Bringing imagination to the world

As Exporter of the Year, Joyce Keelan and her ‘Great Pretenders’ brand are definitely moving the needle

The history of business is full of stories, such as the time when Reid Hastings is said to have misplaced a copy of the movie Apollo 13, which according to one telling (there have been others), led to the founding of Netflix.

Hastings, as the story goes, had been so upset by the $40 he was charged with that he built “no late fees” into his business plan.

For Joyce Keelan, a Sarnia native who had returned from Toronto after experiencing a fair amount of gender bias in her early career has a story of her own that directly lead to her founding of Creative Education (also known as Great Pretenders), recently named Exporter of the Year at the recent Sarnia Lambton Chamber of Commerce Outstanding Business Achievement Awards event, held in October.

Her story came at a challenging time for Keelan, who grew up in a family perhaps best known for its furniture and appliance business that later added audio and video among its offerings.

But Joyce Keelan, who was good at math and might have chosen medicine had she not recoiled at the sight of blood, went to Queen’s University where she earned a degree in mechanical engineering then joined Gulf Oil at its Clarkson refinery (a sprawling facility that eventually morphed into Petro-Canada after several acquisitions).

Gulf actually offered to send her to York University, where she earned an MBA with a focus on finance and administration.

But having taken a leave of absence from the oil company, Keelan, having looked hard at the culture she’d experienced, came to the conclusion that it was a place where her prospects were limited.

That’s when she connected to Magna, a Canadian auto parts firm then in its early stages. Keelan, in fact, sought a personal connection by attending a shareholder meeting and met founder Frank Stronach and made a pitch for having “someone like me” on a team that was bereft of women executives.

And while Stronach did hire her, that didn’t mean she would be welcomed with anything near open arms.

“It was where I ran into very serious gender discrimination,” Keelan recalls now. Essentially, she was employed but with nothing to do.

“I was married and had a child and we had a mortgage and we needed my income. So I couldn’t just quit my job. So eventually I just stopped going to work.”

Keelan made it clear that she wanted to continue to work.

“I said, ‘when you’ve got a job for me to do, I’m happy to come in. But I’m not going to come in and stare at a wall.”

Eventually, with Labour Day having passed and nothing happening, Keelan eventually made the decision that she would quit. Having already negotiated a bonus in her contract, she made the call and said she wanted to terminate her employment, drop off the keys to her company vehicle and pick up her bonus.

Which she did next, which was just a couple of weeks later, was take her two-year-old daughter, Katie, who now lives in Switzerland, to a then-typical toy store, the ones that had a “boys” section and “girls” section.

At this point, Keelan was not in a particularly good mood given the gender bias she’d just experienced.

Faced with what today a modern mother would find if not offensive at least rather limiting in terms of offering something that might represent a career choice for a young female, she found nothing but pink Barbie dolls and kitchen sets and ironing boards.

She turned around (to the dismay of her young daughter) and walked out.

“I thought to myself: this is not right,” recalls Keelan. “So I sent home and thought about and I made my daughter a Christmas present.”

Keelan sees the humour in that experience since she never thought of herself as someone who was very crafty.

Nevertheless, she cut out some puppets, very generic sort of gingerbread-style puppets with fabric and Velcro sewed on the back.

“I put braided hair and hand-painted little eyes on vinyl with mouths and mustaches and all these things,” she recalls. “It was like a big old potato head and Katie loved this little toy. Within a few weeks in January, a lot of mothers in the area were calling me saying ‘where did you get that great toy? I really want to buy one.”

That was Joyce Keelan’s “Netflix late fee” moment.

“This is it,” she thought. “This is how I’m going to make my living.”

But first Joyce had to visit her father, who was not very happy that she’d decided to leave the engineering profession.

And she asked him for $5,000 to get her started in this new business that would involve making puppets.

He said no.

“I said to him, that’s okay, we’re still friends but I just thought I’d ask. But you should know that I’m doing this anyhow. I don’t need your approval. And I went home and continued making up these samples.”

That turned out to be 5,000 samples that she had in mind she’d sell and show the Mattels and Colecos of the toy industry what I good idea she had.

That was in 1989 and it wasn’t but a few weeks later that she got a cheque in the mail for the $5,000 from her father. Nothing was said other than Joyce saying thank you.

But today she’ll say her father’s contribution to the enterprise was much more than money.

“My dad taught me how to be financially responsible,” said Keelan. “He taught me how to negotiate with the bank.”

At the time, Joyce was learning—as many women of that day would experience—that banks “really didn’t want to know about women in business.”

So when her father, who had been a co-signer on a bank loan, eventually told her that he thought her bank statements were strong enough that she should be able to get his name removed from the loan document.

Joyce Keelan remains grateful to her father for teaching her some basic financial principles that remain key to the business she and partner Reid Campbell, who came on board in 1989 and took an ownership position in 1997, continue practicing today at Creative Education and Great Pretenders, the brand that appears to be growing at least in stature faster than the original corporate name.

That growth included eventually moving into manufacturing and warehouse space in Point Edward, although there are eventual plans to grow into space in the Sarnia 402 Business Park, assuming they’ll be able to find a buyer for space they bought at the corner of Lite Street and Front.

In the meantime, growth, especially internationally, is what keeps Keelan and Campbell engaged in writing the Great Pretenders story.

And a Canadian government grant to pay $100,000 toward an advanced computer-controlled cutting machine for fabrics, a multi-ply cutter will go a long ways toward helping the company scale its operations.

While about half the company’s work is manufactured outside Canada, that’s a factor that has as much to do with the type of labour that is involved in making various components of the costumes that are at the heart of the business.

Keelan makes a good point when it comes to discussing how a partner like Campbell has changed the business dynamic and not just because they share both life and business.

“At first I didn’t understand how his thinking would change things,” said Keelan. “But now I see that all the things that he’s done for the company—including the fact that he’s much more of a team builder than me and much more strategy focused—have come together nicely.”

Today, the enterprise that was born out of pushback on gender bias has other goals that Keelan and her team hope to achieve over time, one being to make the products they make more environmentally friendly, especially when it comes to packaging.

There may be challenges to that idea, especially when a retailer wants every single item put in an individual polybag, heat-sealed and tagged.

But Keelan is likely to accept the challenge and succeed. Count on it.

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