FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Len Hamm
August 19, 2014
Len grew up, grew tall and loved football.
He played for the Saskatoon Hilltops, then the Saskatchewan Roughriders – ambitions of stardom in the CFL met reality for Len. He served on the Roughrider taxi squad – which meant he practiced with the stars of the team (think Lancaster, Reed – that era) but he didn’t make it to the field on game day. His ‘real employment’ was in the Hudson’s Bay Company training program. He was being started in men's wear ... which he really enjoyed but there was no assurance he would stay in that department. He recalls it was great training. Len loved merchandising, buying – but didn’t want a career at The Bay.
And he wanted to play football.
A chance to win a spot on the Calgary Stampeders as a tight-end and blocking back brought him here. Making the team wasn’t going to be easy. Making a living in his day job managing the Forman’s Men’s Wear store in Chinook Centre put food on the table. That was 1970, Len was 23. A wife and child at home required a steady income. But football was still a dream – one he relinquished when Forman’s offered a bonus/bump in salary equivalent to a football salary for him ‘not to play football’, and men’s wear retailing got a star performer. Len was a steady hand and a gutsy buyer. His employer gave him lots of latitude and enjoyed considerable success. But ...
But Len Hamm had a desire that couldn’t be fulfilled at Forman’s - to own his own store.
Thomas Jeffery Men’s Wear founder Ken McCowan invited Len to join him, to manage his store at Chinook and a partnership began. In 1991 that store was relocated to South Centre where Len continues as buyer, manager and Rotarian in residence. Len explained that he does a lot of business annually with his Rotarian friends – and that seems to be a two-way street.
While our discussion covered business, family (Len and his wife Lorna of forty-six years, have two children and six grandchildren) and swapping stories that old retailers swap.
Ken has obviously picked a strong partner in Len – they have been through tough times and good times without getting wild or crazy in their ambitions to be premiere retailers of men’s wear. We talked about all the competitors, about the soon arriving Nordstrom’s store and I came away feeling that Len knows his newest competitor really well. A glint in his eye suggests he's prepared and keen to compete!
Team player, principled, ethical. Tall, good-looking. Wears clothes well. Just what you’d expect from a ‘not crippled-up’ former pro-footballer.
Life paths are interesting stories – and paths aren’t usually straight ones, but they tend to take us on interesting journeys. Case in point: Len Hamm. Who is he?
Len was the first born. Dad learned automotive painting in the army and continued in that business. Mom was a stay-at-home one. Len has three younger sisters. School in Saskatoon … then football, then life, then men’s wear, then Rotary (he’s been a member of the South Calgary Rotary Club for 34 years – and he’s a past-president).
When I began my early career as a shoe merchant I worked in Macleod Mall – then home to the first Thomas Jeffery store. I met and bought my first suits there from Ken McCowan and his co-founder brother Bob in 1968. It seems that humble start has built a very resilient business. Clearly Len Hamm is a strong part of that team, neither in the background nor the backfield – he’s on the front line every day with a big smile and big handshake.
I asked Len how he sees his business – and the men’s wear business generally; ‘how’s business?’ over the next quarter?
… business is very good here in Calgary – much stronger than the rest of the country. Better than last year (floods!), better than the year before. Nordstrom’s are coming to town – they will have an impact, but their competition will be good for business, for all of us.
And over the next five years?
…. more on-line shopping for basics, for commodities. Our strength is fashion, service and advice. Canada’s coming free-trade agreement with Europe will have an impact on pricing, making European goods less expensive. That will impact Canadian manufacturers.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… quality, value and reliability. It starts with relationships. First, I try to do business with my fellow Rotarians. I try to live by the Rotary four-way test.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Len Hamm, why do they do business with you, why have they chosen you, over your competitors?
… knowledge of fashion, advice that is honest. Our motto/slogan here has been ‘quality and service are always in fashion’ for more than forty years.
How would you describe your leadership style?
… fair, open-minded. I try to be a good listener.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… making sure I’m doing a good job in all aspects of my life.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… we had a 'five-years of struggling' for survival in the NEP days; we shrunk stores, we could only keep four of 30 staff. We didn’t fold – we sold off all that inventory and paid everyone. That experience, that time, made me tougher mentally. It was like a one-yard-line defense in football – we wouldn’t give in.
Work life balance?
… I don’t have it. I’m over-committed. I’m working my way there.
… golf, Rotary, dinner parties, love the social part of life.
What do you read?
… newspapers, men’s wear publications, things I can read quickly. I like to read novels – historical - on vacations.
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