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Building a Small Business: Behind the Scenes


Small businesses (1-99 employees) account for 160,000+ companies in Alberta and running one takes far more than a good idea and an indomitable spirit. Three entrepreneurs discuss some of the lesser known ways small businesses are impacting the economy, the workforce and your end product.


The Embroidery Company: Leave a Legacy


We tend to think of small businesses as new or startups, but many have very deep roots, as seen with The Embroidery Company.

It was the 1980s when Celine Uttaro’s parents opened a commercial embroidery business in Kitchener, Ontario. Inspired by their success, Celine and her husband, George Lemire, opened The Embroidery Company in Edmonton in 1995. Today The Embroidery Company provides custom embroidery and garment decoration to the promotional marketing industry, retail, government and military on a wholesale basis.

“We started with a four-head commercial embroidery machine in a 400 sq. ft. space,” says Uttaro of the company that has grown to be one of the largest of its kind in Western Canada. “We established from the start that quality and creativity would be the pillars of the company.”

Uttaro believes their success lies in the passion they have for the creative process, in the ability to produce consistent quality embroidery and in being able to produce items for any venue.

“My background in the family business gave me the skills and knowledge to start our own business with confidence,” she notes. “Over the years, we grew steadily and developed a reputation for quality and attention to detail. To meet demand, we expanded our services to include heat transfers, sublimation, laser etching and manufacturing patches of all types. As the company grew and expanded over the years, so did our dedicated and talented team members. We value and embrace diversity as we each bring our area of expertise to the table to produce the best possible product for our clients.”

There have been many highlights on the journey, including being part of the 2017 Orange Crush campaign during the Oiler’s inaugural season. “Our company embroidered hundreds of hats and they were a sell out as soon as the shelves were replenished,” says Uttaro.

Other highlights include being awarded a contract for the Edmonton 2001 IAAF World Championships in athletics and creating commemorations for Her Majesty The Queen’s Royal Visit to Alberta in 2005 and The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s First Royal visit to Alberta in 2011. They are also proud of eight awards from the Promotional Product Professionals of Canada.

Being in business for 25 years means updating a traditional craft in both process and delivery.

Uttaro explains, “Embroidery is an art and is rooted in traditional processes. Embroidery was first produced on a small scale using a single head, single needle embroidery machine with the hoop being held by hand and a leg lever controlling the width of the stitch. The digitizing process was by hand at a drafting table and programming and output of the design was punched on ticker tape. In the early 1980s, multi-head embroidery equipment came onto the market, which allowed for larger scale production, and embroidery digitizing software was introduced. Despite new automated multi-head equipment, every step of embroidery production is powered by people. Knowledgeable and experienced team members ensure consistent embroidery on every item.”

She continues, “Our biggest challenge is adapting to changing times. The digital world has increased the pace of business and COVID has precipitated businesses to adapt and establish a stronger online presence. As an industry supplier, our company has recently redeveloped our website, which offers many resources and information about our products and services.”

She concludes with advice to upcoming small business owners, “Have a passion for what you do, define why your customers should do business with you, have a clear strategy, work hard and be close to your customers. You start off wearing all the hats but as your business grows and takes on more employees, you need to pass on the vision and trust your team to execute that vision.”


Pretty Little Industries: It Truly Takes a Village


For more than 25 years, Kerry Richmond and Gerry Bleile have run Pretty Little Industries. Richmond’s candles have been featured on Global News and CRFN and she taught a segment on HELP TV. Richmond continued to expand her line into soaps and other products, until COVID hit. Then, the in-person sales, supplying to other businesses, exhibitions and shows slowed down – but her and Bleile’s determination did not.

“We had mulled over the idea of opening a storefront for several years,” says Bleile. “The space we wanted had been vacant for some time, but we could not come to an agreement with the landlord. COVID opened up the opportunity to lease the space, but we knew we still had to pivot.”

Pretty Little Industries was used to supplying other companies with their products but with sales down due to the pandemic and a new store to fill, they reached out to have other small businesses and solo entrepreneurs supply products to them. This is how their store, So Pretty, was born – by supporting other entrepreneurs in the middle of a massive economic downturn.

“So Pretty is a true local story,” confirms Richmond. “With my 30 year history on the circuit, I knew and had business relationships with a lot of people and knew who the public would gravitate towards. The fudge and pretzels we carry come from a family business that have also been around for 30 years. A local chef makes the shortbread. Products are hand curated by us from local companies across Canada.”

Bleile adds, “We pride ourselves on carrying what no other stores have and by promoting the people and the stories behind the brands we showcase. Our aim is to make purchasing here personal. From being greeting when you walk in to when you walk out with your purchase beautifully wrapped, your experience here is unlike any available in a big box store.”

Today Pretty Little Industries and So Pretty are thriving; Richmond and Bleile have launched a family business that supports other businesses across the nation.


Retail Revolt: Challenge Consumer Trends


Michael Curle had worked in the oilsands for 13 years but had a question that kept rolling in the back of his mind. “When I return a new product, what happens to it?” When his career changed and he started working from home, he got bored and that question came to the forefront. He soon discovered that a lot of returned merchandise is available for resale; and that gave him an idea.

Curle quit his job on April 1 to open Retail Revolt, where consumers could find incredible deals on overstocked, returned and refurbished merchandise. For the new entrepreneur, it’s more than being his own boss. He has a chance to impact consumer trends, help shoppers save money and be part of the growing eco-friendly reuse/recycle movement.

“We buy 53 foot trucks every 20-24 days,” explains Curle. We have no idea what is in the truck; we just purchase in bulk. Then we go through each item one by one. I can confirm that 90 per cent of that stock is brand new. After we verify each item, we mark it down between 30-70 per cent. When we put something on special, it is a further 20-40 per cent markdown on top of that.”

Local shoppers are loving the concept and the store sees the same people coming in sometimes two or three times per day. Business is growing fast, so he is pleased to also create jobs by starting to hire employees.

Retail Revolt is a hit but Curle cautions those thinking of going into business, “We found it really challenging to find grants or anything that would allow small business to grow properly. For concepts like this, there are rarely grants available. With the demonstration that you have business potential and your business is growing, having support from local government would be great. For anyone thinking of opening a business, know that you really have to go all in. Do your research. Once you are in, there is no going back!”


What’s Your Vision?

Being an entrepreneur means travelling a different path. Sometimes that path is frustrating and lonely, and it always requires thinking outside of the box and pushing your limits. However, for those that dare in any capacity, the rewards are worth the journey. What’s your vision? How will you change the consumer landscape? If you have been thinking about entrepreneurship, be inspired by those, like our subjects above, that continue to pave the way.