North Toronto bargain queen helps the needy

[attach]3265[/attach]At 12, she was selling her handmade rainbow pins to Yorkville jean shop Rainbow (now called Over the Rainbow) for $12 each.

At 14, she was the top seller at ladies’ fashion shop Fairweather, even though she worked there only two days a week.

“I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” says North Toronto resident Jody Steinhauer, whose Caledonia Road business, The Bargains Group, is celebrating 22 years.

“I could always make money at something.”

Today, Steinhauer wheels and deals as the bargain queen, offering retailers and other businesses rock bottom prices for discount wholesale and branded promotional items.

Even so, for a gal who runs a highly successful discount empire, Steinhauer says she was a disappointment to her family for a long time as she didn’t go into the expected professional career.

Instead she attended the prestigious (and expensive, she says) International Academy of Fashion Advertising, studying with the likes of Canadian designer Alfred Sung.

She even got her father to pay for all of her educational expenses by graduating top of her class.

“I’m really cheap,” she says.

Dubbed Bargain Jody, Steinhauer started her company in the late 1980s, when discount retailing hardly existed, she says. Now she’s known far and wide for her $2 T-shirt.

But the doyenne of discount isn’t just about getting deals for her clients on everything from linens and toys to clothing and accessories.

She’s got heart, too – evidenced by a host of community service, business leadership, and humanitarian awards decorating her office meeting room.

Steinhauer has been doing corporate social responsibility since before the term was coined. Even these days, when the term seems to be the corporate buzz phrase du jour, Steinhauer inspires as much as she shames businesses that do lip service to the idea of giving back.

Not only does she hire at-risk youth – some of whom have benefited from her charitable initiatives in the past – but she also sells much-needed items like socks, blankets and personal hygiene products to not-for-profit groups at massively discounted prices.

[attach]3266[/attach]By leveraging the relationship she’s developed with her suppliers, she gets the biggest bang for the donation bucks from the charities she works with — namely smaller grassroots organizations that help the homeless.

“I can take a thousand-dollar donation from Salvation Army and quadruple it.”

The challenge with the charitable arm of the business, she says, is how to help the not-for-profit sector and still make money.

Still, Steinhauer says business people think she’s crazy as she’s not ruled by the bottom line when it comes to charitable initiatives.

Her annual [url=]Project Winter Survival[/url], just wrapping up its 11th year, isn’t exactly a moneymaker.

But the project’s goal, to provide 2,500 homeless people living on Toronto streets with survival kits valued at $165 (and costing only $25), is noble – especially when 100 percent of every dollar raised goes into paying for the sleeping bags and other items in the kit.

Corporate social responsibility isn’t just a phrase anymore, she says.

“Employees demand it.”

And it’s not just about giving back, she says.

“We’re trying to create a whole philanthropic movement in small and medium-sized business.”

Steinhauer uses the term “bridging” often, when describing how she helps businesses handle what she calls the social responsibility gap.

A law firm could loan out its accounting services or provide free legal advice, she says.

In other words, all it takes is the will to contribute.

“You don’t have to have cash.”