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(Larry MacDougal)
(Larry MacDougal)

At the Top

Mr. Manufacturing in the oil patch Add to ...

There is something heroic about Mel Svendsen - in the way he fights for manufacturing in energy-mad Alberta. He steps up as his industry's voice on everything from the effects of a supercharged Canadian dollar to shortages of labour.

But behind the forceful opinions, the 61-year-old is president and co-owner of a Calgary company, Standen's Ltd., which produces vehicle suspensions for global industrial, auto and farm equipment markets.

Here, he talks about what it's like to be Mr. Manufacturing in the oil patch.

What were the origins of this company?

Cyril Standen was a blacksmith apprentice, who in the 1920s was chucking away on his anvil, making whatever was needed in the market. One of the first products was a stiffener plate for cowboy boots. He had this blacksmith forge and someone had a broken spring that needed repair. Next thing you knew, he was spending more time repairing springs than making other things. Over 86 years, we grew into a suspension business.

When did you come aboard?

I joined as a student in 1967, and full-time in 1968. I grew up north of Edmonton on a farm and this was going to be my experience in industry before going back to the family farm. The farm lost out, I guess.

I was a teenager when I started and I was in management by time I was 21.

As a company that exports two-thirds of production, has the Canadian dollar volatility been a big part of your career?

It has been and it is still painful. We in Canada are not efficient enough as a nation to be able to thrive at parity [with the U.S. dollar] I'm talking about our costs of doing business, based on such a small population in a large country.

We have to build buildings that are a hell of a lot better than our competitors in most of the U.S.; our roads take a hell of a pounding just by virtue of our winters. All these things add up to make us less efficient.

On the positive side, we don't have to maintain the same level of defence industry as the Americans and we have the benefit of a pretty well-educated work force.

So why do you keep doing this?

Probably for the same reasons our founder did - because we're Calgarians, because we're Albertans, because we're Canadians. By God, we know how much better we have to be than our American competitors or our foreign competitors, and we do everything we can to maintain that.

We are privately held, and we're not greedy folks, so we are prepared to take a little longer-term view of what is success and what isn't.

We are not reporting to the stock market every quarter, and so we can be a little more patient with our investments and our people. But long term, without a doubt, we have to make every effort possible to be better than our competitor.

Is there a rule for business?

If you make something better than your competitor, and deliver it on time, and at the same price, you ought to win. If you are just equal with competitors in all those things, you are going to have a problem. But if you can be better in at least one of them, you have a good chance.

Many years ago we gave up on selling on price alone. You just can't do it - it's a race to the bottom. That doesn't mean we can ignore competitive pricing.

Typically we try to find those accounts who need just a little better level of quality and focus on meeting their needs.

How do you manage now in this volatile economy?

Most of it is thanks to a strong loyal work force. [In recent years]the long-term employee who had almost zero likelihood of being laid off was willing to share his or her work with the new employee. That work-sharing indicates the esprit de corps here.

Also, we keep encouraging our staff to pressure their retailers to recognize the purchasing power of the Canadian dollar. When the dollar is strong, never make a deal on a significant expenditure without asking for the best possible price. Somebody in that supply chain is probably making out pretty well with the strong Canadian dollar and should have some room to budge.

So whether we are buying nuts and bolts, or whether our people are going out on their own to buy a new TV set, we encourage them to say, "Look, if this has an imported component to it, we expect that savings to be passed to us."

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