It’s all about perspective

By Cathy Gillespie. 

Fifteen years ago, manufacturing wasn’t prominently fixed on my radar. I had a good job as a commercial banker in a good company, making good money. Apart from a handful of industrial clients in my portfolio, my career path at the time couldn’t seem further from many of the everyday operational concerns facing manufacturers. Important functions like product research and development, IT system integration, and lean adoption were foreign concepts.

I’ve always considered myself to be a selective individual — personally and professionally. Maybe it’s the accountant in me. But I rarely jump into any endeavour without first identifying and analyzing every possible influence and outcome. Who I decide to work for is a decision I make only after long and careful consideration. And truth be told, it has historically been a short list.

Fortunately for me, Palliser Furniture was on it.

Palliser is a fascinating Manitoba success story, full of rich history, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit. Established in 1944 by the DeFehr family, the company is now transitioning into its third-generation ownership, and remains incredibly devoted to creating superior products by fostering a superior workforce. That razor-sharp focus has allowed Palliser to weather dozens of economic shifts and cycles, while remaining strong and profitable in the markets it serves.

So, when I was presented with the opportunity to join Palliser in 2002, I jumped at it, ignoring the worry I knew little about the sector I’d be entering.

To my surprise, it wasn’t as much of a culture shock as I anticipated. My initial responsibilities included establishing a treasury function for managing banking relationships and financing transactions, as well as building out the firm’s hedging strategy to manage risk amidst an increasingly volatile foreign exchange climate — all areas I specialized in during my time at the bank. Sure, there was plenty I still had to learn on the fly — in fact, I haven’t stopped learning, and don’t plan to anytime soon — though the familiarity made for a comfortable transition.

That is the interesting thing about manufacturing: It isn’t just comprised of tradespeople and technicians. It relies on financial professionals, lawyers, international business and supply chain graduates, scientists, engineers, and every occupational segment in between. You can come from virtually any background, with any education, and find immense growth potential in manufacturing.

It also makes the widening skills gap that much more curious. Are we really that bad at telling our story? Or are we just telling it to the wrong people at the wrong time?

A few months back, I was asked to participate in a new Women in Manufacturing Working Group — a national initiative spearheaded by Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters. I agreed — albeit reluctantly, because I simply never considered the issue to be much of a problem. At Palliser, we have many women in senior management positions. But then I took a sobering second look at the statistics.

Despite comprising 47.5 per cent of the national labour force, women make up a mere 28 per cent of manufacturing employees. Alarmingly, there has been no increase in the share of manufacturing jobs held by women over the last decade-and-a-half. A big part of those failings has been our inability to connect females to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and other experiential learning opportunities at a young age.

Our narrative on what’s possible in manufacturing needs to improve exponentially. Manufacturing is highly complex. It starts with a variety of inputs and ends with a client need; answering the ‘by what method?’ question in the middle is the primary determinate of success. As a maturing business, manufacturing simultaneously in two countries with uniformity poses a unique set of challenges. Solving those challenges starts with ideas, and then draws from design, engineering, construction, merchandising, sales, and marketing to arrive at high-value customer solutions. That interdependence is unlike any other industry I’ve experienced. It’s an exciting world to be immersed in.

The case for employing more females on the shop floor and in management-level manufacturing roles is less about gender equality and more about meeting the aspirations of customers. Multiple perspectives lead to solid strategic decisions. I am a believer in hiring the best person for the job; I am also, however, cognizant that a balance of genders, cultures, backgrounds, and personality types generally results in more dynamic enterprises.

We have nearly 2,000 employees at Palliser. If every one of those workers thought and acted the same way, would we be as resilient as we currently are and have proven to be in the past? I don’t think so.

The question for me doesn’t revolve around how we fill quotas. The question for me is how we build the capacity in our education system to ensure a greater cross-section of prepared, well-skilled, and globally competitive workers that represent a wide spectrum of perspectives. That’s the foundation of business prosperity.

We need to change how we train for and speak about manufacturing. It’s no longer smokestacks and sprockets. It’s technologically advanced, fast-paced, environmentally-forward, and beyond any one set of borders. The era of Rosie the Riveter is over. The age of diversity is upon us.

Cathy Gillespie, FCPA, FCMA, is the chief financial officer with Winnipeg-based Palliser Furniture Upholstery Ltd., recognized as one of Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies.