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(Larry MacDougal)
(Larry MacDougal)

At the Top

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

What is your own skill background?

I am a technologist in the automotive and mechanical side of industry. It fits well with our type of business and I've augmented that with other studies, mostly in business.

The key is to stay abreast of technological change. That often comes from short courses and seminars. I try to network as much as possible and I probably read 10 hours a week on things related to our industry.

You have been hurt by the recession, but is there any upside?

When we go into times like this, there is a plus. The stability in the market that comes with these downturns in Calgary gives you more time to focus on your global business. You are not being encumbered with worker shortages, not being encumbered with high material costs, and your access to outside services is better.

So it ain't all bad, if you know what I mean.

Did you learn things from your father?

The greatest honour my father bestowed upon me was letting me strike out the first furrow in a field. I think I was 16 before he let me to do that, because a Svendsen farm would never have a crooked line down the field. He came from Norway, and the farm he grew up on was damn near on the side of the mountain. You couldn't create a straight line.

But on those flatlands of northern Alberta, you could see a crooked line a mile away. He would never let that happen.

How did you become a leader in manufacturing?

I quickly noticed, being a farm boy, that most of the equipment here was sort of stationery farm machinery ... We were dealing with hydraulics or electrical machinery. Having grown up on a farm, being able to understand the workload was almost intuitive.

A lot of those first steps came from my farm background because in managing work, the issue was: How do we make the work as productive and easy to do as possible?

When did you know you weren't going back to the farm?

Fifteen minutes after my dad asked me when I was coming back. I had to face the question: Was I going to leave Standen's? It was four years after I started here, and he called to say his health wasn't getting better, and the time had come to make a decision.

As we went through the conversation I came to the realization I was not prepared to give up the excitement of manufacturing for the value of owning a farm. By that time our farm had significant value but I said to him, "I don't think that's for me."

Manufacturing can be a grinder and it came be a killer at times, but the creativity is so often in your own hands. Yeah, we have these problems with economic cycles and currency.

Farmers have those too, plus they have weather and pestilence and all those other things you have no way of controlling. At least with manufacturing, we can take our bad luck and turn it into opportunity.

Was one of those opportunities in China?

We were producing things for the international shipping industry, and that production moved to China. It was primarily the chassis that carry the boxes when they come off a ship; we produce 90 per cent of the suspension springs for those.

The Chinese got more of that business, and they came to us to say, "We're going to build these things in China but the customers are intent on having your springs." They convinced us to put a couple of plants there to service this business. But unknown to any of us was how bad that international shipping market would get - it went off the cliff.

Are you still going to do production in China?

We have just completed construction of the two plants in China. Our venture in China was never planned to bring things back to North America directly; it was to service our customers in China who were shipping back to Europe and North America.

Now we are thinking about the domestic Chinese market. I think it will be a strong market even when it is soft because it is just so big.

****

Mel Svendsen

Title: President, CEO and co-owner, Standen's Ltd., Calgary

Born: Feb. 17, 1949, in Radway, Alta.

Education: 1968, diploma in technology, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.

Career highlights:

1968: Joined Standen's, initially on a part-time basis.

1971: Appointed supervisor of manufacturing.

1990: Became a part-owner, as he rose through the ranks.

1995: Took over as president and chief executive officer.

Sits on national board of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters.

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