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Carolyn Hajek on staying small and strong

November 1st, 2020 / By: / Feature, Perspective

Pride City Awning & Canvas founder Carolyn Hajek has built her business on trust and loyalty.

by Laurie F. Junker 

The successful formula for Pride City Awning & Canvas is the application of a simple principle—treat customers, suppliers and employees with honesty, fairness and loyalty. It’s an approach that has kept the Pueblo, Colo.-based manufacturer of awnings, banners, custom products and shade sails in business for more than 30 years. 

“We’ve been blessed with wonderful customers, many who have become friends,” says owner Carolyn Hajek. She credits these long-term relationships to her insistence on giving customers the straight scoop, whether it’s on timelines, budget or even if Pride City isn’t the right choice for their project. “I’ll tell them, ‘It’s not that I don’t want your money. It’s just that I want you to be happy,’” Hajek says. 

Founding a business

Hajek began her career in the awning and custom fabrication industry while working for a different company—Pueblo Tent and Awning, which, under its original name, F. J. Burch Tent and Awning Co., was one of the founding members of Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI). Its owner, Henry “Hank” Anton Sr., is known for developing an early example of the retractable awning arm. 

Hajek started on the sporting goods side of the business and eventually moved into selling specialty fabric products, including herder tents, water bags, irrigation dams and awnings. Because it was a small operation, Hajek also pitched in wherever needed—with one exception. 

“I didn’t tell them I could sew because I figured they would add that to my other duties,” she says with a laugh. 

After five and half years, when she didn’t get a raise that she asked for, she decided to go into business for herself, with encouragement from her husband, Larry (also known as “Good Looking Larry,” his preferred moniker).

“Larry kept saying, ‘If you don’t like it, why don’t you start your own?’ So I did, and from the time I decided to start a business to the time we were up and running was one week.” 

With $1,800, a sewing machine and a 700-square-foot shop, Hajek opened Pride City Awning & Canvas on May 1, 1989. She chose the name Pride City because it is one of the city of Pueblo’s nicknames, and because it would be listed alphabetically in the phone book before her primary competitor (her former employer). At the time, the Yellow Pages was the leading form of advertising for awning businesses, and new businesses often chose names in order to appear first in alphabetical listings. 

As it turned out, Hajek missed the deadline for the Yellow Pages that first year, so she took out small “scatter” ads in the local “Thrifty Nickel” newspaper instead. 

“I took on just about any business that came through the door—anything I could make with a sewing machine,” Hajek recalls. That included conveyor belts for dryers and T-shirt screen printing, awnings, boat covers and specialty bags. For the first three years, Pride City was a one-woman operation, with Hajek doing everything from sales to sewing to billing. Larry helped out, building frames and doing installs with the help of friends. The business was profitable from the get-go, and Hajek was confident enough after three years to move into a larger space, purchasing a 1,600-square-foot building a few blocks from the original location.

Ups and downs

For the past 30 years, Pride City has grown steadily while staying small. Hajek likes to say, “We’re not a small business. We’re a teeny-weeny business.” Today the company has six employees and an additional 2,000 square feet of shop space to accommodate an expanded product line that includes retractables and shade sails. The company also began offering graphic design services after running into production delays due to unreliable outside design services. 

“They’d say it would be ready on Monday, but they wouldn’t say which Monday,” Hajek says. By bringing design services in-house, Pride City can accurately set and honor timelines, which is essential to maintaining trust and loyalty with customers—a key tenet of Hajek’s business philosophy.

Hajek extends that loyalty philosophy to her suppliers—especially those that helped her get Pride City off the ground.

“We’ve found some wonderful suppliers through IFAI, including Trivantage® and Futureguard®,” she says. “They gave me credit early on, acknowledging us as a real awning company, so I’m very loyal to them.” 

The business has seen its share of economic ups and downs. Hajek cites the period around the 9/11 attacks as one of them. During that time, Pride City kept the business stable by focusing on American flag sales and repairs, which were flourishing due to increased patriotism. 

“You’ve got to go with the flow,” she says, citing a nesting instinct that seemed to take hold at the time, with people being willing to spend money to fix up their homes to create cozy, safe spaces. At the start of the current pandemic, Pride City kept the workroom open and sewed face masks for the community. By late summer, the company was busy handling an uptick in sales of residential awnings, which Hajek credits to the same nesting instinct, in addition to people spending more time living and working at home and noticing how hot it gets during the day. 

“I am busier than I have ever been,” she says. 

Carolyn Hajek’s niece, Lisa Boughton, is a part of the second generation of Pride City Awning & Canvas.

Thinking skills

Finding and keeping qualified employees has been Hajek’s most persistent challenge. “I had a perfect employee named Marveen for 18 years who could sew anything. She passed away 10 years ago, and I’m still looking for someone like her,” Hajek says. 

She thinks that part of the problem is the mind-set of applicants. “Working in this business isn’t so much a job as it is an apprenticeship, a craft,” she says. Hajek would like to develop a test to give to potential employees to see if they have the spatial thinking and problem-solving ability the job requires. As she puts it, “They don’t have to know how to sew. They have to know how to think and to be able to reason out what you can do with what you have to work with.” 

Hajek is thinking about the next era of Pride City Awning & Canvas. Son Lonnie runs the frame shop and installations, and niece Lisa Boughton is also involved in the business, so Hajek hopes that Pride City will stay in the family when she and Good Looking Larry are ready to move on. Reflecting on her years in the industry, she takes pride in the fact that she started small and stayed small while building a successful awning and canvas company.

“Thirty years later, we’re still going strong.”   

Laurie F. Junker is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.


SIDEBAR: Snapshot

Historical challenge

The Historic Federal Building in downtown Pueblo, Colo., once housed a federal courthouse and a post office, but today it’s home to artisans and craftspeople. Designed by famed architect William Martin Aiken and completed in 1897, the Italian Renaissance-inspired building is on the National Register of Historic Places, a fact that Pride City Awning & Canvas had to consider when providing new awnings to the building. “We cover a large geographic area and have done a fair amount of historical work, but this was more challenging because of its official designation and dealing with the rules and opinions that come with that,” says Pride City owner Carolyn Hajek. The original plan called for awnings on every ground-floor window. In the end, the clients preferred Pride City’s design of a main entrance canopy with decorative banners alongside the windows.  


SIDEBAR: Q&A

What advice do you have for someone who is interested in starting a business in this industry?

Look for what makes it fun instead of what makes it work, and always be honest with your customers. If you can’t have something done in six weeks, don’t say that you can.