Mel Lastman, 74, loves the glare of the spotlight. He built Bad Boy Furniture into a chain of 30 Toronto stores, in part by staging outlandish publicity stunts. In 1975, after 20 years in business, he sold Bad Boy to go into politics, eventually serving as mayor of Toronto from 1997 to 2003. He's back as chairman of Lastman's Bad Boy Furniture, which his son Blayne revived in 1991. Revenues for the six-store Ontario chain were about $50 million last year.
BORN TO SELL
I was 22 when I opened my first store. But people weren't coming in. So in 1955 I traded my car for a truck and loaded it with appliances. When I saw an ice truck go by [to restock iceboxes], I followed it. Wherever it went, I went. I would go to the people who got deliveries and try to sell them a refrigerator on layaway for about the same cost as they were paying for ice—$8 a week.
The key was personalized service, and I offered it to the extreme. I opened my store just after Hurricane Hazel hit. People were being put up in trailers, and the government gave them a chance to buy homes for $1,000 down. That meant they would need appliances. I knocked on the door of each trailer and then would have people introduce me to their neighbors.
The real buzz began in 1959, when I started selling $2 for $1. It was a publicity thing. I even went to Times Square in New York and sold two Canadian dollars for one U.S. dollar. The police came and detained me for a few hours. From there, I flew to Rome and did the same thing in a piazza, selling 1,000 lira for 500 lira. Italians mobbed me. The publicity was unbelievable—magazines, television, radio. I couldn't afford any advertising at the time, but each of those promotions was worth more than $100,000 in free advertising.
Once I was flying to Amsterdam and looked out of the plane to see the Arctic. That's when I got the idea to sell a refrigerator there. We had an Eskimo build an igloo. Then we put a refrigerator on a dogsled and brought it to him. He gave us two dead fish and a fur. That picture was in the Guinness Book of World Records.
I went into politics because I didn't like the way people were spending the public's money. Who cared about regular people? I didn't expect to win. My point was that politicians spend money and do nothing. But I won, as controller. I didn't know what a controller did, but I was so successful at bringing out issues that I later was elected mayor.
NO FRIEND OF BILL
When my son wanted to start the business again, I didn't think it was a good idea. I thought back to all the other stores that went out of business and never came back. But he did it. My wife, Marilyn, and I were in Florida, trying to think of something that would help him. We came up with "Nooobody," as in "Who does it better? Nooobody!" His advertising person didn't like the slogan, but the public loved it. We did one commercial with a guy dressed up as Bill Clinton. The White House sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bad Boy. It was very funny.
Now I mostly help with advertising, and I go on the floor in stores once or twice a week. It's important for anyone who does the buying to also know how to do the selling. When you walk into Bad Boy, the stores are jammed. The fever is there. The fun is there. There are balloons. It's an experience. We even have little Bad Boys on a key chain that say "Nooobody" when you press their stomachs. You get all these kids running around the store, yelling "Nooobody!" I feel great being back. I'm having the time of my life.
As told to Diane Brady