey to become the iconic Canadian brand’s owner and CEO began when he took a job in January 1987 at one of the Montreal locations to raise some money for school.

“I was actually working at BeaverTails as a summer job right after high school,” he said.

Image: Pino Di Ioia

Di Ioia was born and raised in Montreal. He went to high school at Loyola then went to McGill University for an undergrad in industrial relations and then an MBA.

“When I finished my undergrad at McGill, I did not think I was going to get into the MBA and on a bit of whim I said to the founder (of BeaverTails), how about I buy your first franchise and that’s literally what happened.”

The journey for Di Ioia began back 37 years ago when he didn’t get a summer job that he wanted at a clothing store in Montreal. 

“So you apply for fast food. You can always get a job in fast food. I was on the student council and the newspaper. They came to place an ad and the guy who was running the ads wasn’t there that day. He was sick. And they said ‘who can take our ad, we want to place an ad for a management position’. I said ‘I guess I can take the information and I actually don’t have a job, I should probably apply’,” recalls Di Ioia of his introduction to the BeaverTails brand.

“I was President of the student council and they wanted people that were leaders or involved. And they said I totally should apply. It was at an amusement park. It was the second year they were there. Small, small beginnings and at the two stores (in the park) we had three employees.

“I remember they would not let me try a BeaverTail. When they first hired me, I had never had a BeaverTail. They were only on the Rideau Canal (in Ottawa) at the time. They said we’re not letting you try it until we’ve given you all of our management training.”

Image: Pino Di Ioia

Di Ioia said the day before opening at the amusement park they let him try the product. 

“It was pretty good. I love dough. I love croissants. I love baguettes. I just love that stuff. For the first two or three years, we were giving away samples. It was really old school, elbow grease. Giving away samples, making people try it. Customer service 101. By the second or third year, I was about to finish my undergrad and I was telling my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and my brother who is now my business partner, my twin, this is weird. People line up. The park opens and they don’t go for the rides. They start coming to our store to line up.”

Di Ioia said for a little stand doing essentially “flat donuts” he sensed there was something more to it. In his two-year MBA, every second project, he laughs, was on BeaverTails. 

“It was like an internship. You’ve got to do a project on a company. No problem. I’ve got the company. And away you go,” he said. “By the end of that, we knew. This is it. Let’s make something of it.”

Di Ioia bought that store at the amusement park which started his entrepreneurial journey. Another store opened later in Old Montreal. In the first  year, police were guiding lineups because they were blocking the streets. 

“At that point we knew, the vibe we were feeling at the amusement park was not coincidence. There’s something here. For the police to have to come, it was wild,” he said.

Di Ioia and his partners eventually grew their stake to about 14-15 stores including a few other concepts like ice cream parlors and Belgian french fry places.

Photo: BeaverTails

In 1998, he and his wife bought the BeaverTails rights in Quebec. In 2001, they were tapped to run the head office. Over a period of time, they started selling off stores as franchises. Today they only have one in old Montreal.

“The company actually had a few guys from the States, two groups, that wanted to buy the company. That fell apart partly because of 9-11. And then from that point the head office in Ottawa collapsed. It imploded. They were geared to build and sell, not to operate and that’s when the founder came and saw my wife, my twin brother and myself and said hey look if you guys could run this that would be great, otherwise we have a bit of a problem,” he said.

“And we were paid $20,000 a year for three of us, wasn’t that long ago, but we had share options and the share options in 2012 give or take was when we exercised the options and then bought the majority of the company.”

BeaverTails Niagara Falls (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

Today, there are just under 200 locations across Canada. It typically opens about 10 new ones a year.

Does he partake every day in a BeaverTail?

“You know (recently) they tried to do milk, chocolate and spicy peanut I think was the flavour. They no longer ask me my opinion. True story, swear to God. They no longer ask me my opinion because I love them all. I am a terrible taste tester,” said Ioia. “When they bring out the samples, I just try them all. I’ll have literally at least one a week and thank God our head office is not by one of the stores. I keep saying we should build an office next to one of the stores but at that point I think I would partake too many.”

As a son of immigrant parents, Di Ioia learned about the importance of perseverance as he grew up. 

“I once read an article that followed a whole bunch of successful people and it wasn’t education and it wasn’t how much money you started off with, the number one lesson and the number one criteria was perseverance or tenacity,” he said. “You’re going to fail constantly. But it’s what you do with that.

“Interestingly my wife and I read a great book, father-daughter psychologists who wrote a book together, one was What Happy People Know and the other one was What Happy Kids Know. They basically say curiosity goes hand in hand with tenacity because if you’re curious, you’ll ask yourself what do I do when life gives me the proverbial lemons? A bit of that is mindset too.

“It’s funny, our neighbour at the office makes heart stents. And they have the same red branding as we do. I said to them, we should have a joint slogan on the main door that says ‘we clog them and you unclog them’,” he laughs. “We don’t make anything that is life saving obviously but we tell a story and during COVID our clients were telling us ‘I had a chance to have a BeaverTail and it was the highlight of my week’. Well that storytelling goes a long way . . . We’re very fortunate in that we sell a warm feeling more than anything else.”

McGill Presentation (Image: Pino Di Ioia)

Like all entrepreneurs and business executives, Di Ioia spends a lot of time at the office and working on the business. To relax, he loves to cook.

“BeaverTails is only dessert,” he laughs. “I love to cook. My wife loves to cook. We teach our kids, we have three young kids we adopted from Korea, and I’m teaching them about Italian cooking. In fact, my daughter at Christmas made homemade gnocchi with my mom.

“We’re all living in craziness. Sometimes we’re just too busy to notice. I was never much of a studious kid. I was never academic. But God bless them (the Jesuits who ran the high school) they instilled in me a curiosity. I read two or three books a month. I must listen to summaries of another 10 or 15 a month. I give presentations at the universities. I’m on the board at my college and my high school. I was on board of my university too. For a non-academic guy I’m surprised how much I’ve been involved in the school system. I think I would have been a teacher if I wasn’t an entrepreneur. I love going back and sharing those books. I can’t teach them about anything except marketing and branding and business. But that is my outlet.

“The real outlet is I’m curious to learn. And as I learn more I like to share that. I guess that’s the essence of teaching.”

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training. Mario was named as a RETHINK Retail Top Retail Expert in 2024.

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