Northern Canadian Supplies is one of the four semi-finalists in The Globe and Mail's Small Business Challenge Contest. The 2012 contest drew more than 1,000 entries, and a panel of 9 judges selected the semi-finalists. The winner of the $100,000 business grant will be announced in September. The other three semi-finalists are Forerunner Research Inc., Livestock Water Recyling Inc. and RecycleSmart Solutions Inc. To view photos and a multimedia presentation of the four, go to tgam.ca/smallbusiness.
Marlene Luck, president of Northern Canadian Supplies Ltd. in Fort McMurray, Alta., has big plans for her business, which sells environmentally friendly cleaning supplies and equipment, and safety work gear such as fire resistant clothing and hard hats, to schools, hospitals and seniors residences.
Since its launch eight years ago, Northern Canadian Supplies, which has eight employees and $616,000 in annual revenue, has expanded into Saskatchewan and British Columbia and has built warehouses in five Canadian cities. Its product catalogue is now 1,700 pages thick and includes brands from global giants such as Procter & Gamble and 3M.
It's a long, long way from the company's early days, when it sold only five cleaning products, all homemade by Ms. Luck, who learned from her grandmother how to forage in the wild, and how to use natural ingredients to make non-toxic cleaning products and health remedies.
"When my kids had a cold we wouldn't go to the drugstore because I made my own medicine," says Ms. Luck, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation band in Fort Chipewyan, about 200 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. "And the cleaners I was using in my home were my own, made from pine needles boiled to a certain level."
Ms. Luck's skill became well known among family and friends, who pushed her to commercialize her concoctions. One day, she dropped off samples at the Fort McMurray offices of Syncrude Canada Ltd., one of the country's largest producers of crude oil from sand.
"They liked the products and said they would buy them if I sold them through my band, which I did," says Ms. Luck.
When Ms. Luck's band got into the janitorial services business, they asked her to expand her product offering to meet all the needs of an industrial cleaning company. She looked into the possibility of manufacturing her products on a large scale but didn't have the capital needed to make this move.
"So I ended up doing research and finding leading environmental products I would be proud to carry," she recalls. "Within a year, I went from making products in my kitchen to becoming a distributor for 3M and for all these other companies."
What the company needs
While Northern Canadian Supplies continues to expand its market, Ms. Luck says she would really like to do more business with Fort McMurray's oil sands companies. But getting a foot in the door won't be easy; she says she will need to retain the services of consultants or procurement experts who specialize in the industry.
"I carry environmentally friendly bitumen remover degreasers, my products are concentrated and use less packaging and they're safe to use – you don't need gloves and a mask," she says.
"I would love to introduce our green products to the industry and show them that they can move to being green while achieving significant cost savings."
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