Monday, September 08, 2008

Entrepreneur of the Week, Part I: The Return of Aaron Fish

Nearing the age of 70, award-winning Montreal entrepreneur Aaron Fish sold his lock-making company, Unican, in early 2001. But fate decided that seven years of retirement was enough. A year ago, Fish bought back the east-end Montreal factory where Unican first began.

And now, by working closely with his staff to lower costs and increase efficiency, Fish has returned that plant to profitability and is creating a new model for manufacturing in the 21st century.

Times had been tough for Unican since its $880-million sale to Swiss-based Kaba Holdings. Capital Industries Ltd., the lock and furniture-handle factory from which Unican sprang, employed 683 employees in 2001; by last year the staff had fallen below 200. The problem, as you might guess: fierce overseas competition.

Last November, according to journalist Marianne Ackerman, writing in the Montreal Gazette, Fish spurned his wife's advice and bought back that part of the company. "I bought it on Wednesday,” Fish boasts, “and by Monday morning we were in the black!"

It didn't come easy. Fish cut out the management fees paid to Kaba, and outsourced costly accounting and legal services to small local firms. He also cut a deal with his staff : if they agreed to a freeze of their pension plans, they would get 25% of future pre-tax profits. According to Ackerman, sales started growing almost immediately.

"Manufacturing is not dead in Canada," says Fish. "What we have to do is put our heads together with employees and find ways to compete, look for new markets and new ways of doing things."

Half of Capital's business is in metal furniture parts such as door handles. The rest involves components for locks and electronics. "We are not the most efficient operation around," says Fish. "If you need 50,000 of something, go to China. But if you want 10,000 and assured delivery, call us."

With rising labour rates in China and increasing transportation costs, Fish foresees a resurgence of specialty manufacturing in North America. Capital is now looking at opportunities in aerospace and transportation. “Bring us the designs," says Fish, "and we can make pretty well anything."

For perseverance, creativity, his concern for others and his unbounded confidence, Canadian Entrepreneur is proud to name Aaron Fish our first Entrepreneur of the Week.

You can read his full story here.

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