The last few years have been tough on many Canadian-based manufacturers, but others are thriving, particularly if they have invested in innovation and established plants outside the country. That's the story at Mold-Masters Ltd., a maker of specialized mould equipment for the plastics industry. Founded by a German immigrant in Georgetown, Ont., it now has manufacturing operations in North and South America, Europe and Asia, and customers in more than 70 countries. The company, led by CEO Bill Barker, was recently sold for almost $1-billion to Milacron LLC, a plastics machinery maker based in Ohio.
Can Canada compete and survive as a manufacturing nation?
I can only speak for our business, but I think the strength of our manufacturing here in Canada results from the quality of people – with great skills and expertise – that we can attract. We are a technology-based business, and we can draw upon the enormous talent of people who live in Canada.
There is an incredibly creative element to Canadian businesses, and that really stems from the fact that Canada has always had to go outside of its borders to find new markets to support growth. That kind of pressure creates a very innovative approach to business, products and services. You don't see that in some countries.
Are we really globally competitive when it comes to innovation and technology?
I have lived all over the world, and when I look at the engineering and technology talent that exists within our company in Canada, I would put it up against any other company I have worked for in the United States, in Europe or in Asia.
Is it getting tougher to find the skilled staff that you need to support manufacturing in Canada?
That is a concern. Going forward I think that one of the challenges we will have in Canada is to develop policies and programs to promote manufacturing. If the manufacturing base erodes, then young people are going to look for opportunities in other industries. [We need] sensible policies that support manufacturing in Canada. From a very selfish standpoint, that would be beneficial for us, because it would give us access to a lot of talented people for many years to come.
What specific support should government give the manufacturing sector?
It would be helpful to have progressive tax policy. That can come in a lot of different ways – investment credits or accelerated depreciation or things like that. It would also be helpful to get assistance for training programs. A lot of manufacturing businesses require very talented electricians and machinists [so it is important to have] a strong base of well-trained, skilled people.
Is the high Canadian dollar still a big issue for Canadian manufacturers?
If you are a company that is uni-dimensional and international in scope, it can be a problem. But if you have very strong continuous improvement concepts in your business, it isn't necessarily a big threat. High-technology companies are more insulated from the effects of foreign exchange changes, because they have premium products. We are positioned in a pretty good place. We have the right balance.
Where is the biggest potential internationally for your company?
The biggest growth is in Asia, because a lot of the plastic processing that occurs in today's world is in Asia. Some of that is coming back to North America, and a little bit is going back to Europe, because logistics costs and labour costs are increasing, particularly in China. But for the most part, the fastest growth is in China.
Is everyone heading to China?
You will continue to see more of the manufacturing footprint of the world go to China. But it is not for the purpose of exporting back to North America or Europe, but rather to satisfy consumer demand throughout Asia. There is a hugely growing middle class in China, and in Southeast Asia, and they will be buying a lot of products going forward.
But you will also manufacture elsewhere?
[In our company], we intend to have a very strong manufacturing base in North America and Europe. In our business you have to be close to your customers to be able to service them, and that requires manufacturing in both those regions.
Isn't Europe in the doldrums?
Surprisingly, our business in Europe over the last number of years has shown very high growth. Within the last year the macroeconomic environment has been somewhat volatile, but the long-term growth characteristics of Europe remain very robust.
Do you see Mold-Masters as a Canadian company or a multinational?
This has always been a business that has reached out beyond its borders. From day one, this has been an export business, and the primary customers are not in Canada. Having said that, the technology expertise is [located] in Canada. And that that will not change, because we are highly reliant on the people who really know the technology in this business, and they are here in Canada.
Would you ever move the company out of Canada?
We have our roots in Canada, and we are here to stay.
Are you optimistic about the global economy right now?
North America is improving, and we are glad to have the U.S. elections behind us. Asia is starting to come back from a relative slowdown in 2012, in a way that gives us confidence that we are going to see better numbers in 2013. Europe remains volatile and unpredictable for the first half of the year. But we are very confident with the macroeconomic policies we are seeing in Europe as we go into the second half of the year.
Mold-Masters is moving from British ownership to U.S. ownership. Is that significant?
No. I have worked for many international businesses, and there is no substantial difference between investors in Europe and investors in the United States or Canada. These are businesses that are all looking for how they can drive value in a very competitive global market. There are some differences from a cultural standpoint, but from a business standpoint there are more similarities than differences.
Title President and chief executive officer, Mold-Masters Ltd.
Personal Born in Fairbanks, Alaska; 63 years old.
Education BSc. in chemical engineering and MBA from the University of Colorado.
President of OEA Automotive Safety Products from 1998 to 2000.
President of Textron Fastening Systems, Commercial Solutions group, from 2000 to 2001.
President and CEO of Rexam Beverage Cans Americas from 2001 t0 2004, then group executive director of Rexam PLC from 2005 to 2009.
Joined Mold-Masters as president and CEO in 2010.
Editor's note: Mold-Masters was founded in Georgetown, Ont., not Woodbridge, Ont. An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information. This version has been corrected.