Silky Success

How Ovation Group’s Elizabeth Legge turned hand-sewn promotional boxers into a promotional-products solutions provider

Ovation Group’s founder, Elizabeth Legge.

Growing up as one of nine children on a farm in rural Canada, Elizabeth Legge was more destined for a life as a wife and mother than as one of the country’s leading female entrepreneurs. Legge learned hard work, resourcefulness, and strong moral values from the unique experience of living with such a large family. Everyone had to contribute to the household in order to live in harmony in a small home, and each member was counted on to do his or her part. These lessons would go on to help shape her business world.

“There were six girls and three boys,” says Legge, who today is the president of Ovation Group Inc., a promotional marketing company. “The six daughters were all encouraged to marry and move away from the farm.”

Initially, that’s just what Legge did. By age 19, at the urging of her father, she was married and living with her husband, a man she barely knew, in a rural Manitoba community. “I look back and I wonder, ‘What was I thinking?’” she says. “There was not much to do in a small town, and without an immediate opportunity to pursue continuing education, I began designing and making clothes. I had to figure out a way to make a living.”

After staying out west for a year, she and her husband moved back to Toronto. Together, they opened several consecutive business franchises. This opportunity offered new learning experiences in a business environment.

“Life is a chain of events,” Legge says. “Something happens that changes the direction your life will take.”

A little more than a decade later, Legge moved on to work as a sales executive for Motorola, and she credits that sales experience for teaching her the art of cold calling. However, by then her marriage was struggling. “I decided to quit my job in an effort to save my marriage but, in the end, realized we had different goals,” Legge says. “A few months later, I left my husband and closed that door. I just started my life over, including changing my name. I thought, ‘I’m going to change my life. I will be happy with my decision, and I am determined to succeed!’”

With only a maxed-out credit card to her name, no source of income or a personal bank account, and nowhere to go, Elizabeth spent a few nights sleeping in her car until she created a plan.

In the early ’90s, boxer shorts were the hot new fad. Growing up on the farm, Legge had learned to sew at the age of 12. With six girls in the family, it was a necessity to be crafty. Legge hired her sister, and together they started a business selling handmade, silk boxer shorts. Each pair was carefully sewn and monogrammed, and these boxers became the flagship promotional product for Ovation Group. However, it was difficult to make a living. Legge had to make phone calls to reach out to more companies and quickly discovered that she had a knack for setting up in-person meetings. This realization allowed her to grow eager and confident.

One day in 1992, she walked into Mac Tools and landed her first large contract. She had previously discovered a unique new promotional product that could be branded, and the company’s purchasing manager loved it. That same day, Legge received a purchase order that included a deposit cheque. “I opened a business account and started my promotional distributing company with that order,” she says. “We continued a mutually successful business relationship for several years, until [Mac Tools] relocated the purchasing division to the United States.”

Legge continued reaching out to more corporations by cold calling and then dropping by their offices to discuss their promotional needs and requirements. The orders started to flow in. In those days, it was a challenge to find a source for items that some clients needed. However, not having previous experience in the industry did not deter Legge from being resourceful and connecting with a company that could fulfill a client’s need.

Legge did not realize it at the time, but she was creating a viable, growing business and learning the keys to success by using those strong family values of self-reliance, dependability, and resourcefulness. Through perseverance and persistent phone calls, the list of potential customers increased, as did the business.

As the years went by, Legge developed solid relationships with all of her clients. “We fulfilled their every need by asking the right questions, earning their trust, and delivering what was promised,” she says. “It was that simple! I learned that my clients were counting on me to help them succeed, and I would continue to succeed only after they won.”

Almost 10 years later, a corporate client asked Legge to create and manufacture a custom order of boxer shorts for a marketing campaign. The total order value was close to six figures. With the order, Legge realized she had come full circle and had found her place in the business world.

Legge credits her success to the relationships she has been able to form over the years. She calls it a journey of learning experiences. “When I look back, I never dreamed I would become a businesswoman or ever achieve what I have at this point in my life,” she says. “I am very proud that after 20 years of expertise and service, we still have most of our original clients.”

These days, Legge has more than just her successful business to hail. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010 and undergoing a double mastectomy last November, Legge is a cancer survivor. “I just keep moving forward,” she says, “I treasure the life experience and business knowledge gained dealing with clients over the past 20 years. Life is a journey that unfolds like a deck of cards. Each of us has to play the hand we are dealt, but ultimately it is a chance to seize the opportunity and make the best of it—every single day!”