emory-wire

From Pokemon Play to Millionaire CEO

26-year-old Belnick 09B runs $72 million retail business.

By Michelle Valigursky
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While most boys his age dreamed of afternoon baseball games and video battles, Sean Belnick 09B nurtured a business vision. He began mowing lawns and selling his Pokemon cards on eBay. At 14, a big idea and a $500 investment launched his international company now worth more than $72 million. Take note: this native Atlantan just turned 26.

So exactly how does a young man attain global recognition and escalate his fortunes and expertise in such a short time span? “Hard work, flexibility, and perseverance,” Belnick says from his office at BizChair.com’s 70-acre headquarters in Canton, Georgia. The company now maintains almost one million square feet of operating space in Canton, Georgia and Reno, Nevada.

As a pre-teen, Belnick paid curious attention to his stepfather Gary Glazer’s business as a manufacturer’s representative for office furniture. Belnick realized that most customers had no need for face-to-face interaction. So, he tapped into the rising power of the Internet, taught himself HTML programming, and built a website to sell office chairs directly to consumers. With a $500 initial investment, “I launched my business the summer before I started high school.” Age, it seems, was never a barrier, and with a trusted advisor in his supportive family, Belnick thought “worst case, I’d lose $500 if I failed.”

To the contrary, Belnick enjoyed an exponential rise in his venture’s success. “A lot of pieces fell into place for me,” he reflects. By cutting out the middleman in the furniture buying process, BizChair.com met consumer need for a direct from the manufacturer source of mid-price office chairs. With Glazer lending credibility and advice, Belnick started BizChair.com right after the dot com bubble burst. ”People couldn’t afford to waste money, and we offered a cost-effective solution. It was the perfect storm of timing and opportunity.”  

A millionaire by the age of 16, Belnick credits the partnership between him and his stepfather as being a great match. Glazer is the company’s president. “He brought his wholesale knowledge, while I brought fresh ideas for implementation,” Belnick says. Now, Glazer handles day-to-day operations at BizChair.com as Belnick leads corporate growth and innovation with operations domestically and in China. The company is also recognized for its environmentally conscious practices.

From Emory classrooms to executive boardrooms

Most college students accept the challenge of a competitive education understanding they will invest blood, sweat, and maybe a few tears before earning their coveted diploma. Belnick pursued his Bachelor of Business degree from Goizueta Business School while simultaneously growing his company from $11 million to almost $44 million in revenue. 

With a passion for marketing at an early age, he recalled reserving Fridays for business meetings, while friends reserved theirs for parties and socializing. “Everything worked out for the best,” he says. “I’d come to the business headquarters when I was needed, but I definitely had a fantastic college experience.” Though this Alpha Tau Omega fraternity brother initially wanted to attend college out of state, “In hindsight, I made the perfect decision to come to Emory.”

In 2009, Belnick graduated and began to devote full time to the business that was growing by double digit percentages every year. By 2011, this CEO had been profiled by INC, US News and World Report, CNN, Entrepreneur, and other major news outlets. INC Magazine named him one of the “30 under 30” rising stars of the corporate world. When Entrepreneur came to BizChair, he handled the photo shoot with laid-back grace. When the magazine arrived, he was genuinely surprised he’d made the cover. With humility, Belnick responds. “I’m always amazed at how interested people are in my story. I’m not that different than anyone else.”

Going undercover with “Secret Millionaire”

The phone rang at work one day and Belnick found himself being pre-screened for the “Secret Millionaire” show on ABC television. A chain of events was set in motion that would forever change Belnick’s life. 

In September 2011, ten years after our nation’s most visible terrorist attack, Belnick traveled to New York City to go undercover as a secret millionaire. “They gave me a journal and took away my cell phone,” he recalls. “I was completely detached from the world.”

What followed was an undercover mission to seek out deserving individuals in underfunded charitable organizations. From his “home base” of a single room in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Belnick’s discovery led him to incredible interactions with Friends of Firefighters and Children of Promise. “I wrote 200 pages in my journal, and we filmed 180 hours that week for a one-hour show.” The end result was far more impactful than the show’s initial intent of philanthropic giving. Belnick has returned to New York several times to nurture the friendships he forged because of the show.

Belnick’s philanthropic nature runs deep. “Small changes can lead to big differences and leave a lasting mark on people,” he said. “It’s not just about the money at the end. It’s about making connections with the people, spending time on the ground with the organizations, and making the change. It’s a very rewarding experience seeing that first hand.”

To learn more about Belnick’s insight and enjoy images from his travels, read his personal blog at www.seanbelnick.com.