No. 15: Surgically Clean Air
Mississauga | 3-year revenue growth: 2,368%
Few businesses had a name better suited to the pandemic era than Surgically Clean Air, which sells portable indoor air purification machines. When it was founded in 2010 by Marshal Sterio and Douglas Eaton (joined soon after by Mark Clawsey), the original SARS epidemic had already shown how easily viruses could spread indoors. So they developed what’s called “a multistage filtration system”—instead of relying on just one method of cleaning air, the units combine a high-efficiency particulate air filter and a charcoal filter, which trap airborne particles, and use ultraviolet light to render those particles inactive. The company estimates its filters can remove 99.9% of pathogens and other particles from indoor air.
As the name implies, Surgically Clean Air was originally focused on medical settings—more than 55,000 of them, many of them dental offices—where owners had an interest in preventing the spread of germs long before COVID-19. But since the pandemic began, its focus has broadened to include businesses, educational settings, residential buildings, public bathrooms and any other space where lots of people have to breathe one another’s air. It recently opened a second headquarters in Europe to serve overseas clients.
Now the company is targeting the broader public by exploring the marketing possibilities of R&D. “We have a doctor in-house who’s on board with all the compliance and regulations, and has input on the testing that needs to be done for the filters,” says global director of marketing Payal Raj. “Then we take all the information and use it in our messaging.” As more people go back to the office, the company knows that even after the pandemic ends, we’ll still want our indoor air to be, as the saying goes, surgically clean. /Jaime Weinman
No. 118: Ace Beverage Group
Toronto | 3-year revenue growth: 400%
Mike Wagman remembers the moment he concluded the Canadian popularity of beer had turned flat. The CEO of Ace Beverage Group says it was around 2018, when the company was largely centered on its Ace Hill craft beer brand. Ace sponsored a hockey league for police officers in Toronto, and one day, the cops asked if the company had any vodka sodas instead of beer that they could drink in their locker room after the game. “That was kind of a watershed moment,” Wagman recalls. “Traditionally, you would think of those guys as the typical beer consumer. And they were looking to balance their consumption with these kinds of healthier beverage choices.”
The beer-league experience confirmed data from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario that showed consumers were shifting from traditional categories like beer, wine and spirits into a new category of lower-carb, ready-to-drink beverages. Think spirit-based seltzers, minus the sugar. Wagman and his team ploughed all their efforts in the new direction, and they haven’t looked back.
Ace now has six brands, including the popular Cottage Springs, and Bobby Margarita, a new line launched with NHL hockey commentator Bob McKenzie. The company’s strategy: make products that taste better than the ones offered by leading brands, while making them healthier, too.
Wagman is hesitant when asked if the company will hit its $60-million revenue target for this year, saying there are “so many factors” affecting the industry and the company’s own results. But he’s playing the long game and sees plenty of runway. “The thesis is if you can develop products that are familiar to customers and refreshing and high in demand over a long period of time, but you can deliver it with a better nutritional profile…then that can allow you to scale. And that’s kind of what’s been working for us.” /Nicolas VanPraet
No. 128: Herbaland
Richmond, B.C. | 3-year revenue growth: 371%
Many immigrant entrepreneurs start their own businesses out of necessity. For Aisha Yang and Musharaf Syed, it was all about freedom. Exhausted running between two full-time jobs and daycare, they wanted to give their three children more attention and claim a better work-life balance for themselves. So they decided they’d become their own bosses, building something from scratch that combined Yang’s marketing experience with Syed’s nutraceutical and engineering savvy. The result was Herbaland, now Canada’s largest manufacturer of nutritional gummies. “The company started literally in our kitchen at the table,” says Yang. “I still have that table—I keep it as a memory.”
These aren’t the super-sweet, run-of-the-mill gelatin gummies of your childhood. Herbaland specializes in sugar-free, plant-based gummies that can be consumed by anyone regardless of age, religious background or dietary restrictions. In addition to vitamin gummies, the company also makes supplements like vegan collagen boosters, along with snack gummies (including a lemon-and-black-tea-flavoured mushroom blend).
The company—which sells its products in 40 countries—lost its outside manufacturer early on, forcing Yang and Syed to buy their own machine and figure out how to make gummies in-house. After about two months, they had a good process, Syed says. In addition to manufacturing, the company also does its own R&D. Almost its entire staff are immigrants, with about 20 couples among them.
Yang says she never expected things to work out as well as they have and estimates total revenue will soon hit nine figures. The gummy maker has ballooned in size in the past five years and today makes more than 70 million bottles and pouches of gummies annually, with seven manufacturing lines across three facilities. The company recently bought more land to add another 150,000-square-foot building, and plans to double production capacity by the end of 2025. /NVP
No. 312: Pelican International
Laval, Que. | 3-year revenue growth: 105%
If your idea of a good time includes paddling down a river or canoeing on a crystal-clear lake, you’re probably already familiar with Pelican. Founded in 1968, the manufacturer of kayaks, paddleboards, canoes and pedalboards is a huge name in outdoor adventuring. Since 2019, it has consolidated its position internationally and tripled annual sales. But despite acquisitions driving its recent growth, innovation is still the heart of the Pelican brand.
Founder Gérard Élie introduced the world’s first plastic pedalboat in 1970 and the first plastic canoe a year later. The business was relatively small until the mid-1990s, when Élie’s sons took over and built a 200,000-square-foot factory in Laval. Now the firm has more than 1,100 employees in three centres across North America. Meanwhile, its proprietary RAM-X material, used to construct ultradurable yet lightweight boats, has become an industry benchmark. “The brand wasn’t built with great marketing or ad dollars. Pelican was built on its products,” says CEO Danick Lavoie. “But we also needed to consolidate the industry.” To that end, it has bought three companies since 2019: South Carolina kayak maker Confluence Outdoor, California-based inflatable-kayak brand Advanced Elements, and GSI Outdoors, which makes outdoor cooking and hydration products.
Amid all this growth, Pelican was dealing with COVID-19—a double-edged sword. Stir-crazy people flocked to the outdoors, spurring huge demand for equipment. But supply-chain issues and labour shortages bottlenecked sales. “It was tough, but once the supply chain opened up and we resumed our usual operations, we were able to leverage our inventory,” says Lavoie. “And people were more willing than ever to buy online, so we did very well from an organic growth standpoint.”
The majority of Pelican’s market share is in North America, especially the U.S.; fewer than 10% of sales are overseas. But the company is vying for European and Asian markets. “Between innovation, diversification, consolidation and digital transformation,” says Lavoie, “we were able to generate tremendous growth.” /Liza Agrba
No. 378: Kettlemans Bagel Co.
Ottawa | 3-year revenue growth: 74%
Nearly three decades ago, Craig Buckley found himself working as an entrepreneur in the nation’s capital, but longing for a bagel the likes of which could only be found in his hometown of Montreal. Sick of commuting back and forth to stock up on his favourite carb, Buckley decided to make his own. Since “Buckley’s Bagels” didn’t sound overly appetizing, the founder looked to lesser-known bagel history for inspiration: The chain is named after the worker whose job in a traditional bakery was to take the rolled bagels to the kettle for boiling.
In August 1993, the flagship Kettlemans Bagels opened its doors in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood, and devotees have flocked there ever since for what many consider the city’s best bagels. They’re hand-rolled with high-protein flour, as per the traditional method, then boiled in water infused with honey, giving them a touch of sweetness, and cooked in a wood-burning oven. The entire process is visible to customers, and Buckley says the “no-wall” idea single-handedly transformed Kettlemans from a bagel shop to an experience—one worth paying for.
Slowly but surely, Buckley expanded from its classic bagel-and-cream-cheese roots to include 14 varieties (chocolate bagel, anyone?), along with sandwiches like smoked meat (a nod to Buckley’s Montreal roots) and cubanos. In 2016, Amer Wahab was hired as director of operations to scale up the company without losing its best-little-corner-bagel-shop vibe, complete with exposed brick, counter-height stools and signature string lights hanging from the ceiling. “We wanted every Kettlemans you walk into to feel like the original, but with official procedures and checklists, consistent operating practices and training guides in place,” he says. He accomplished that mission; today, 575 employees at seven Ontario locations—including three more in Ottawa, two in Toronto and one in Whitby—bake 9,000 bagels each per day, 24-7, 365 days a year.
Even with expansion going strong, Kettlemans continues to experiment. Sales are about 90% retail, but the company also does catering and offers reward points through its online app. As it modernizes, however, it’s simultaneously doubling down on tradition: The beloved chain will get back to its roots when it opens its very first location in Montreal. /Rosemary Counter
Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.