~ As seen in our 50th Anniversary flyer ~
Today Len’s Mill Store is known as the “go-to place” where crafters, quilters, knitters, sewers and everyday bargain hunters can find a vast multitude of supplies amidst an eclectic mix of products. It is not uncommon to head to a Len’s Mill Store to find fabric for a sewing project and end up leaving with garden pots, a pair of socks or some interestingly named hot sauce. You may have wondered how such a unique chain of bargain stores came to be - it all started with a farm boy and a dream. The journey began when Len Menary left his family farm in Markdale Ontario with a mere $10 in his pocket and headed toward the big city.
After returning from The Second World War, Len began a career in sales and built up such a strong repertoire with customers that his commission surpassed the President of the Company’s own salary. He was subsequently let go and never did receive the commission cheque, but that didn’t damper his entrepreneurial spirits. Len soon joined five other partners in the running of Norfolk Knitters, a manufacturer based out of Port Dover Ontario. By 1965 Len had acquired his partners shares and owned the company outright. Len opened a small shop in the front of the manufacturing plant to retail some of the items made on site. At that time the majority of the garment industry started producing goods overseas which, combined with increasing manufacturing costs, led Len to close down the manufacturing portion of the business in 1967. But what to do with the 30,000 square foot building? Len saw opportunity. He realized that many other businesses were in the same position so he began buying manufacturers overruns, seconds, sample lots, off-season clearances, and brought them back to the small ‘mill end’ store in the corner of his factory and started retailing. That small retail area grew larger and larger and one day…BOOM! Just like that the factory was full to the rafters with discounted merchandise; Len’s Mill Store was born.
It was only a few years later that Len’s son Bruce graduated university and joined his father in the family business. The two worked side-by-side for decades growing the business, expanding operations, opening new stores and buying better quality goods while still maintaining low prices. Bruce learnt from Len first hand the value of a hard work ethic and the importance of your word being your bond. They prioritized the relationships with their employees above all, and ensured that everyone was always doing well.
“Len would ask about how you were doing before anything else” one employee mentioned adding “He’d say ‘How’s your husband, How are your kids, how is the store’ and always in that order”.Traits such as this led both men to gain the respect they did throughout all levels of the industry.
Both Len and Bruce kept true to Len’s ‘raised in great depression era’ mentality of not spending time or resources on non-necessities. All the stores they opened were in factory like settings with bizarre layouts and untraditional retail finishes, as they found value in inexpensive locations which allowed them to pass on the savings to their customers. They worked hard. They bought a lot of goods, always trying new categories and new suppliers. If it could be sold at a price well below suggested retail they gave it a shot but they always stayed true to expanding their niche of quilting, sewing, knitting and crafting.
Bruce had a unique sense of humour which came to light through his quirky methods of advertising. Catchy jingles, bizarre characters, outrageous story lines and provocative themes have been used to draw the attention of many potential customers. For years Bruce reflected on his family and professional life through short stories or anecdotes written in local newspapers, an uncommon method of getting customer interest. He came up with the mascot of ‘Freddie the Flamingo’ who seemed to pop up all over the place and lead a more dramatic life than most day time soap opera characters. The two men were able to build the business up to 8 factory outlet locations prior to Len’s passing in 2007.
Bruce introduced all of his 5 children into the business at an early age, as his father Len did with him decades before. Bruce regularly dropped his kids off at stores on Saturday mornings to have them fold towels, put price stickers on items (many of which ended up on each other) and sort what was a seemingly insurmountable volume of bulk buttons. Bruce wanted to ensure that the hard work ethics that were passed down to him from Len were also implemented in the next generation. When his son Peter and daughter Betty finished their schooling they had no doubts in their minds that they wanted to follow in their fathers footsteps and continue to grow the family business. Together Betty and Peter worked under Bruce’s guidance and were able to add an additional 3 locations prior to Bruce’s passing 2016.
Bruce’s son Peter now holds the title of president and continues to practice the same principles and values as the two generations who preceded him. He strives to grow the business by adding locations in new markets and with the goal establishing an e-commerce platform to bring Len’s Mill Stores into the next generation.
"Both Bruce and Len would be exceptionally honoured and proud of this milestone year. If they were here they would undoubtedly express their significant gratitude to each one of our amazing staff members, past and present, for all the hard work and dedication over the years. The business wouldn’t be anything like it is without all of us working together like we do. I’d like to personally thank all of our loyal customers whose creativity and desires for bargain-hunting continually allow us to offer the unique retail experience that my grandfather started 50 years ago. I look forward to the opportunities, challenges and bargains that lie ahead of us over the next 50 years."
-Peter Menary, Third Generation Len’s Mill Stores President