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Canadian small businesses play big role in Sochi

Sochi may be half a world away, but you'd be surprised by the number of Canadian small businesses playing a big role at the Olympics.

Here are four companies who have done their part for this year's winter games:

Courtesy of the KMAC Group

The KMAC Group

Next time you see an Olympian on the back of your cereal box, thank Keith McIntyre.

Before the 1996 Atlanta summer games, Mr. McIntyre, president of the KMAC Group, was approached by the Sara Lee Corporation. The consumer goods company’s Champion sportswear line had been “saddled” with the task of outfitting the Canadian Olympic team, and needed help. Mr. McIntyre’s Burlington, Ont.-based company had earned a reputation for helping large companies implement new sales and marketing strategies since it was founded in 1992.

Having worked with the Blue Jays, Mr. McIntyre had strong ideas about sports and marketing – and felt that the Olympics had so far been a missed opportunity. “What I’ve learned is that it’s not sports marketing, it’s marketing through sports.”

So he helped Sara Lee get products into major retailers, and also run Olympic-themed corporate events. The success of that project gave the company a niche in sponsorship consulting that continues to make up about 30 percent of its annual revenue.

Mr. McIntyre still consults on Olympic sponsorship with major brands, including General Mills, who features the likes of Patrick Chan and other athletes on its cereal boxes. The company has also consulted with UPS, Johnson & Johnson, Chrysler and Roots on sports sponsorships.

Its Olympic connections have helped the company grow to eight employees and attract blue-chip clients like Proctor & Gamble. “It’s led us into all kinds of other businesses that we’d never even dreamed of.”

But while Mr. McIntyre knows how to connect brands with the fans of the Olympics, he hasn’t been to a games since Salt Lake in 2002. “The state of things in business is I have work to do, so I need to stay here.”
Courtesy of KUUsport


Ski equipment is a sector dominated by European companies, but it’s a small Canadian company that keeps the world’s best skis and snowboards gliding smoothly.

As a young adult, Ron Kuus balanced a career in competitive skiing -- he made Alberta’s provincial racing team and was an alternate on the national team -- with studies in mechanical engineering and business.

In the 1970s, his father had invented an electric ski waxer for which he inherited the patent and the younger Mr. Kuus combined his love of sport with interest in maximizing performance with wax.

He turned this passions into a business by founding KUUsport in 1986. Along with his soon-to-be-wife Heidi, a chemist, Mr. Kuus used his connections in the industry to get his KUU waxes, tuning tools and accessories out to skiers. As the Toronto-based company grew, the entrepreneurial couple continued refining their products with the goal of making the best elite waxes on the market.

In the 1990s, snowboards came into fashion and KUUsport was on trend. “We were the first company in North America to have a full line of products for snowboards,” recalls Mr. Kuus.

By 1994, KUUsport was supplying the Canadian alpine team with complimentary products, a sponsorship agreement he thinks is well worth the investment. “It affiliates your product with quality, speed and adds to the credibility of the brand,” says Mr. Kuus, who also supplies the Canadian snowboard team and Austria’s national ski team.

The Olympics don’t so much boost sales, says Mr. Kuus, but they do give attention to the sport.

Today, KUUsport has between 11 and 23 employees, depending on the season, and sells its ski products in most hills and resorts across the country, as well as sports retailers such as Sport Chek. And Mr. Kuus still hits the slops regularly, usually with his 18-year-old son Karl, who has also become a competitive skier.
Courtesy of BSI

Broadcast Services International (BSI)

Complain about the cold all you like, but key members of Burlington, Ont.’s BSI team have been laying cable down mountains in Sochi, braving snow, cold and avalanche warnings, since November.

The company specializes in setting up television infrastructure for large sporting events. It all began with Jim Eady, who was a technical producer at CTV until he decided to go freelance. He got a contract to work the 1980 games at Lake Placid, and founded BSI in 1987. The company now has seven employees, including Eady’s three children.

At Sochi, the 17th games that Mr. Eady has been affiliated with, BSI is in charge of the TV set-up for the alpine events, and will also be using its staff and subcontractors to manage the TV technology at various rinks and other venues during the games.

“There’s a certain pride that goes along with the biggest show on earth, beyond just the dollar value,” says Mr. Eady’s daughter Brooke, who is the president of BSI. Her brother Shea is vice-president of operations and other brother Locke is vice-president of production. The clout of being able to handle the Olympics has led to the company’s worldwide reputation and contracts to work basketball games, figure skating championships and golfing events. Soon BSI will work the World Cup and, in 2015, the Pan Am Games hosted in Toronto.

Because of the scale and complexity of events, BSI is required to do a lot of planning beforehand, including orgazing shipping equipment, hiring additional staff and organizing accommodation. “It can take a year to plan something like this,” says Ms. Eady. Once on site, her crews have to deal with weather, delays and all the other unexpected things that occur at a sports venue. All this so that you, the viewer, can watch the winner capture gold on your TV screen or computer monitor.

Courtesy of Unique Inventions

Unique Inventions

For Canadians, one of the most appealing sports at the Paralympic Games is sledge hockey. The compact contraptions the athletes slide on are made in Peterborough, Ont., by an entrepreneur named Laurie Howlett.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Howlett started tinkered around in his garage, making hand-pedaled tricycles and other recreational tools for children with physical disabilities. He got the idea after visiting a rehab facility to get minor therapy for one of his children. He observed that children with significant disabilities were missing out and he wanted to do something about it.

Soon his inventions, including a bike trailer, were selling all over town and a parent approached him about building a sledge for hockey. “I didn’t know what a sledge was,” he recalls.

Eventually he got his hands on one and put together his own, with a few upgrades. “I’m never satisfied,” he says of his work. “I’m always making improvements.”

That commitment to excellence, and constant tweaking, helped Unique Inventions’ sledges, which were priced between $550 and $750, get noticed. Sales climbed while Mr. Howlett, who was working full-time at various jobs, including at General Electric and later as a custodian, struggled to fill orders.

In 2000, he decided to quit. His wife, who helped make hockey sticks, took a job herself to keep the family going.

A few years later, the national sledge hockey team called with an order for sledges. Mr. Howlett has been supplying them for international competitions, including the Paralympics, ever since.

Today, the company has six employees, works out of a 3,000-sq. ft. facility and supplies not just our national team, but those from Norway, Russia, Sweden and South Korea. Many of his customers also include youngsters.

“When you see these kids and the different hassles they have to go through and then they’re out there playing hockey, it just inspires you. It makes you want to try and figure out ways to help them perform better.”
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