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ROB Magazine Made in Canada: For these seven companies, high design equals high returns

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Conquest Vehicles


It might look like a tank, but it rides like a Lexus. The Conquest Knight XV weighs 7,260 kilograms, has five-millimetre armour plating that’s AK-47-proof and rolls on 40-inch ballistic run-flat tires. Of course, it’s not meant for the streets of suburban Toronto, though it is handcrafted there by Conquest Vehicles. The team of about 20 starts with a Ford F-550 rolling chassis, custom-cuts the steel body and machines each component, from 11-kilogram door hinges to nameplates and mirrors. The Andrew Muirhead leather interior is stitched by hand. Windows 32 millimetres thick are imported from Brazil. One vehicle takes up to seven months and 6,000 man-hours to complete.

Conquest unveiled the first Knight XV in 2008, at the SEMA automotive specialty products show in Las Vegas, and put an ad in the DuPont Registry. So far, it has sold 17. This one is bound for Vietnam; the buyer’s name is stitched into the interior. Others have gone to China and the Middle East, where only royals are permitted to drive armoured vehicles, even if Conquest has an export permit from the Canadian government stating it’s for civilian defensive purposes only. A Swedish magnate has ordered three, including one in an ivy green it took Conquest more than three months to get just right. The people who work here—even Conquest’s co-founder, Tim Chapman—are slightly surprised there’s such a market for these things, which start at $629,000 (U.S.) but generally end up costing $900,000 (U.S.) with upgrades. What comes standard: custom-designed air ride suspension, heated recliners with massage function, iPad console and PlayStations, an LCD TV that slides silently from the ceiling. But the Vietnamese buyer requested a full slate of police sirens, night-vision cameras, an external PA and a 63-gallon diesel tank. It even has a magnetic bomb-detection system built in-house by the electronics team. Chapman says they have been asked to install gun safes and even his-and-her machine-gun carriers. They declined. “We stay away from the gun-nuttery stuff,” says Chapman. “But most of the buyers are somewhat sensible.” /Dawn Calleja

Left: a jacket from Moose Knuckles. Right: swimsuits from Shan. (Jimmy Limit for Report on Business magazine)

Moose Knuckles


First, the name: Moose Knuckles is supposed to conjure a distinctly Canadian strain of good-humoured ferocity—the kind of toothless temperament behind a haymaker-filled hockey game. But there is an older, colloquial definition involving the bifurcation of a particular area of the male anatomy. “Yes, there’s a double entendre there we don’t usually mention to the press or retailers,” says Ayal Twik, president of Moose Knuckles. “But we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Fashion can be too serious. We like to show the world we’re a fun country and a fun brand.” The world, it seems, is taking note. What started six years ago as a luxury brand of Winnipeg-made down-stuffed coats sold largely through Holt Renfrew has blossomed into an international juggernaut that derives three-quarters of its sales from outside Canada. Peak demand comes from Italy, South Korea and VIPs such as Drake, the Kardashians and Saul Berenson (otherwise known as Mandy Patinkin, for non-Homeland fans). Over the past year, U.S. luxury retailers Saks, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's have picked up the brand as well, attracted by the rugged furniture zipper, playful hockey-fight logo and a natural cotton texture that sets it apart from synthetic materials favoured by competitors. With celebrity cachet and retail sales of over $100 million last year, Moose Knuckles is defining its own terms. /Patrick White


Laval, Quebec

Even by Shan's own admission, designing and manufacturing luxury swimsuits in Canada verges on the absurd. Like a Trinidadian company handcrafting toboggans. Or a Swedish corporation going into the falafel trade.

Not only is Canada’s prime summertime lounging season notoriously short, but wooing the lucrative international market means physically being where the well-heeled shop—Paris, New York, London and even Moscow. Not on a stretch of highway near the airport in Laval, Quebec.

Yet, somehow, the company is swimming laps around the competition and has gained a worldwide presence in 30 countries and 600 retail locations, ranging from Saks Fifth Avenue and Harrods to Printemps in Paris, not to mention hundreds of hotel retail shops. It’s the No. 1 bestselling brand at Saks for swimsuits over $200. In Russia, it’s the bestselling luxury brand, period.

Not bad for a company that began as a post-maternity-leave project back in 1985, when founder Chantal Lévesque started stitching together swimsuits at home. Shan stands for Chantal, although she wisely changed the “Ch” to “Sh” to avoid confusion for English speakers. The vivacious entrepreneur still runs the show, flying to Italy to work with textile artists and ensuring the resulting fabric is up to snuff.

In an era when other luxury fashion brands are (quietly) shifting their manufacturing operations to Asia—in 2011, Miuccia Prada famously told The Wall Street Journal that sooner or later, everybody will be doing it—the decision to create a vertical company in Canada could be viewed as a rebel move. But Jean-François Sigouin, the company’s vice-president, says stitching all those drapes, topstitches and pleats in-house means Shan never runs into problems other global brands face: late deliveries, and mismatched tops and bottoms.

Even so, he admits that keeping the entire operation integrated in the 30,000-square-foot Laval office, boutique and production facility is a challenge. “Basically, we’re crazy. This is not easy, to be honest. But we decided to make the best swimwear and resort wear for men and women in the world,” says Sigouin. “And we like to play hard.” /Kira Vermond

Lighting by Arancia Lighting and a chair from Palliser Furniture. (Jimmy Limit for Report on Business magazine)

Palliser Furniture


The Buena Vista II Palliser Power Swivel Glider might have beamed itself back in time from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, stardate 5928.5—minus Captain Kirk. Each piece uses 68 square feet of cow leather and takes 7.5 hours to produce. The chair is light years away from the Winnipeg basement of A.A. DeFehr, a woodworker who started making furniture in 1944. When demand for the company’s products grew, DeFehr expanded to an old chicken barn on the family’s property and, in 1948, built his first factory, where he started producing finished furniture and custom bedrooms. The company was renamed in 1980 and eventually split into five, though it remains family-owned and run by A.A.’s son, Arthur (Palliser also owns modern furniture retailer EQ3). It’s now the largest manufacturer of made-to-order leather furniture in Canada, with the leather and fabric covers cut and sewn at the company’s plant in Mexico, and sent back to Winnipeg for frame, foam and final assembly. Keeping these operations here in Canada makes sense—filling custom orders in Winnipeg means Palliser can turn them around within four to six weeks, compared to eight to 14 weeks when buying from factories in Asia. /Tim Johnson

Arancia Lighting

Sainte-Catherine, Quebec

Guillaume Dionne had never heard of Fogo Island when a Toronto design firm contacted him in 2012 about creating custom-made lighting fixtures for a new hotel being built there. Dionne’s company, Arancia, took the job anyway. Today, the Fogo Island Inn—off the coast of Newfoundland—is the toast of the hotel world, the brainchild of local tech millionaire Zita Cobb and a team of Newfoundland architects and designers. Each piece Arancia created was made in Canada, and many of them right on the Rock. Dionne contracted a glass artist in Montreal for the bedroom sconces and hired Fogo Island craftsmen to create wooden ones for the corridors. This isn’t the exception—it’s the rule for Arancia. Dionne, the company's president, proudly notes that its fixtures are designed from scratch and are often custom-made, with the goal of “making simpler things work in an elegant way.” And they’re always imagined, designed, prototyped, tested, finished and assembled using locally made parts. While some might be tempted to manufacture abroad, Dionne insists it doesn’t cost him more to make his high-end fixtures in Canada, thanks to easy access to nearby shops and designers, plus local automated manufacturing. “Our local partners are invaluable resources,” Dionne says. “They are as much partners in our success as we are in theirs, and that is what a community is about.” /Tim Johnson

A knife made by Grohmann Knives of Nova Scotia. (Jimmy Limit for Report on Business magazine)

Grohmann Knives

Pictou, Nova Scotia

When Deane Russell was the private secretary to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King back in the late 1940s, he set out to buy a truly Canadian knife—but couldn’t find one. Undaunted, he ran an advertisement, hoping one would turn up. A response came in from Berta Babinec, whose father, Rudolph Grohmann, had been a famous craftsman in their homeland—the Sudetenland, a region of what was then Czechoslovakia. Her dad, she told Russell, would be the ideal choice to make his knife. The Grohmann family had come to Canada after a Quebec retailer—tired of travelling across the ocean to buy pocket knives—persuaded Rudolph to move his shop to Canada. The family settled in Nova Scotia. Russell hooked up with Grohmann, and the pair consulted with hunters in the field to create four D.H. Russell Belt Knives. Grohmann’s current Original Design Knife is descended from these early creations: an elliptical “leaf” shape and classic rosewood handle, brass rivets and high-carbon stainless steel blade. Hunters say it’s perfect for gutting, skinning and caping (preparing a trophy head for mounting). The company—which also designs kitchen blades—has remained steadfastly in Pictou. While president Mike Babinec admits it can be a challenge to find craftspeople and suppliers in the company’s small-town location, he has no plans to decamp from their picturesque spot, overlooking a serene harbour. The pros, he says, outweigh the cons—and the former include the pride of being a Canadian manufacturer, the pleasure of maintaining close local connections with friends and family, and the fun of sharing their craft with thousands who come across on the ferry for the factory tour. /T.J.

Shoelaces made by Toronto’s Stolen Riches. (Jimmy Limit for Report on Business magazine)

Stolen Riches


David Barclay’s wearing a pair of 20-year-old black brogues—handmade Church’s that belonged to his dad. Every time he steps out in them, he says, people stop to ask where he bought them. It’s not the shoes, Barclay insists. It’s the laces—bright yellow, with bronze aglets stamped with “SR.” That’s for Stolen Riches, which has sold tens of thousands of pantone-coloured pairs at 500-plus stores around the world.

Barclay was a dot-commer and hence says “pivot” a lot. After selling his digital marketing agency, he went travelling for a year, then came home with a hankering to make a physical product—to pivot. This was 2011, and heritage brands were all the rage; in times of financial distress, consumers migrate to names they trust. Barclay already had the heritage: His maternal great-grandfather began weaving laces and the like in 1915, at a factory now run by Barclay’s cousin—through four generations and two world wars, the family likes to say. Barclay hit on high-end dress laces when he asked for a pair at Harry Rosen and was directed to the nearest drugstore’s array of cheap blacks and browns. From there, it was a matter of adding bright colours and clever packaging, which, for retailers, is as important as the laces themselves. With cheeky names like Nicklaus green (for Masters winner Jack) and Buster purple (for Jimi Hendrix’s childhood nickname), the laces come neatly bundled in glass vials that can be displayed in stores in made-in-Canada wooden holders. A slip of paper inside plays up Barclay’s textiles cred, the laces’ unbreakability and the many ways to tie them.

Stolen Riches has been featured in every men’s fashion magazine that counts, and this summer was invited to the Pitti Uomo men’s fashion show in Milan, where Barclay signed up 30 department stores. “If we weren’t made in Canada, we wouldn’t have been swarmed like we were,” he says. “The notion of manufacturing offshore is distasteful to Europeans. Made in Canada still counts for something.” /D.C.

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