Imagining the Future, Today
MW Canada designs and produces textiles for the wholesale and manufacturing markets. This multi-generational business embarks on high-level research to bring materials into the future in interesting and novel ways…
“Yes, we are in the textile business because weaving and knitting are a form of making a material, so we really call what we make an engineered material. The textiles and materials that we make can be broken down into two categories: they are decorative, and there is also functional,” Chief Executive Officer Bob Berger explains.
Despite these seemingly disparate classifications, Bob recognizes that there are aspects of the business that cross over, and to stay ahead, he sees value in combining form with function. “It is a design business because – making commodity products – you can’t make in North America, because you can’t compete with places in the world that don’t share the same costs,” he says.
“You have to be a niche player, make unique products, differentiate yourself from the competition, and also offer added value. We are always customizing the product, trying to figure out where the customer is hurt and how you can fix it. If they want to buy price, they won’t be buying in North America; they will find another place to buy. If they want to buy for any other reason – quality, delivery, functionality – you have a better chance.”
The textiles industry is no different from any other modern market in what is now a global field. A company’s competitors are no longer just national, and while this opens up a wealth of opportunities, it also comes with challenges. “Manufacturing of any type in North America is a challenge. There are less and less manufacturers of suppliers, which means that there is less and less expertise which has a ripple effect on the number of skilled, qualified people.”
To meet the demand of its customers and to build on the skilled workforce it has developed, the company set up a learning institute. This has brought advantages for both the existing staff and future development opportunities. “We built a school more than ten years ago. We have a full skills and learning centre because employees are not coming to our door with the skills we need them to have. We have to teach it, and today, using web-based training, it is a lot easier to do because they can log on from anywhere. The skills for what used to be known as a mechanic, they don’t exist anymore. It is all computers; it’s all AI (artificial intelligence) and wireless communication, so today, it is a different skill … and that is the same in any industry.”
Bob is quick to point out that this web-based learning environment has many positive facets. “Most manufacturing plants have people from all over the world, speaking many different languages,” he says. “That is one of the beauties of our training being web-based; people can go at their reading level or their skill level. The person that runs our learning centre can monitor the speed that they are progressing at, and if there is a problem, they can sit down together.”
In addition to encouraging engagement and skills upgrading from its employees, Bob feels that the learning environment offers a more complete skills development package to staff. “What we are doing is upgrading skills of our employees, which also helps in the employees’ self-esteem. It is not only learning skills; it allows them to see that they can still better themselves at any age. That is a huge thing, and we want our employees to come to work happy every day. There are a number of people that have finished their high school equivalency through our skills and learning centre.”
One reason the company is eager to develop the expertise and knowledge of its employees comes from insight into the future of the industry. “I tell my employees, ‘The job you do today, as you do it today, whether it is one year, two years or five years – that job will not exist the way you are doing it now.’”
MW Canada invests heavily in research and development, and it is clear that the company feels passionate about breaking new ground by presenting exciting, novel products. “There is the next generation of what is being called smart textiles. We are talking about printable, flexible, wearable electronics that are built into the product. We have fabrics that can sense things so, for example, one of the first products we started with is turning every window shade into some sort of solar panel,” Bob explains.
“Most homes and buildings have roughly thirty percent service area glass, and the sun is free. If you can harness that energy in your blind while you are away at work and store it in a battery, it could be used for something. It could be something like sending a message to your thermostat to raise the blinds up and down based on room temperature; it could be changing the temperature in the room. All of this technology is available today.”
While this product development and research may seem futuristic, the company is community-minded enough to recognize that these advances are beneficial for the industry as a whole. The true winner is the customer. “We are involved in a lot of research projects. We fund and partner with universities across the country, researchers who specialize in these projects, and we have a full-time member of staff involved directly with research and development,” says Bob.
“They are slow processes, but if you are involved with multiple researchers that are working continually on projects, all you need is one of them to come up with something and then everyone else’s research changes. It is exponential. With these technologies, you may not always be the first, but you certainly don’t want to be the last, so you need to understand the technology that is coming, how it could impact your business, and figure out where it can take you.”
However, at its core, it makes a product, and that product needs to be appealing to customers. Bob is under no illusions that MW Canada can relax if it wants to keep growing for many more years.
“It is a design business. We have very good people that travel the world going to trade shows, and we have to make what other people don’t make. If we make the same, they will make a decision based on price. We can see what is being sold around the world, and then we say, ‘What can we do that is different?’”