'No gimmes' for revived Cambridge shirt factory

It has been just over a year since the John Forsyth Shirt Company closed down its operations in Cambridge. Since then, the factory has been reopened under independent ownership and produced 70 full-time jobs.

Factory was closed down by John Forsyth Shirt Company in March 2013

Just last March, the situation for workers at the John Forsyth Shirt Company was not looking good.

The company, which was founded in Waterloo in 1903, said it was forced to shut down its factory in Cambridge because the federal government cancelled a vital subsidy known as the Duty Remission Program. It allowed Canadian clothing companies to import materials duty-free as long as they maintained some domestic production.

Without the subsidy, Forsyth’s operations would cost an extra $2 million a year.

Rather than accept a closure, then plant manager Rick Droppo decided a few months later to purchase the factory’s machinery, stay put and hire back 40 of his former employees. Dropporebranded the operation as a new, independent company called Canadian Made Apparel and now oversees the business as president.

Droppo says he has now been able to bring his staff up from 40 to 70 full-time employees.

Business is relatively steady again. The John Forsyth Shirt Company is now a client. The list also includes Mark’s Work Wearhouse, Sobey’s and starting next month, Canada Goose.

"Pretty much without exception everyone was anxious to come on board," said Droppo.

The factory has even started exporting high-end dress shirts for a client in Japan. Droppo says he and his workers have also branched out from shirts to make items such as fleece, pants and flame-retardant clothing.  

We're obviously all working harder than we ever have, because we want to keep this place alive.- Kim Fisher, factory worker 

Droppo says going through the revival has created an even stronger bond on the factory floor, and the fine details of how the business is doing, such as daily production numbers, are watched by all.

"We’re obviously all working harder than we ever have, because we want to keep this place alive," said Kim Fisher, who works a sewing machine on the factory floor. “I’m in the plant 5 o’clock in the morning, I’m still here 4 o’clock at night.”

Asha Boodram, who worked at the plant for 12 years under Forsyth management, says she was relieved to be asked to come back and work. 

"For us older people it's harder to go out there and get another job," said Boodram. "It's been great so far, so I'm happy."

Future difficulties 

Despite the successful turnaround, Droppo says the plant does have some challenges ahead.

Among the challenges: an expiring contract with Tim Hortons, one of Canadian Made Apparel's biggest clients. Droppo says the company is moving production of its uniforms to Mexico.

"The majority of our Tim Hortons restaurant uniforms are produced in Canada, including some pieces that are continuing to be supplied from Canadian Made Apparel," Tim Hortons said in an email to CBC News.  

"Whenever possible we always consider our domestic suppliers first and only if those suppliers are unable to meet our supply needs, then we consider sourcing internationally."  

However, Droppo says he is not surprised by the company's decision, as others have done the same. 

"This industry is dying all over the country and this area has taken an awful hit over the years in particular," said Droppo"There were no gimmes. We’ve had to earn it every single day."