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The Sunflower King

"Issy Steen"

You never know when or where opportunity will strike next. Just ask Issy Steen, owner of "Sid's Sunflower Seeds" in Regina. His big break came when two strangers approached his display of sunflower seeds at a food show in New York. They said their kids enjoyed sunflower seeds and asked for a few sample packages. Issy gave them several packages, and promptly forgot the incident. Several months later they called him in Regina, told him they were in charge of licensing products for major league baseball. They asked Issy if he, for a fee, would be interested in having the license to place a major league logo on each package of seeds. It was a big step for him, but Issy agreed.

In April 1989 Issy struck a deal with the Toronto Blue Jays of the American League and Montreal Expos of the National League to allow his company, "Sid's Sunflower Seeds" to be their official supplier. This meant he could put the major league logo on his product.

To launch the campaign, the Expos held a "Sid's Day", handing a package of sunflower seeds to the first 20,000 fans through the turnstiles. The event was well-publicized before the day. Radio commercials told the public at home. At the stadium the electronic scoreboard and public address system promoted Sid's Day a week in advance. Issy said the cost of the campaign was well worth it. Being a typical risk taker Issy didn't stop there. He risked more money by signing an endorsement deal with two of the top baseball players in Canada. Dave Steib of the Blue Jays, and Buck Rogers of the Expos.

Issy Steen was born in Roumania in 1945 and came to Canada with his family at the age of three. Before moving back to Saskatchewan where his father farmed near Hoffer, the family lived in Winnipeg where they ran a grocery store. Issy went to the University of Manitoba and obtained a BA in Sociology in 1966.

He married his wife Francie the following year and the couple moved to Regina where Issy worked for a local restaurant chain. It was his experience in the fast food business that led him to Sid's.

Before his coup in grabbing the attention of the baseball fans in Canada, Issy decided that he had to take the rather inefficient little company he had purchased in 1961 and turn it into a competitive business. Growth was stymied; the Saskatchewan market was oversold so he sent his sales team out into the remaining western provinces and soon had customers there demanding more sunflower seeds. Sid's was growing faster than anything else in the Canadian snack food industry.

Meanwhile back at the plant in Regina, the latest in equipment, inspection techniques and skilled staff were being installed to keep up with the demand.

Before long Issy had the entire western market eating out of his hand, so to speak. However, central and eastern Canada remained elusive. Then came the deal with the Expos and Blue Jays and Sid's became a household name in sunflower seeds across the country. He has now signed all 24 major league baseball clubs to sell his seeds in their stadiums.

Stephen Leacock "I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder] work the more I have of it”. Issy Steen has the same philosophy.

Since much of his business is concentrated in the eastern U.S. and California, Issy plans to open plants there. He knows he will have to decide whether to expand his Regina plant or make a move. As a young boy he used to trade in pop bottles so he could buy packages of Sid's sunflower seeds. Like the guy in the razor commercial, Issy liked the product so much he bought the company.

"I grew up thinking Sid's Sunflower Seeds was a big company," he says.

"After] bought it] found out it was a lot smaller than] thought."

That's all changed, Sid's is now the biggest company of its kind in Canada, employing 21 people and selling seven million pounds of sunflower seeds a year.

"I am a firm believer in advertising and promotion of the right kind. Thoughtfully worked out."

That plus the hard work and luck of the likes of Stephen Leacock, seems to be a winning combination for the plucky Issy Steen. Another Canadian Achiever.

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