High profile “hobby”

When John Lee turned 61, he decided to slow down and work from home. For him, it might be slowing down; for most people it doesn’t look remotely like it.

JJL Events in Toronto, Ont., Canada, the company he started with his son, Jason, and operates with Jason’s wife, Melynda, is no ordinary event rental business, “selling complicated awnings and custom tents,” as he calls it. But that doesn’t begin to describe the interesting work that the tent and event rental industry has brought to Lee and his family.

It all started with a summer job as a teenager for Pike’s Tent and Awning in the 1950s where he learned the trade from every angle. “It’s funny,” he says. “I can remember going out and selling an awning, then going back and making it, then going back and installing it, and then going back to the office and invoicing it.” A valued employee, Pike’s paid for his night school classes and kept him on through college.

The product and installation are “absolutely much better now,” he says. “In those days the tents were all cotton and not even flame retardant,” he says. “We used axle cut from scrap cars as the stakes,” he adds.

From the Queen to the Pope

Materials and technique may have improved, but that kind of ingenuity has served him well, and landed him many high-profile jobs: all the tents needed for the Pope’s first visit to Canada, a barbeque for 1300 people that Prime Minister Trudeau threw for Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1983—“We invented washroom trailers for that,” Lee says—and a 40-foot-wide canopy to shelter the ceremony for signing the new Canadian constitution in 1984.

Queen Elizabeth herself was on hand and rain threatened. Lee was concerned about the color fastness of the red stripes in the flame-retardant fabric. He ordered his crew to have a white liner made and shipped to him by bus the same day. “The Queen had a light blue suit on,” he says. “She would have had red dots all over it.”

It’s that kind of attention to detail, and complete commitment to his clients that has built Lee’s reputation. “My philosophy is any big events we do, one of us is on site,” he says. In fact, he even walked the family dog for the bride-to-be at an engagement party. Now, that’s service.

Relaxing with family is becoming a larger priority, however. His five-year-old grandson loves to build things with “Grandpapa,” whose specialty is bird houses. “My hobby is birds,” he says. “We have a heated bird bath in the winter time and I feed the birds all year.” Golf is also a favorite pastime, and because JJL Events is the go-to company for tented special events at the up-scale golf clubs in the Greater Toronto area, “I get to play at all the good clubs,” he says.

There’s not a lot of leisure time in his life, but that suits Lee just fine. He would just as soon be working. “It’s the people I deal with,” he says. “When people call they say, ‘We have this function and we need you.’” “Besides,” he jokes, “If I stop working, my wife says she’s leaving or getting a job.”

“This is my hobby,” he adds. “I love the work.”

by Janet Preus, editor, Specialty Fabrics Review