Harry Klein in the Monatreal GazetteHe is already a local celebrity in Montreal for the way he has elevated ordinary shoe shining into a hot corporate marketing tool.

But it’s been Harry Klein’s move into manufacturing that has amazed his friends and acquaintances, and enhanced his reputation as a fascinating case study in entrepreneurship.

“I’m hoping to be successful – and I don’t mean by just making enough money to pay the rent,” Klein said of his foray into manufacturing shoeshine chairs as he munched on pizza in the food court of the 1250 Boulevard René Lévesque building.

Klein runs the shoeshine concession in the lobby of the downtown office tower, and because of that, “Harry” is on a first-name basis with many of the city’s top movers and shakers.

Many of these corporate bigwigs have some of the city’s top law firms on retainer, but Klein can brag about law firms keeping him on retainer. Klein has bookings with Heenan Blaikie every Tuesday morning, while Lapointe Rosenstein Marchand Melançon has him booked every second Thursday morning.

But that’s not Klein’s claim to fame. Rather, he has made a name for himself for the way he has moved into trade shows and cocktail receptions. One evening last month, Transcontinental Media paid Klein $500 to shine shoes at a cancer benefit it hosted in Ogilvy’s Tudor Hall.

Gaz Métropolitain, Cirque du Soleil and the TVA television network have also hired Klein to shine for them at trade shows or private receptions. Companies like Gaz Métro have found that hiring Klein to set up his shoeshine chair beside their exhibits at trade shows generates a lot of traffic. Last month Gaz Métro paid him $975 for one day of trade-show work.

“The thing is, once you are sitting in my chair, you are a captive audience for a salesman,” Klein said.

It was Klein himself who figured out the opportunities for marketing leverage in the shoeshining business. Now he’s gone one step farther and created a partnership with an Eastern Townships blacksmith to manufacture Harry Klein Shoe Shine faux art-deco chrome shoeshine chairs.

He’s sold 60 so far, at about $2,800 a crack, mainly to U.S. customers such as GMR Marketing of Chicago and Beam Global Spirits and Wine of Deerfield, Ill.

On a recent sunny afternoon, Klein drove out to Dunham to visit blacksmith André Boudreau, his manufacturing partner. Boudreau makes the chairs, which Klein designed, in a little factory out of his garage. Boudreau also manufactures decorative metal products for luxury homes, among other things. Klein found out about him from one of his shoeshine clients in downtown Montreal.

Growing up in Montreal’s north end – where he says he was the only Jewish student at John F. Kennedy High School in the St. Michel district in the 1960s – Klein admits he was never very good at school.

“But I always had the ability to make people feel good, and make people laugh,” he said. His mother wanted him to be a comedian. In the 1970s he studied theatre at John Abbott College, then went on to work as a radio announcer, Harry K, in Kapuskasing, Ont.

Returning to Montreal in the early 1980s during a recession, he saw an ad in a newspaper looking for people with the gift of the gab. Klein responded, and over the next 20 years became one of the city’s top telemarketers, specializing in the sale of promotional advertising like pens with company names on them. He earned enough from that to drive around town in a Cadillac. But it all came crashing down with a mid-life crisis he had seven years ago at age 52.

“I was spiritually, emotionally and financially bankrupt,” he said.

The owner of a hair salon on Décarie Blvd. let Klein set up a shoeshine chair in his shop. After 18 months there, one of Klein’s clients hired him to shine on behalf of a company that makes workboots, at one of the company’s trade-show booths. At that trade show, Klein realized the revenue potential in corporate shoeshine work.

“That’s where all the big contracts are,” he said.

Having seen for himself the marketing utility of shoe shining, Klein had his Harry Klein Shoe Shine company spin out a consulting division. Through this new venture, he is teaching people how to replicate his success in their own communities.

“Even though it seems like such a simple business, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye,” said Brian Hawkey, who does “weddings, corporate events and private parties” in Charleston, S.C. He came to Montreal for three days to learn from Klein and buy one of his chrome chairs.

Klein says he has a growing list of enthusiastic testimonials from customers.

“We were very happy with Mr. Klein and the service he provided for us,” said Nathalie Carbonneau of Transcontinental Media, the company that hired him for the Ogilvy’s event.

While at Ogilvy’s, Klein looked at the store’s famous window displays and wondered about the possibilities of moving into interactive exhibits. Through a contact, he made a pitch to Ogilvy’s about shining shoes in a window looking out on Ste. Catherine St.

Ogilvy’s responded by email while Klein and The Gazette were visiting Boudreau at the manufacturing facility in Dunham.

Klein fiddled with his BlackBerry after the call came in.

“It’s Ogilvy’s,” he said.

They were saying no for the moment, but weren’t ruling out saying yes later.

Klein plans to see the window people at the Bay. He visualizes himself shining shoes in a storefront window looking out on Ste. Catherine, beside a display of a fall shoe collection.

“I believe that interactivity is the future of window displays,” said Montreal’s premier shoeshine entrepreneur.

It may turn out he is right.

To see a video profile of Harry Klein by Montreal’s Urbania magazine, CLICK HERE 

djohnston@thegazette.canwest.com

Filed under: Shoe Shine Stand

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Filed under: Professional Shoe Shiner

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