Businesses faced ruin from the pandemic. Then Canada came calling for vital supplies
'I never would have thought we could see such a transition in manufacturing,' says economist
As the extent of the COVID-19 catastrophe became clear last spring, Toronto entrepreneur Marcus Fraser thought first of his family, then he thought of his friends, worried what this would mean for all of them.
"My third thought was, 'Oh crap, I'm out of business,'" he said.
Fraser makes high-end clothing. He imports material from China and sells to retailers across North America.
In that instant, he knew retail sales were about to be decimated, international shipping would grind to a halt. But then, he imagined a path forward.
"I know how to do stuff; I know how to import things," he said. "I know how to make things. And guess what, we need things."
So, Fraser started hustling. Within days, he was scrambling to get a whole new line of products made and ready for what he assumed would be a wave of demand. He says there's not that much difference between hooded sweatshirts and surgical gowns.
"We just picked up and started making materials," he said. "Gown contracts started to come in. Mask contracts started to come in and we just forged ahead."
Today, his company has sold more than 300,000 gowns for use in hospitals across Ontario. He's sold another 100,000 masks. He's expanded too — landing a contract to put a series of vending machines in Toronto transit hubs to supply masks, PPE and what the machine bills as other "stay safe essentials."
Fraser isn't alone. Dozens of companies across Canada retooled their production lines to fill needs. Distilleries made hand sanitizer. Plastics companies made medical-testing equipment. Car companies made ventilators.
"This is probably the most fulfilling thing I've ever been part of," said Flavio Volpe, head of the Automotive Parts Manufacturing Association.
"I call it the largest peace-time mobilization of Canada's industrial capacity."
I just went to pick up mask prototypes from @WoodbridgeGroup in Vaughan. <br><br>They’re working around the clock to get PPEs in production for front line staff.<br><br>I’m driving them to <a href="https://twitter.com/McMasterU?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@McMasterU</a> in Hamilton who stepped up to evaluate them ASAP.<br><br>This is us. No wasted hours. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/StepUp?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#StepUp</a> <a href="https://t.co/rVJMslUUAK">pic.twitter.com/rVJMslUUAK</a>—@FlavioVolpe1
He put out a call to his members in March. Plants had been shut down to prevent the spread of the virus. Volpe asked who would be willing to retool their assembly lines to make medical equipment. He called on people in his industry to "do our part and step up".
He was overwhelmed by the response. Dozens of companies answered the call, which he says they should be immensely proud of.
Volpe says the great retooling of industrial capacity is a shining example of just how creative and how flexible Canadian companies really are.
"Canadians understand now better than they used to that there's dignity in making things," he said.
WATCH | How automakers retooled to respond to pandemic needs:
Flexibility on display
Economists agree. The health of any economy can be measured in terms of productivity gains, in entrepreneurship and technological innovation. In report after report, Canada has lagged behind.
Bloomberg ranked Canada 22nd on its innovation index. Productivity rankings of G7 countries places Canada below the G7 average.
So, experts like Pedro Antunes, chief economist at the conference board of Canada, see the pivots companies made last spring as a hopeful example of what's possible.
"For a lot of Canadians, myself included, I never would have thought we could see such a transition in manufacturing," he said. Volpe says he always knew these companies could be responsive — and it was never just about keeping the businesses afloat.
"I think at their core, they want it to show everybody how committed they were to their workforce and the families that work for them and to their own families," he said.
That's not to say it's all been smooth. Distillers, who had pivoted their operations to produce hand sanitizer and donated tens of thousands of litres, were disappointed when the federal government later signed agreements to buy it from larger suppliers — and not them.
Fraser says he's never worked this hard. He's entered into a sector he once knew nothing about, selling an entirely new product line to an entirely new clientele. And after all that new business, he says he's still just filling a giant COVID-sized hole in his books.
"As much as I'll take the business," he said, "all it's doing is replacing business that isn't there."
And now, as the crisis drags into its tenth month, Fraser's filled some of the bigger contracts. Work is starting to slow down again. That existential dread that comes with running a company is creeping back into his thoughts.
"Will we make it?" he asked. "I don't know."
But he does know he bought himself time, and maybe helped some people along the way. He used to joke that no one was curing cancer in the fashion industry. Nowadays, he's not so sure.
"I don't know if it saved somebody, but it certainly helped somebody."