Garment entrepreneur laughs all the way to the bank
Neil Janna sells team uniforms, T-shirts and jackets by day, does comedy by night

There's a poster in back of Neil Janna's desk that reads "If we don't take care of the customer someone else will." The poster pretty much summarizes his business philosophy, but when you ask him how it got there, it's his personal philosophy that emerges.

"It was a choice between buying that poster, or the one that reads "Treat every day like it's your last, and someday it will be,"" Janna, president of Janna Sports Inc. joked. "We thought this one would inspire employees more."

Janna Sports, which Neil Janna's father Daniel founded 50 years ago this summer, supplies businesses and sporting organizations a wide range of custom made uniforms, jackets, hats and accessories. But what Janna supplies most is jokes.

Janna is a born comedian. On his spare time he does between 50 and 100 shows a year. He's performed before Prince Charles. And at the end of the month he'll be replacing one of the cast members of the Quiddlers comedy show for one week at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. But comedy is a tough business and despite Janna's obvious talents, in recent years he has been devoting more effort to his own company.

Good thing. During the past four years sales have almost doubled to $1.3 million, a pattern he expects to continue for the foreseeable future. Surprisingly, his sense of humor is a big business asset.

"It's so competitive that if you don't sit down and have a laugh once in a while, you'll go crazy," Janna said, rolling his eyes.

Despite hefty business and comedy schedules coupled with a hectic home life, which includes a wife and three kids, Janna remains a youngish-looking 40 something. When talking about comedy he became very passionate, gesturing wildly and talking fast, as if he were holding down two pots of coffee. But as the topic moved to business he slowly became more cerebral.

"I've been lucky. The sporting scene in Montreal is small and everybody seems to know my late father," Janna said on a recent tour of his new 3,500 square feet Peel St. location. "Even these days, long after he passed away I'll call on a new prospect only to have them tell me that they used to deal with my dad years ago."

After graduating from university with a major in industrial relations in 1986, Janna took a few months off to tour Europe before joining the family business. But it was only after his father's demise in 1992 that he truly began putting his personal stamp on the company.

Like many Montreal garment companies, Janna Sports relies a lot on imports to keep prices down, especially blank T-shirts, golf and fleece items. Inside staff perform only the highly value added functions such as putting names and numbers on team jerseys, adding personalized decorative elements and so on.

One big exception is the company's line of leather hockey jackets, which Janna's craftsmen design and cut. Only sewing is contracted out, but it's done locally, which keeps the jobs in Montreal.

"Pricing is crucial in our industry," Janna said. "Everybody knows how much everything costs down to the quarter. And sometimes a client will abandon you for very small savings. But we try to keep them with good service."

According to one long time client, that service element is not to be taken lightly.

"I ordered hockey sweaters this morning and I'll have them in five days," Bob McEwan, co-owner of M & L Sports, which runs hockey camps for kids in St-Anne de Bellevue, New York and Florida said.

"But what's really important is that I know I'll have them. Many people say they will deliver but they don't," McEwan said. "That can you leave you in a jam."

McEwan also raved about Janna's comedic skills.

"He did a benefit for a charity I organize (the Mingo McEwan Fund) that had the whole crowd literally rolling on the floor," McEwan said. "We're going to be using him again this year."

Ernie Butler, of Ernie Butler's Comedy Nest agreed. "(Janna) was part of the brat pack of young Montreal comedians during the 1980s, that included Jeff Rothpan and many others who later became very successful," Butler said. "Neil decided to focus more on business than comedy, but talent wise he's right up there."

Despite his continuing love of comedy, Janna consistantly refuses to quit his day job. That prospect has become even less likely with the birth of his latest child 10 months ago coupled with the company's recent success. His goal?

"You know how it is. Build up, build up, build up and then sell the business," Janna said flashing his trademark grin. "That's what everybody wants to do."



Sidebar: Neil Janna's management strategy

o Focus on specialty apparel items such as sports team uniforms, jackets, caps and corporate promotional items.
o Only perform value added manufacturing functions such as cutting, numbering and decorating. Use standard low-cost blanks especially for T-shirt and fleece jobs.
o Highlight the company's history and the good name built up by father Daniel Janna to build and maintain relationships.
o Generate savings by treating suppliers as though they were partners, not as cost centers. Pass savings along to customers.
o Avoid high-volume/ low-margin commodity orders. Target custom and rush orders.



Photo caption: Neil Janna, whose specialty apparel company is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, says his comedic skills help him prosper in a cutthroat industry.

Fact Box:
Company Name: Janna Sports Inc.
Owner: Neil Janna
Founded: 1954
Products: Sporting uniforms, jackets, caps, T-shirts
Employees: 6
Sales: $1.3 million
Phone #: 514-866-5833


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Peter Diekmeyer
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Montreal, Canada, H9S 1T6, 514-631-0025


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