SMART Biz

Toppling stacks of jeans line tables the entirety of the store, and an equally voluminous slew of stock rests in boxes underneath. There are about 14,000 pairs of jeans on inventory at any given time – and the most miraculous part is, the loyal staffers know where to find virtually every one of them.

“It’s more of an experience,” says president and CEO of Sargent Blue Jeans, Mohamed El Tassi. “It’s like a personal shopping experience. They’ll tell you what looks good, what doesn’t look good. They take in clothing; they’ll custom make you something if you want. And they’ll work with budget.”

Mohamed is referring to the bustling worker bees at Sargent Blue Jeans, Kathy, Laura and Maria. The trio is synonymous with the store, having worked there for 31, 28, and 10 years respectively.

Mohamed, also a Sargent Blue Jeans veteran who’s worked there since he was 14, says, “We’re like one big family. It’s more than just work associates.”

Though he’s beginning to tap into other business ventures, Mohamed says “I’ll never, ever leave here.

“Every day I come to work, it’s wicked.”

The unique environment at Sargent Blue Jeans is the tipping point. Perhaps the biggest perk of the service is the fact that the attentive shopping assistants are also some of the swiftest seamstresses in the business.

Every pair of jeans purchased at the store receives complimentary alterations in about the time it takes for you to pull out your debit card. The ladies are the best in the biz, and they’ve got the devotees to prove it.

“There are some ladies here that are so loyal to these ladies they won’t even shop in the United States when they’re there,” says Mohamed.

As much as its community has been loyal to it, Sargent Blue Jeans likes to give right back.

Most recently, the local jean store gave the generous donation of a vehicle (valued at $8,000) to the Community Homeless Assistance Team (CHAT), the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ’s outreach program for those experiencing homelessness.

Sargent Blue Jeans also provides a clothing bank to CHAT clients and winter parkas to outfit the outreach workers.

Mohamed sits on the board for the BIZ’s homelessness and panhandling initiative; he became really engrossed with the cause after taking part in the Downtown BIZ’s CEO Sleepout with his father and CEO of Peerless Garments Inc., Albert El Tassi.

“I felt pretty bad at the end of that day,” says Mohamed, of the experience. “I’m not cold, I’m not sitting outside, and these people still are.

“It’s only one day; there’s people living like that 24/7.”

Mohamed caught more than the retail bug from his father, who’s earned the Order of Canada for his innovative work with refugees.

He sets new immigrants from war-torn countries up with training in a sewing school run at Peerless. He helps the women, some with little English but with sewing capability, integrate the workforce either by hiring them at Peerless or finding them work elsewhere in the industry.

Because of the support network he’s created, when new Winnipeggers arrive with little English and/or little or no job prospects, they sometimes get referred to Albert directly.

Mohamed says his family knows people in welding, grocery stores – you name it – and it’s amazing the lengths his father will go to lend a hand. Albert himself arrived in Canada from Lebanon with nothing, but was able to work his way up from the shipping room at Peerless to CEO of the company.

“Whatever little money he had, he’d always help out,” says Mohamed. “He gives and gives and gives.

“If I can get to maybe even a fraction of him, I’m pretty content.”

Mohamed credits his desire to give back to the example his father set for him, as well as the value placed on charitable giving in his Islamic faith.

“It’s almost like it’s helping me more than it’s helping them,” says Mohamed. “I don’t think I could live without it.”

CHAT takes a proactive approach in helping people meet their goals for the future by addressing their individual and culturally relevant needs. “Some people just have had rotten luck in their life and it’s just been a domino effect for them,” says Mohamed.

The CHAT program especially aims to preserve the lives of those experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg winters.

“Nobody should lose their life to cold in a country like Canada. And in a country like Canada, I don’t even think homelessness should exist, but it does,” says Mohamed. “Hopefully we’re not going to lose another Winnipeg human life due to weather.

“If they’re dressed properly, they’ve got a better shot.”

CHAT facts

• The Downtown BIZ’s three-member Community Homeless Assistance Team is a new permanent downtown program.

• The workers take a proactive approach and reach out to vulnerable populations like those who experience mental health and addiction issues. They specialize in connecting those who often slip through the traditional social and health service cracks to relevant services.

• The CHAT model is a Winnipeg-first initiative that has been adopted by other cities.

• The CHAT program is powered by financial assistance from partners and community stakeholders like the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development, Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries and the Downtown BIZ membership.

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