The ties that bind
Suppliers and customers working to ensure timely, resilient, and efficient supply chain performance
By Jeff Baker
Supply chains. Often mentioned, often misunderstood, but not often appreciated as much as they should be when working as designed.
Supply chains – sometimes referred to as supply networks due to their interconnected nature – and their constituent suppliers and purchasers are the rivers of materials and goods that flow from, between, and among manufacturing companies and their customers.
When they work efficiently and effectively, it’s almost like they’re just humming along behind the scenes. When they’re not working as expected – or if operations have shifted but the supply chains haven’t – that’s another story entirely!
Just-in-time or just-in-case
In a time when the Toyota Motors methods of supply and inventory management have become a ‘gold standard’ of sort, and just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing has become almost old hat, the COVID-19 pandemic proved that perhaps the pendulum of efficiency, ‘leaning out the waste,’ consolidation of certain sectors, and off-shoring had swung a bit too far.
“What we’ve seen over the last couple years wasn’t the fault of the supply chain,” says Richard Reid, Chief Executive Officer of Manitoba & Northern Territories with Supply Chain Canada. “The systems were working exactly as businesses had designed them and as they’d been planned.”
“Businesses and their leaders make decisions all the time,” Reid says, “and sometimes those decisions aren’t so great and there can be real consequences.”
Reid related a presentation that he had seen a decade ago warning of potential risks to the manufacturing sector as companies leaned out processes, finding suppliers that were a few cents or a few dollars cheaper, and what sort of impacts global-scale disruption events could have.
“The message was that the longer the supply chain, the more risk you have to be willing to accept,” explains Reid, “and that risk is going to be accounted for either in time or price.”
“For a system that relies heavily on consistency and predictability, there just wasn’t the preparedness for these global events – one of which they’d identified as a global pandemic,” says Reid.
And while the continuing COVID-19 pandemic still affects supply chains and manufacturers around the world, other major disruptive forces continue to buffet the systems.
“The storms that hit the West Coast last November (2021) were really – pardon the term – a case of the perfect storm when it came to supply chains,” Reid says. “Everything was hit – ports, rail, roads, marine traffic, production facilities, and the people – so we almost had to start from scratch to get the system moving again.”
“Companies are still trying to find the stuff to keep their businesses going, and I think we’ll see more decisions being made to re-shore some supplies and shorten the supply chains to reduce the level of risk,” explains Reid.
Suppliers help manufacturers keep their cool
West End Radiator, founded in Winnipeg more than 60 years ago is a company that has shifted its business in a variety of ways over the years, both because of changes in the industry and because of a desire to take more control over their supply chain to better serve their customers.
“When the business first started, West End was one of probably 25 local radiator shops in Winnipeg,” explains Wayne Feeleus, Owner and Director of Sales and Business Development, “and the shop would serve the neighbourhood auto repair garages that used to dot the city. We would pick up and drop off radiators for light trucks and passenger cars, and that was the core of the business.”
“Through the years, though, those local garages disappeared, and the company could see the writing on the wall, Feeleus says. “It was in the 1980s when we made the shift to serving the industrial markets – forestry, mining, agriculture, construction, oil and gas – and it was a huge change for us.”
Going from light duty automotive radiators to those found in industrial machinery and equipment meant West End Radiator was faced with the task of tooling-up and training-up to tackle the larger, more complex components.
“It’s a sizeable market, but there’s still only a handful of manufacturers who actually make some of these parts and assemblies,” says Feeleus, “so we would be faced with having to source components from a small pool of potential suppliers.”
With a small number of suppliers who were servicing a growing industrial market across North America, customers of radiator shops across the continent – including West End – were facing longer and longer lead times for repairs of copper and brass components, which meant more downtime.
“It didn’t matter which shop the customer would call,” Feeleus explains, “we were all using the same manufacturers and suppliers, so the timing was almost identical for the jobs.”
And that issue of speed and timeliness was a big reason why West End made the leap into manufacturing radiator cores and other parts within its own business.
“It was a steep learning curve, and we were taking a leap” says Feeleus, “but we knew it was going to pay off. Taking on the manufacturing tasks meant we took the lead times for our customer’s jobs from weeks down to only a few days. It meant we took back control of an important part of our supply system and can better meet our customers’ demands. It’s a huge competitive advantage for us.”
With the successful on-boarding of the copper and brass component manufacturing work, West End has recently expanded into aluminum manufacturing to bring a similar level of quality and control to another important segment of the business.
“It’s another shift in the market that we had to respond to,” Feeleus says. “We could see it coming when we’d attend exhibitions and trade shows and see what the manufacturers were doing with their products. We had to move into this new area.”
Today, West End is one of only a handful of manufacturers of aluminum radiator core products and parts in North America. In addition to their original Winnipeg facility, the company has expanded operations to Estevan, Saskatchewan.
Feeleus explains, “we have to keep looking at what’s happening out there in the field. You need to keep scanning and looking where things are going to stay relevant.”
“We always look to diversify the business, and we try to ensure that no single customer is going to account for more than about 10 per cent of our total business. It helps us smooth out the ups and downs, and it lets us employ more people in more meaningful ways,” says Feeleus.
“Yes, we manufacture,” Feeleus says, “but at the heart of it is relationships and building those connections that sets us apart and keeps our customers and suppliers coming back.”
“Just this past week, I was blessed to be a part of an online citizenship ceremony for one of our team members, Aly,” says Feeleus. “This was a person who literally walked across the Canada-US border, started in an entry-level position, received multiple promotions, and is now one of our accountants. He’s now officially a Canadian citizen who owns a house and is working in a meaningful career. Had we not expanded into manufacturing our own products, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work with someone like Aly.”
“It’s extra special to work with people that are motivated to make Canada their new home and learn a new trade.”
The pro of going with the pros
In Esterhazy, Saskatchewan, Saskpro Industries – known until their 20th anniversary in early-August as Saskpro Machine Works – has been serving a wide variety of customers in industry sectors including potash mining, construction, agribusiness, and energy.
“We provide a custom machine shop service and custom machining,” says Tyler Metz, CEO of Saskpro. “What we’re really selling, though, is knowledge and experience, and we use that to help our customers improve their operations.”
“A customer can bring in a part or machine that needs work, or it can be an order for something more ‘commodity,’ and our folks can offer advice and expertise to make those things better or extend the service life of a component,” explains Metz. “We want to add value to all our customers.”
“We never want to step on the toes of our customers’ own in-house metal working shops,” Metz says. “We know why some of the work is maintained in-house, and we work to support those operations.”
A lot of the work that Saskpro does take on is the custom-type work, whether its on-site at a customer’s facility or in the Saskpro shop. The value proposition remains the same, according to Metz.
“We’ll never replace those in-house shops or functions, but we can complement them very nicely by helping to improve on current models or getting equipment back up and running faster than might be possible if they only had inside folks doing the work.”
Being a partner in their customers’ operations and supporting the larger picture has allowed Saskpro to grow as a company and a service provider.
“Companies will sometimes come to us for a one-off sort of project, but we’ll look for the opportunities to continue working with them and build the relationship into something more long-term,” Metz says. “Sometimes it ends up doing more of the same work, or it might turn into bigger projects over time.”
But even as a supplier growing to take on more and different work, Metz says that Saskpro is not an island.
“One of our core values as a company is alliances,” explains Metz, “and we believe in building strong relationships with not just our customers, but also our vendors and other businesses in our field. Together, we can offer better solutions with less stress to the customer. That’s our main objective.”
Asked how those alliances are formed and maintained, Metz says, “it’s not just about contracts or formal agreements. It’s about ensuring we share values and take a common view to serving the customer – whoever’s customer it is.”
“We’re very clear in our communication with everyone – customers, vendors, alliance partners – and we can set realistic goals and have realistic expectations across the board,” Metz says.
“We know what we’re great at, and we know who’s great at other stuff,” Metz explains, “so we’re going to invest in training and equipment and people in those areas and become an even better supplier and partner for our customers.”
Making it for the team
For a company that started out as a partnership of a few folks working in the electrical industry servicing clients in pulp & paper, mining, energy, and manufacturing, Team Power Solutions has grown into a supplier of knowledge-driven, innovative solutions for power, automation, and control applications.
“From our start in 2009, we’ve really worked to fully understand our customers’ challenges,” says Brook Davis, Business Development and Marketing Manager – and one of the five founding partners – with Team Power Solutions. “We work to offer value-add as a tip-to-tail solutions provider.”
“We started in the service space,” Davis explains, “and then we added manufacturing, engineering, digital and a digital apps group working in areas including machine learning and vision systems. Every segment complements each other, and it allows for unique and innovative solutions to develop.”
Davis says it was an easy decision for the company to move into the manufacturing space.
“Deciding to go down the path was the easy part; the challenges were in the ramping up to actually do the work: finding the space, sourcing the equipment,” says Davis. “It’s the same challenges our customers often face!”
With projects and customers across Canada and in the United States, Cayman Islands, and Suriname, Team Power Solutions knows the challenges their customers face are varied and can be complex.
“Our customers were and are looking for equipment in the power, automation, and controls spaces, and they regularly face extraordinarily long lead times,” Davis says. “That’s where we excel; we can deliver the goods in a very timely fashion, and we can do it with an extremely high level of quality.”
As both a supplier to their customers and a buyer from a supply network of their own, Team Power Solutions can see the impact of practices, process, and the people factor throughout the system.
“Across the supply chain, we’re all buying and selling, and we’re all interconnected, so it makes sense to have a common way of dealing with folks,” explains Davis. “We look at both our customers and suppliers through a very similar lens.”
Asked what advice he would offer to other manufacturers looking to better serve their customers as a supplier (and customer in their own right), Davis says “engage in the process as early on as possible. That’s how everyone involved is going to see the better results.”