“Jobs of the Future” is a series focusing on career paths, local job opportunities, programs, and tales of success that highlight North Bay's diverse job market.
In March of 2020, Paul McLean, the Owner of Skaters North Source for Sports North Bay, was forced to make the difficult decision which many business owners faced at that time and shut down for what they hoped was only a short time, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We went for lunch on a Friday because we really started to realize that this was something that wasn’t just happening somewhere else, the Coronavirus was happening here too. So, we had to think about what our plan going forward was because the reality was there might actually be lockdowns,” says McLean.
“We had a quick lunch to brainstorm and everything just kept happening so rapidly. We made the decision we would be shut down for two weeks and I said to everybody in the store here's a chance, it's not ideal, but here's a chance to do all the stuff we have always said we were going to get to, but we're too busy, so we're going to clean the corners, we're going to look for things and we're just going to work for two weeks. Everyone's job is safe, we’re not cutting anything back, we're just going to try to make the best of a bad situation.”
Despite his best efforts, McLean could not control the ongoing pandemic and with no sales coming in McLean says they had to make the decision to have temporary layoffs.
“People knew how hard I was working to try to make sure everyone kept getting a paycheck and that was, without a doubt, one of the hardest days of my life was having to make that decision.”
He says he promised his employees that the job was there whenever he would be able to bring them back.
“Yeah, that sucked, and then the only thing that was worse was coming in the next day by myself to an empty store, that to me was basically the lowest point because after that it mostly went up from there.”
McLean says this pause allowed him to diversify what they could offer at the store and gradually, government subsidies started to come in which covered 75% of an employee's salary.
“At that point, it didn't matter that the sales were that were being offset and helped by the government, so we got really creative. We started hammering social media, we were making posts and putting them up showing how your kids could train outside since they couldn’t be in a hockey rink. We got into in-line skates and we were able to bring more on as the weeks and months went on.”
McLean also had to take a calculated risky business move during this time.
“There was so much turmoil as to whether the various hockey seasons would happen. That was the big talk within our industry. There were a lot of conference calls and stores saying, ‘we're not going to take any product that we ordered for this season, because we don't know if there's going to be a season.’ I chose to take everything, even though there was a lot of uncertainty and I knew that if everybody said no all this stuff was going to get trapped here. But if the light switch flipped and suddenly, we needed to sell stuff and we were relying on stuff that should have already been here, there would’ve been a bottleneck on the product, I was basically forecasting what ended up happening two years later, but we took everything and that was risky from a financial standpoint,” says McLean.
“That was probably one of the scariest tightrope walks, but ultimately, it's the best business gamble I've ever taken because once things opened up, we had product, and not only were we selling it in North Bay but we were also selling it to outside markets who didn't have those things in stock.”
McLean says products such as inline skates were a big seller, “We were shipping all of our supply to Ottawa and out to Saskatchewan, and other places were just finding us. We're getting phone calls every day and shipping stuff all over the country. So, the gamble that I took to make sure we kept the stock was amazing, just turned out to be a real stroke of business luck, and I’m very proud of that.”
McLean says coming out of that experience they have been able to expand in a few different ways. For one, their online presence has grown.
“It was a lot of work and I didn't see a ton of results from that before the pandemic. But during COVID-19, someone would find that we had our inline skates and all of a sudden, they would hit us up for something specific. Source for Sports as an organization realized that the website we had going into COVID was not sufficient, so they revamped things. They basically went back to the drawing board and we now have a national website that we're a part of,” he says.
“The website has been amazing and even though our shipping costs have gone up, it’s another of these lessons and that we've learned from and are now better equipped to deal with in the future.”
The store has not only had success but has been able to expand and it now operates out of a location inside Northgate Mall, on top of the Fisher Street store.
“We went to the mall with products like Yeti, that I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be selling. $50 coolers and $30 coffee cups, but it's slowly turned into one of our largest suppliers. The stuff is so well made that, you don’t often need to replace it, but the people that are loyal to the brand come in and see the new colour and they have to have it, or they want to buy it for someone else. So that's been a huge part of the mall success,” says McLean.
They have also partnered with the Noah Strong foundation, where all the proceeds from merchandise sales go toward the Noah Strong campaign.
“They're able to distribute those funds to the different things that were identified within their board, so there's the bursary program with the schools and funding for families who have to go to Toronto or Ottawa when a loved one is in the hospital. So, I mean obviously, that organization is just doing such a great thing to make an amazingly positive, out of such a bad situation,” says McLean.
McLean adds, being in the mall from a business perspective has its advantages.
“You get a lot of people in a concentrated area. Northgate was really good to work with, and as things have changed and there's been a shift to online, you're seeing a lot of amalgamations or companies asking themselves ‘do we need this many retail locations?’ and they're starting to cut. So, Northgate was very supportive of us, and it's grown into something that fits the needs of both sides.”
In November 2022, a scary situation happened with the local U18 North Bay Trappers club in which their bus caught on fire on the way back from a trip up north. Nobody was hurt, but the team lost all of its equipment.
“I was down south at a trade show with all of the Source for Sports stores, and suppliers and I got the phone call just as we were going out for dinner,” says McLean.
"I realized how serious it was when I got back from dinner, so on Monday morning, I came back to the store in North Bay to meet the Trappers. Brayden Hollis, who's the trainer, and one of my employees had already got together and the two of them already had bags laid out for every kid with their number and we had appointment times, so every kid came in and we basically personally shopped them through the store. They got everything they needed and Tisdale Bus lines has been amazing to work with and getting everything taken care of.”
McLean says overall, the business has hit some high points since the COVID-19 shutdown.
“I mean that's a credit to the staff that I have worked with, it's sort of gone beyond anything I ever thought I could do. I mean we felt good going into COVID where the business was. But to come out on the other side of that and clean things up, learn new processes and ways of doing things and it's really with the work of everybody that's here and now to have more staff than before we went into it, is awesome.”
Originally from Collingwood, Ontario, McLean says it’s the fabric of North Bay that has allowed him to have so much success over the last 15 years with Skaters Edge.
“I can't imagine living anywhere else and I really feel so supported by the community. The amount of people during COVID that came in and said, ‘I just want to buy something from you to make sure you're here on the other side’ that felt really strong. I think that we work hard to earn that kind of respect, but I think that's a testament to the staff that helped me through that time.”
If you have a story idea for "Jobs of the Future" send Matt an email at [email protected]