Helly Hansen Canada knows a thing or two about innovation. It has to - workers’ lives depend on it.
The Dartmouth, Nova Scotia company keeps thousands of workers dry, warm and safe outdoors. Its line of meticulously designed work wear, including flame retardant suits and thermal layer clothing, and full line of marine safety products are sold at more than 1,300 retail stores across Canada.
Helly Hansen has also made its mark as a manufacturer and distributor of cold-water survival suits used by major oil and gas companies, including Hibernia, Husky and ConocoPhillips Canada in Atlantic Canada.
The company’s innovative mettle was put to the test in 2009 when it began upgrading its helicopter passenger suit for the offshore industry-a process that typically takes 24 months. A key client needed the suits in less than half that time.
It was a Herculean task, but the company’s 120 employees were able to do a full redesign, certification and retrofit on 1,800 survival suits in just 8 months.
“We had to create new production and quality control processes to meet the timelines, while producing a suit that fits a much broader range of individual sizes” says Dan Clarke, president of Helly Hansen Canada, a privately held Canadian company that operates under licence from Helly Hansen of Oslo, Norway. “It was tough but we did it. It’s now the survival suit of choice in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.”
Clarke adds that retrofitting 1,800 survival suits in 8 months would not have been possible without having skilled people in Atlantic Canada.
“No doubt it would be less expensive to run our factory in the Far East, but we would not be able to as readily and rapidly respond to our customers needs,” he says.
While governments and industry think tanks brainstorm on ways to encourage more small and medium-sized companies to invest in innovation, Helly Hansen walks the talk in every corner of its operations.
It invests about $750,000 annually in research and development on new products, and millions of dollars more over the past few years to improve its processes, procedures, distribution and customer service.
“Innovation for us isn’t just about a scientific review of a new flame retardant garment, it’s a 360-degree approach to our business,” Clarke says.
In 2009, Helly Hansen launched a new corporate program to focus on 3 pillars: solid customer relationships, satisfied employees and innovation.
“Our innovation is driven by the fact that we’re a small company competing against very large companies. That requires being innovative all the time, be it in processes, procedures, products or in how we serve our customers.”
The global economic downturn presented even more challenges. Helly Hansen saw its sales drop to $22 million in 2009 from $25 million in 2008. It also found itself with more inventory than it needed and had to act fast to correct the situation.
“It was the biggest lesson we learned. We got caught in a rapidly growing marketplace, and the problem with that is you forget what’s on the back shelf. Then all of a sudden you have an inventory problem.”
The company decided to implement a new database system to better plan inventory levels. It introduced another system to make invoicing of major dealers more manageable and efficient. And it added new analytical reports and forecasting tools.
After the changes, a BDC consultant carried out an efficiency assessment of Helly Hansen’s plant, R&D division and logistics group and gave the company a glowing report.
The bottom line? Helly Hansen reduced its inventory costs by 33 per cent - or about $4-million-over the past two years. The changes also shortened its product development cycles by 40 per cent.
“We have a solid niche market but there are always bigger competitors trying to move into our space,” Clarke says. “We’re like a zodiac boat trying to sink a battleship. If we’re not innovative, we’re going to get run over.”
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