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Funky retailer outfitting the north in style

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Jerome Conaty's store has become a regional destination in the north.

JONATHAN NAYLOR Enlarge Image

Jerome Conaty's store has become a regional destination in the north.

THE PAS -- As other boys looked to follow their fathers' footsteps into the paper and lumber mill, Jerome Conaty had a rather unique dream growing up in this middle-class northern town.

Now the easygoing entrepreneur has turned his vision into reality with one of northern Manitoba's most improbable business success stories.

"Kids come in from Winnipeg or Toronto and they can't believe there's a store like this here," says Conaty, founder and operations manager of Funky Threadz, a trendy clothing and lifestyle shop.

A lively coloured medley of hip clothes, high-end sneakers, stylish ballcaps and wicked skateboards -- along with much more -- Funky Threadz certainly stands out among the gas stations, mom-and-pop shops and restaurants of downtown The Pas.

With his backwards cap, pierced upper cheek and tattooed hands, Conaty, 38, could easily be mistaken for one of the customers who has helped turn Funky Threadz into a hub of the regional subculture.

His journey here began when he was a preteen who desired nothing more than a pair of Reebok Pumps, those popular sneakers with their own internal inflation mechanism.

Not only did Conaty yearn to emulate the top basketball players of the day, like his future customers, he just wanted to look, well, cool.

"There's a certain level of confidence that comes from looking good," he says, seated on a bright orange couch in the rear of his store.

But the only way Conaty's father would spend $250 on Reeboks was if his son invested elbow grease by cutting grass, moving junk to the landfill and taking on other grunt work.

"It was about pride," says Conaty. "This is what I wanted to have and I was going to work my ass off for it."

When Conaty finally slipped his young feet into those Reeboks, he was elated. And the lesson that dedication pays off would serve him well.

After a stint at Brandon University, where he studied business and marketing, Conaty returned to The Pas and landed a job at the Tolko mill.

He hadn't abandoned his retail aspirations. Rather, the mill was a stepping stone, a way to net capital for his clothing store.

Conaty spent three years formulating his business plan. Though he made a compelling case, the handful of banks he initially approached for a loan balked.

In talking about starting his business, Conaty refers to the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in which the title character's faith saves him from plummeting to his death.

When Funky Threadz opened in 2002, however, business was so sluggish, the one banker who finally took a chance on Conaty must have wondered when the free fall would end.

Unwilling to stand by while his childhood ambition disintegrated, Conaty left the stability of the mill to give his business his unbridled attention. He even got tattoos across his fingers reading SELF MADE to remind him there was no Plan B.

Through word of mouth, slick marketing and hang-in-there persistence, Funky Threadz gradually became a regional destination for an eclectic clientele.

The store reached beyond fashionable youth to tap into niche markets such as yoga practitioners, snowboarders and those who enjoy getting inked or pierced.

Clothing manufacturers Conaty once hounded for supply deals started pleading for rack space. As his selection grew, he took more and more mail orders from across the north, Winnipeg and beyond.

Whether business is relaxed or frenzied, Conaty places a premium on community involvement. He organizes northern skateboard tournaments, puts on concerts and workshops and worked to establish a snow hill in The Pas.

None of it can take the risk out of the game. Conaty must contend not only with a local retail market he describes as "weak," but also the super-convenient online shopping habits of today's youth.

He concedes it would have been safer, not to mention more lucrative, to keep his job at the mill.

But for a dreamer like Jerome Conaty, where's the fun in that?

 

Jonathon Naylor is editor of the Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

jonathon_naylor@hotmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 8, 2014 A13

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