The Risk Takers series looks at how a few of Canada's creative minds fearlessly went their own way.
CEO Dani Reiss, who wanted to be a writer, ended up crafting the outdoor clothing company's story.
Canada Goose officially opened a new 100,000-square-foot factory in Toronto, just days after Canadian Thanksgiving. And for those gathered for the occasion, there was reason to give thanks.
By keeping its manufacturing in Canada at a time when the trend among apparel makers is to produce more cheaply in Asia, Canada Goose has created 200 new jobs in the past year. Seventy-five of them are inside this factory located at the end of a residential street in the north end of the city. Another 90 more are in the Winnipeg location, recently expanded into a 90,000-square-foot facility that has more than doubled the company’s production capacity.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Toronto, the new hires were among the crowd of sewers and cutters who gathered around their boss, Canada Goose CEO Dani Reiss, as he took a pair of scissors in hand to inaugurate the new space.
In an interview away from the crowd, Mr. Reiss, who turns 41 in November, talks about the decision to manufacture in Canada – identifying it as a huge risk that, he allows, has been well worth the difficulty.
“When other companies left en masse for Asia, it decimated the apparel manufacturing business in Canada,” Mr. Reiss says.
“Staying at home meant we had to invest in rebuilding infrastructure, and we’ve developed and built new training programs for sewers to ensure we have the skills we need to make the best and warmest products in the world. And as we grow, that becomes harder and harder. It’s our biggest challenge, and also one of the things I’m so proud of. I’m proud to keep creating new jobs here in Canada, and to help spread the brand of Canada around the world.”
Designer Roger Edwards agrees that the risk is worth it. He has been producing made-in-Canada clothing since the 1980s, originally for his own eponymous fashion line and recently for Parks Canada Original, a line of branded outerwear for Parks Canada. The brand slogan, “This Land is Your Brand,” links locally produced fashion to a sense of national pride.
For Mr. Edwards, this is what makes domestic manufacturing offset the difficulties.
“Our competitors may have a marginal advantage over us with their offshore low-priced products,” Mr. Edwards says. “But I believe the quality and ethical sustainability of our made-in-Canada products gives us a tremendous edge.”
By keeping production in Canada, Mr. Reiss has created jobs and invested in rebuilding Canadian manufacturing infrastructure. In so doing, Canada Goose has helped to create the outdoor luxury apparel category.
Before Canada Goose, there wasn’t really a large market for $700 high-end down-filled jackets. Similar premium winter jackets were $299 or $399, tops. But Canada Goose had an extra edge, earned through its history as an extreme-cold workhorse.
Canada Goose is worn by scientists working in research stations at the North Pole and by filmmakers on location in the great outdoors. The company’s first big break came in 2004 when the parkas appeared in the eco action-flick, The Day After Tomorrow. It is the outerwear of choice for celebrities ranging from Daniel Craig to Hugh Jackman and Emma Stone.
“Our jackets are often the first time people have truly felt warm during the winter. I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times,” Mr. Reiss says. “People put on one of our jackets for the first time and it’s a life-changing experience. Suddenly, they start to look forward to bad weather.”
It’s a long way from the brand’s humble beginnings. Mr. Reiss’s grandfather, Sam Tick, a European immigrant to Canada, had been a fabric cutter who launched Metro Sportswear, a precursor to Canada Goose, in 1957.
The company was previously known as Snow Goose, but Mr. Reiss saw how customers identified the parkas they were making with iconic images of the Canadian wilderness and figured a name-change stressing our country was in order.
Son-in-law, David Reiss, Dani’s father, eventually took over the business, building it into a supplier of utilitarian down-filled coats favoured by public-sector workers who mostly laboured outside.
The company was then known as Snow Goose, and it is where the younger Mr. Reiss first cut his teeth as a future apparel manufacturer and entrepreneur.
But it wasn’t supposed to be his calling.
“I actually never wanted to get into this business,” Mr. Reiss recalled. “I had my sights set on travelling the world and writing short stories.”
He studied philosophy at the University of Toronto, in part to realize that early dream of becoming a writer.
But in 1997, after graduating and with no job prospects, he started working for his father. He went on buying trips to Italy and Sweden and that’s when he noticed how customers identified the parkas they were making with iconic images of the Canadian wilderness.
Mr. Reiss listened to their romantic descriptions of snow, ice and polar bears and realized he was becoming immersed in stories that he could translate into a novel experience. The writer in him had struck gold.
“That might seem miles away from where I am today, but actually I think that’s a big part of my job at Canada Goose,” Mr. Reiss says.
“Sharing the real stories about our products, how and where they’re used, and inspiring stories about the people who rely on our jackets to live and work in some of the harshest environments on earth, is what has helped make us so successful.”
That Canadian story was also tied in with another risk Mr. Reiss took. He wanted to change the company’s name from Snow Goose to Canada Goose in 2000. Mr. Reiss proposed it, and he fought with his father over the idea.
He had seen for himself that people were enchanted by the made-in-Canada concept, and he was certain that the brand name had to reflect the origins of the apparel. As did the location of manufacturing.
“Everyone laughed and said I was crazy because we could be much more profitable if we manufactured in China, but it wasn’t right for us,” Mr. Reiss recalls.
“We couldn’t be the authentic company we are if our jackets were made overseas.”
The numbers speak for themselves.
Revenues have grown more than 4,000 per cent over the past decade, the company estimates. Canada Goose products are sold in more than 50 countries today and in 2013, Canada Goose opened a European sales and marketing office in London and its first U.S. office in Denver.
When Mr. Reiss became CEO in 2001, Canada Goose had revenues of less than $3-million a year. Today, the company forecasts revenues of more than $200-million.