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Women Leaders in Business: Gore Bay apparel-maker nears 30 years of success

Adaptability has served Kathy Antonio well in operating My Ol' Blues since 1993

After 27 years in operation, Kathy Antonio was not letting COVID-19 take down her business.

The Gore Bay retail and wholesale apparel manufacturing operation, My Ol’ Blues, has weathered many storms over the years and continues to thrive.

Antonio started out her career as a figure skating coach and, after many years working in southern Ontario, moved back to Northern Ontario where she was born and raised.

She was involved with the Espanola Little Theatre when she started sewing her own costumes and hats. It did not take long for requests to come in and she was busy designing and making items. She decided she just might have a worthy business idea.

“I officially started the business in November 1993,” shared Antonio. “I made hats for people I knew and it just snowballed from there.”

She moved to Sudbury for a few years and made a connection with long-time gift shop owner Marion Pitkethly of Pit's House of Treasures, who connected her with a sales agent.

Working with an agent further connected her Canadiana designs to hotel gift shops, tourist gifts shops and trading posts across Canada. The sales agents recommended she focus on clothing and accessories, such as mitts and hats, to create a collection.

“It was boom, boom, boom across the country,” Antonio shared about those early years, when she was sourcing 300 wholesale customers.

In 1997, as a figure skating coach for Special Olympians, she outfitted the club in her Canadiana jackets to attend the World Winter Games in Toronto. She recalled how people were stopping them on the street and in the hotel to ask them where they bought the jackets.

Today, Antonio operates a 2,000-square-foot production facility and storefront at 7 Phipps Street in Gore Bay, a small rural community at the west end of Manitoulin Island.

“It’s been a good move,” she admits.

She bought the property and invested in a few apartments above the store that she can count on as alternative income when there is a dip in business.

“I wanted a place where I could open a retail store,” she explained.

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She also wanted a community where she could raise her children; where they could walk to school, ride their bikes on the street, and make lifelong friends.

Antonio found herself working long days to keep up with the wholesale market and, in 2012, made the decision to step back from wholesale and find a more balanced business.

After finding more time she was able to start a girls’ program to teach design to girls aged nine to 14. They made their own designs, watched Antonio sew, and then they would take it from there to embellish the items. They also learned about marketing and customer service.

When COVID-19 hit globally, My Ol’ Blues jumped in to help make PPE in partnership with a fellow Sudbury business.

The pandemic hit tourism hard, but it also brought new customers when more people started travelling locally and an influx of new residents relocated to the island.

“We became a tourist booth. Even if they don’t buy, or buy little, (visitors) had a good experience in the store and often would shop in our online store.”

The other significant change that COVID brought for her business was creating an online presence — both selling and connecting with business support.

Antonio found the RETAILMavens, a coaching and support community for retail store owners, on Facebook. It was affirming to learn she was running a good business. She learned more about how to sell online and gather a supportive group of women entrepreneurs around her.

My Ol’ Blues was recently recognized by the PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise with the Unshakeable Business of the Year 2021 award. The award goes to women-owned businesses, with successful and notable track records for three years or more, that have taken financial risks, managed the business successfully, and given back to the community.

In 2023, My Ol’ Blues will mark 30 years in business.

“Every year it was, ‘Oh wow, another year under my belt,” Antonio said.

“I remember when I was in my seventh year of business, I shared with the owner of Pit's House of Treasurers, ‘I made it!’ Her response was, ‘Always be ready to change; what the seven years has taught you is to be ready, be open-minded.’”

She has held that advice close and it has stood the test of time.