Many of the world’s wealthiest people are born with a silver spoon in their mouths, but this was not the case with Shawn Cunix. Born in a lower income family, Shawn knew hardship as a child, but he had something else that money can’t buy—a great entrepreneurial spirit, passion and perseverance.
Though he is now the owner of the Toy Barn in Dublin and one of Columbus’ most successful tycoons, Shawn Cunix had a very different beginning than most people in his position.
He grew up on the east side of Columbus, and his parents divorced when he was only three. For Shawn, money was always scarce and the level of family dysfunction was high. Life was not easy. “We moved in and out of a lot of homes when I was young,“ says Shawn. Eventually, he was able to move into his grandmother’s basement.
But when life gave Shawn lemons, he made lemonade. What did a young entrepreneur do to provide for himself and his family? He sold candy, of course! In the sixth grade he bought Jolly Ranchers hard candy for one cent and sold it for a dime. “On Fridays I’d give the kids a deal—three for a quarter.”
How much can candy change a boy’s life? Sure, sweet treats can bring joy, but for Shawn it was the beginning of his journey in finding happiness through entrepreneurship. “I always had a vision I was going to be something,” he says, reflecting back on his childhood. Shawn continued helping his family with their money problems through high school, holding down three jobs at a time: Herman’s Sporting Goods, Big Bear and Foot Locker.
One of his guilty pleasures has always been shoes. “I love shoes,” he says. “They were a status symbol.” His hard work eventually afforded him the ability to buy a pair of popular Air Jordans. And while shoes may have been the carrot dangling in front of him, the real driving force behind his hard work was embarrassment. He simply didn’t want the other kids to know his family was poor, and he didn’t want to go through the “free lunch line” at school. Due to Shawn’s relentless pursuit of providing for his family, no one had any idea how poor they really were. “No one knew we lost all of those houses,” he remembers.
“Because of my hard work, I was able to go to school with some of the nicest things,“ he says. “At 16, I was able to buy my own car, a 1986 Trans Am.”
Shawn also discovered having nice things didn’t always bring him the happiness he craved, since they usually came with a price. People often accused him of being a drug dealer. It was difficult for those in his neighborhood to understand that it was his unyielding work ethic that gave him the ability to help his family and buy nice things at such an early age. Shawn reflects, “I’m proud to say I’ve never touched drugs. Any of that. Ever.”
His hard-nosed attitude coupled with good grades allowed Shawn to achieve success in college, too. He proudly attended The Ohio State University and worked in the shoe department at Kohl’s to help pay the expenses, never forgetting his hard-working roots.
It was at Ohio State that Shawn met the woman of his dreams. “She is one woman who even today helps me succeed and achieve happiness. I was searching for love; I was praying about it. And meeting my wife was very magical. I fell in love quickly,” says Shawn. He talks about his wife as if it were the first time he’s ever set eyes on her. He says Chris was the answer to his prayers.
The two married only three months after graduating from college, and Shawn got a job immediately with Ross Labs. Their life was a whirlwind. They moved to Cleveland, and there Shawn’s uncompromising work ethic once again paid dividends.
In no time, he became the top salesperson in the country for Ross Labs. He called himself an “over-paid stock boy.” “I had so much product in the stores, the managers were saying, ‘This is ridiculous; we can’t carry every SKU,’” he says. “I love sales; that’s my background!”
He was so good at it that after just a few months, he discovered he could do a 40-hour work week in only 10 hours. “I got bored with it, so I had to find something else to do with my time—either get a second job or find a new one,” Shawn says.
“Someone told me that you could make $100,000 selling cell phones.” Early in his career, Shawn was making about $35,000 and had a company car. That was pretty good for 1996, but a six-figure salary was a pretty amazing goal considering his background.
Shawn decided to quit his job to pursue the challenge, though he was scared about trying something new. However, his determination and passion kicked in, and in his first year, he blew away his goal. He not only made more than $100,000 peddling cell phones, but he also became one of AirTouch Cellular’s (before it became Verizon Wireless) top sales representatives in the whole country.
“It gives me chills, because it was unbelievable. It was my ticket out,” he says with an awed look on his face. “I remember my wife and I were just kids back then. I made $170,000 a year for four years.”
For most people this would have been satisfying enough, but Shawn had another vision, another goal.
He still felt something was missing in his life. He wanted to be able to take care of his family—all of them: his mom, dad, brother, sister and more. He wanted to be able to make enough money not just to be able to provide for everyone, but enough money that he could afford to spend time with his children.
So he quit his job to go out on his own in April of 2001. At first, he sold cell phones from his basement. After six months and after peddling thousands of phones, Shawn saved enough money to open his first Wireless store, a Verizon Wireless dealership in Gahanna.
Over the next several years, Shawn worked countless hours trying to build his business. “I took all of the chances in the world. I saved money; there were risks. I mean who quits a $170,000 job when you come from the ghetto?” he asks.
Shawn’s Wireless business grew from one store to more than 80 stores, making $90 million dollars in revenue. “There was an unbelievable amount of stress and pain. I literally cried myself to sleep once a week for 15 years building the Verizon business,” he says.
Shawn’s dreams came true; his perseverance and passion paid off. He took care of his family, indeed. He bought each family member a home and continues to take care of them financially today.
But in 2015, he had decided it was time to sell the Verizon business. “It’s amazing to reflect on, and I don’t get to do it that often,” he said. “I built the business to take care of my family!”
Shawn’s passion and interests continued to evolve. In 2006 he started a new hobby—poker. The risk-taking entrepreneur found he had a knack for games of chance. He started playing after he and his son were watching a tournament on TV. His son encouraged him to take on the game. “I never got to compete in any sports growing up, and I’ve been hustling my whole life.”
His hobby quickly became quite lucrative. If you Google Shawn’s name, the first thing you’ll read is about his tournament successes. Shawn has won over 2.2 million dollars playing poker across the nation. One tournament win proved to be a defining moment in his life. It happened right after a potentially fatal ATV accident he had with his son. It was Easter Sunday, 2012. The father-son duo were in their backyard traveling up a hill when his son leaned back too far. The ATV flipped, throwing the pair to the ground. Shawn says he let the 900-pound ATV crush him, instead of his son, breaking his collarbone and two ribs. His son told him, “Dad, you saved my life!”
But while on painkillers and still recovering from the accident, Shawn won his next poker tournament. He calls it a defining moment in his life because he was able to go from tragedy to success. Shawn has started a new chapter in life with a new vision. He bought the Toy Barn auto dealership in Dublin last year. He says he wants to build a dealership people can trust, and his financial position in life allows him to do that. “I can be truthful and honest because I don’t need to sell a car to feed my family,” Shawn says.
Along with his burgeoning new business, Shawn has found another calling. He sits on the board of Team Focus, a program that helps mentor young boys who don’t have a father figure. That’s something that hits close to home for Shawn. His father wasn’t in his life much while he was growing up. “I get so much satisfaction being able to help these kids,” he says.
Since childhood, Shawn has always been searching—taking on adversity head on—trying to figure out the true meaning of success.
When asked how he truly defines success, Shawn shared that it is his willingness to give back to others and the powerful relationship he now has found with his own family. It’s the love they share—that’s his true success. “I feel like God said, ’For all of the crap you’ve gone through, this is your gift from Me.’”
Shawn is blessed with a wife and three kids who continue to inspire and give him the love he’s always wanted. Not bad for a Jolly Rancher-, cell phone-, exotic car-selling and card-playing guy.