I dropped by the University of Toronto yesterday for the Rotman business school’s annual “Entrepreneurship Forum,” co-sponsored by the Business Development Bank of Canada (gee, Small Business Week must be coming up).
The forum, on International Competitiveness, offered “lessons learned” from three Canadian entrepreneurs and exporters: Kathryn From, CEO, Bravado Designs Inc. (a maker, oops, designer of nursing bras); Mike Keilhauer, president of Keilhauer Furniture, which makes office chairs; and Les Mandelbaum, president of Umbra Ltd., a manufacturer and distributor of contemporay housewares and accessories.
Although they come from different industries, the entrepreneurs told three similar stories: of trying to survive and thrive as suppliers to the world from their home base in Canada. The long and short of it is: with our high wage rates, abetted by teh high dollar, they can only survive by moving more and more work overseas. They are three manufacturers now getting used to being design firms that create products in Canada, but more and more have them produced abroad.
As a group they pretty much agreed that manufacturing in Canada (for mass and consumer markets, anyway) is dead.
Rotman’s energetic dean, Roger Martin, has been talking for several years about the importance of design in business. Case studies such as these underscore that view. If they're careful, and very very good, Canadian entrepreneurs can survive in the global economy. But it likely won’t be as manufacturers.