Toy Story: How a Sarnia woman turned child’s play into an international business

Joyce Keelan, founder and CEO of Great Pretenders, demonstrates a winged dragon heading to a New York trade fair in February. One of the dragons was recently purchased by actor Robert Downey Jr. in the gift shop of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Glenn Ogilvie

George Mathewson

A Point Edward toy company that’s as little known as it is successful is proving Canadian manufacturers can compete against cheap Chinese imports – if it’s done right.

Great Pretenders is a children’s dress-up and costume company with international headquarters in the Mara Trade Centre and a distribution centre in Sarnia.

It has 34 full-time employees and 1,500 retail outlets from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S., and another 150 outlets in Europe.

Though hardly a household name here, Great Pretenders products designed and assembled at the local manufacturing centre are enjoyed by children from Hawaii to Switzerland.

CEO and founder Joyce Keelan said the company has carved out a market in the specialty toy industry by producing a quality product efficiently.

“Energy costs are high, and it is more expensive in Ontario,” she said. “You have to be more efficient, but you can compete.”

Her production team, for example, developed and sold 17,000 little girl outfits and accessories popularized by a recent movie before the competition from China could reach North American shores.

On this day, staff working at the manufacturing centre on Lite Street is preparing exhibits for trade shows in New York and Nuremburg, Germany.

A series of rooms house cutters and sewers, a graphic designer, HR and IT people, and staff to oversee inventory, payroll, warehousing and safety testing.

Keelan herself is a remarkable story.

Growing up in Sarnia, the daughter of a furniture storeowner, she attended Queen’s University and graduated in 1979 as a mechanical engineer – one of just two women in her class.

She went to work for a large oil company.

“But I soon realized I would never become the president. I was a female and I was a Canadian, and they didn’t promote Canadians,” she said.  “Even if I did everything right I knew I would never be calling the shots.”

She completed an MBA in finance, had a baby, and went to work for car parts giant Magna International after walking up to legendary founder Frank Stronach at a shareholders’ meeting and introducing herself.

But one day in the late ‘80s Keelan was shopping at a well-known Toronto toy store, only to be disappointed by the dearth of fun and imaginative toys on display.

So, she went home and made a pair of puppets for two-year-old Kate that featured interchangeable pieces, like a soft Mr. Potato Head.

The puppets proved so popular she set up a home-based business, produced 5,000 units to start, and founded Creative Education of Canada, Inc.

The puppets won five international awards.

In 1990, Keelan moved back home to Sarnia with three small children in tow. She was at a personal crossroads – work as an engineer, or devote herself to business.

She went to an auction and bought four sewing machines.

“I thought, Sarnia is a good place to do this. It’s close to the border, inexpensive and easy to raise a family in. The pace of life is slower here, and I really like that.”

The brand, Great Pretenders, started to really take off a decade ago when Keelan, her children now grown, could apply herself fully. Today the inventory lists 780 unique items and the plan is to launch another 78 this year – dresses, capes, superhero outfits, wigs and birthday party items.

Keelan said she’s not done yet.

“This is what I was meant to do. I don’t think I would have made it in the corporate world,” she said.

“It would be nice to have our brand more globally recognized. That is our goal now, and I think we’ll get there.”

Seamstress Maria Moniz stitches a costume on the line at Great Pretenders manufacturing centre in Point Edward. Glenn Ogilvie

Seamstress Maria Moniz stitches a costume on the line at Great Pretenders manufacturing centre in Point Edward.
Glenn Ogilvie

 

Karen Folk cuts patterns for 20 layers of material used to make girls costume dresses at the Point Edward manufacturing Centre. Glenn Ogilvie

Karen Folk cuts patterns for 20 layers of material used to make girls costume dresses at the Point Edward manufacturing Centre.
Glenn Ogilvie

 

An assorted sampling of costumes hanging in Joyce Keelan's Great Pretenders office. Glenn Ogilvie

An assorted sampling of costumes hanging in Joyce Keelan’s Great Pretenders office.
Glenn Ogilvie