Turning up the volume on ‘Prairie proud’

By Derek Lothian. 

mentor of mine once told me the greatest strength a business leader can have is recognizing internal weakness — individually and organizationally. That requires discipline, authenticity, and a predisposition toward continuous improvement. Only then can one properly manage risk and pivot to new opportunities as they arise.

It is an ability many of us struggle to master. No one enjoys vulnerability. But, often, it is when we are most exposed we experience the most radical growth.

As a manufacturing community, we have spent generations cultivating our core strengths into a regional brand. We are trustworthy, we believe in relationships over transactions, we have high standards of quality, and we push the boundaries of product innovation. That is what we are known for in the international arena.

Our shortcomings, on the other hand, are seldom identified with the same conviction. If honesty is the baseline, however, perhaps it is the right time to acknowledge what there has been seemingly closed-door consensus on for years:

We have a marketing problem.

Call it modesty, call it humility, call it whatever you want — it is holding us back.

Unfortunately, the issue isn’t contained to just sales. It is also now jeopardizing our ability to compete for the best and brightest talent, to influence public policy, and to strengthen our local value chains.

Now, before you e-mail me a 2,000-word opus extolling our ‘humble Prairie demeanour’ as the eternal spring of our success, hear me out:

I have spent the last decade of my life traveling the globe, both as a manufacturer and in a capacity directly supporting manufacturers, and I will contend that humility is not part of our Prairie brand at all. It is simply how we self-identify. No one has ever come up to me at a tradeshow in Germany or Argentina and claimed to have sought out our booth, or to have preferred doing business with us, because we keep to ourselves.

It then begs the question: Why are we so hesitant to be our own loudest champions?

Historically, granted, it may not have mattered — or at least as much. We’ve gotten to where we are by listening to customers and offering solutions no one else was, or could.

But the global economy is changing. The pace of competition is running rampant, and even jurisdictional advantages we once leaned on are disappearing by the day. Market conditions are saying good riddance to the old adage that good is good enough. We need to be the best, and we need the confidence to say that we are — at home and abroad.

This edition marks the first full year in operation for Prairie Manufacturer Magazine. Over these four, quarterly issues, our writing team and I have requested interviews with dozens of homegrown, world-class manufacturers. And we’ve been fortunate to feature several I have personally looked up to for years. It is not uncommon, though, for companies to decline the invitation — usually with a benevolent politeness, I should add — under the pretext they appreciate the offer, and read the publication religiously, but prefer to maintain a low profile.

I’m not complaining. While I don’t consider myself a journalist per se, this is the career I’ve chosen, and rejection is a part of it — something several years as a shy, awkward teenager coincidentally have made me a quasi-expert in. I’m merely pointing out the culture we have built for ourselves.

I’m not contesting our modesty is all downside, either. Far from. Truth be told, we showcase several companies in the proceeding pages — from Monarch Industries (Page 8) to Bothwell Cheese (Page 42) — where it is evidently embedded in their accomplishments. I am, instead, suggesting maybe it’s time we be a little less humble. The world is evolving, and if we want to lead it, we need to as well.

Over the holiday break, I caught myself skimming through a 2015 report authored by the World Economic Forum, which collected the input of 800 industry experts; and, based on their feedback, predicted the likelihood of reaching certain technological ‘tipping points’ by the year 2025.

Roughly four-fifths surveyed believe at least five per cent of consumer products will be 3D-printed, driverless cars will represent 10 per cent of all traffic on U.S. roads, and the first implantable mobile phone will be available for purchase. Forty-five per cent, meanwhile, said an artificially-intelligent machine will serve on a corporate board of directors.

It triggered me to think of all the manufacturing facilities I’ve walked through across the Prairies, and how similar changes would impact those companies. And, at that moment, I was profoundly struck by how unprepared many of us are for the Industrial Revolution that is come, especially when measured up against manufacturers overseas. Only a few months ago, I toured a local plant — 100-plus employees, major exporter, renowned for product advancements — that had just installed its first robotic welding cell.

What does that have to do with being humble, you ask? Everything.

There is a convergence between technology integration and promotion in how we perceive ourselves — our weaknesses — and prepare to adapt. It is rooted in every facet of business practice. Just as we will not remain competitive if we fail to accelerate investments in enhancing our technological processes and sophistication, we will not remain, period, if we don’t start realizing, and communicating to others, how exceptional we actually are.

If you don’t advertise why people should choose to work for you, don’t expect to attract A-class talent that can take your company to the next level.

If you don’t purposefully publicize in target markets why you should be the supplier of choice, don’t expect to keep finding new customers.

And, if you don’t commit to voicing why manufacturing is important in your town, city, province, or country, don’t expect elected officials to intuitively understand what conditions and policies you need to prosper.

I truly do believe the last one-hundred years on the Canadian Prairies have given us some of the greatest manufacturing success stories on the planet. We have some of the best products, the best businesses, and the best leaders anywhere — and I am proud to cover them in this magazine.

There is no shame in doing well by doing good. Let’s tell the world what we have to offer.