Business, or pleasure?

An entrepreneur's empire

NAME:
Steve Bannister
GRADUATION YEAR:
1979
PROGRAM:
Business Admin Marketing
POSITION:
President & Founder of Aren’t We Naughty

BMS Enterprises doesn’t stand out much. On the corner of an industrial court in Brampton, Ont., it blends into the surrounding complex of scraggly trees, cracking pavement, and sun-bleached concrete buildings.

But step inside, and you enter a world of colour and surprises. Piles of adult novelties lie heaped in a chair. Sleek, glossy displays showcasing new adult novelties line the walls. Industry awards – including Sex Toy Manufacturer of the Year for 2018 – perch on the reception desk. Cut through the staff kitchen, and you’ll find yourself in a warehouse lined floor-to-ceiling with boxes ready to be shipped to customers worldwide, or to Aren’t We Naughty – the chain of 10 adult novelty stores started by Sheridan Marketing grad Steve Bannister.

Bannister is the founder of Aren’t We Naughty and president of its manufacturing and distribution arm, BMS Enterprises.  It’s a business that, like his warehouse of toys in an otherwise non-descript part of suburbia, injects some fun into the daily operations of a retail company. Bannister delights in the playful aspects of his business, creating toys for grown-ups that come in colours such as cheeky teal and sassy pink. And he gets a youthful sparkle in his eye when he describes the products’ power, sleek shapes and discreet carrying cases. But Bannister’s clientele is decidedly more mature.

“When a customer says ‘I love your products,’ there’s nothing more satisfying than that.”

Aren’t We Naughty caters to thirty-something women who are looking to add a bit of spice to their love lives, and who want to shop in a store that’s more lingerie boutique than seedy video store. Packaging and store displays are designed in sleek silver and whites, adorned with lilacs and ribbons. Bannister is determined to give these women high-quality products. In fact, as attitudes toward sex have liberalized and important discussions about the need for consent between partners gains media attention, he’s seen more and more women venture into his stores solo and with open minds.

“Before, people would send their husband in to buy something. The woman would stay in the car. But now, the man stays in the car, the woman goes in,” he says.

In fact, Bannister first got his idea for the store from a group of women. After graduating from Sheridan, he worked at Bell Canada, installing phone jacks. Then, in the early ‘80s, he attended a party his girlfriend hosted to sell lingerie. He realized there was big money in the business of spicing up sex lives. So he did some research.

“There was a lack of competition … I figured the margins would be generous, and I thought, ‘People want this’,” he recalls. In 1983, Aren’t We Naughty opened its first location in downtown Brampton. While his business may seem like an unusual choice, Bannister says his education still played an important part in helping him develop the work ethic and maturity to start his own company.

Thirty-five years on, Aren’t We Naughty now has stores across Ontario. BMS Enterprises manufactures many of its products at factories in China, and ships products to clients worldwide, which accounts for 80 per cent of his business. Along with managing the company, Bannister also leads product design and development. He crosses the globe to attend industry shows to see what’s new, and if he finds a product like a massager that sparks his imagination, he’ll spend up to a year working on new product design.

“I’d rather use myself and the whole industry to find products that will be successful, and once in a while, you run into them.”

Beyond the fun, though, come particular challenges when you’re in the business of selling sex products. In 2012, Bannister spent a year battling a Toronto bylaw that labelled his store an adult entertainment establishment. A local city councillor wanted to lump Aren’t We Naughty into a group of massage parlours and adult video stores the bylaw was intended to shutter. Bannister took the city to court, arguing that his products, like condoms and lingerie, are no different than what you’d find at a drug store or the mall. He won that fight, but readily acknowledges that in his industry, he has to try a little bit harder to keep his stores clean and the exterior windows family friendly.

And while increasing competition online and more manufacturers are making the business more competitive, Bannister doesn’t have plans to retire. He wants to stay in the business because he still delights in making products that aim to please.

“When a customer says ‘I love your products,’ there’s nothing more satisfying than that,” he says.

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