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Collegial air aids manufacturing industry

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For many manufacturing businesses in Manitoba, the biggest issue of concern for the past few years has been the availability of skilled workers.

That's saying something considering the myriad pressure points the manufacturing sector has to deal with in the age of technology, sophisticated cost containment and productivity demands, the global trade environment and volatile foreign-currency markets.

In Manitoba, the manufacturing sector has chugged along a little under the radar.

Global trade winds have taken a toll on the garment sector and the window makers -- although the latter is coming back. But the makeup of small and medium-sized players and the diversity has not really changed much.

That has a lot to do with the co-operative and collaborative environment that has emerged.

Some of that has to do with self-preservation. Relative isolation provides a little breathing room from competitors far afield but also means the players here are left to their own devices to be relevant in the global arena.

And because there is no heavy concentration in one sector, like autos for instance, there is arguably more willingness in Manitoba for companies to share best practices rather than keep their cards close to the vest and away from direct competitors.

But it takes some leadership and vision to bring those leaders together, and the ace in the hole in Manitoba has been the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters.

The Manitoba chapter of that group has engendered a surprising degree of community participation.

More than 300 people attended Tuesday's annual CME conference, Dare to Compete, an uptick in attendance from recent years.

That's even though the value of shipments was down about one half of one per cent in 2013 compared with the year before and 5.5 per cent from the peak of $16.4 billion in 2008.

Reynolds Martens, executive vice-president of customs brokers GHY International and Manitoba chairman of CME, said one of the reasons Manitoba is among the most successful manufacturing regions in the country is because it has developed a co-operative and collaborative community who work together for their own and the greater good.

"They realize by working together they come up with solutions they couldn't possibly come up with on their own. They can take advantage of work being done in the community without having to be the sole investor in its development," he said "That is a pretty compelling advantage."

What he's talking about is CEO councils and export and innovation circles and programs like the ground-breaking lean consortia that have been going on for years and whose operation has been studied and copied elsewhere.

"A CEO can take advantage of mistakes others make without having to pay the price," Martens said. "How good is that?"

When the energy economy drove up the dollar and put an end to false economies some exporters enjoyed, many companies in Manitoba dug in and figured out how to become more competitive. Now that the dollar is coming back down, they're in that much better shape.

"Lean and productivity gains have been a hedge against that kind of volatility," Martens said.

The collegial atmosphere was very much in presence Tuesday.

Mike Easton, CEO of Argus Industries, had more than 150 people enthralled as he gave a 45-minute presentation on the "tribal culture" at his 80-person parts company that has an ongoing team-building environment that seems to include all the elements of employee empowerment the big-time gurus have been talking about for years.

Ron Koslowsky, CME's Manitoba vice-president, said CME has become very good at organizing opportunities, like Tuesday's conference, for the sharing to occur. But none of it would work if the players don't come out.

"One of the things that drives us is our ability to use the network, getting our industry leaders to explain to others what they are doing and showcase that," Koslowsky said.

"That, combined with members' willingness to share their information, has given Manitoba the best kind of environment for manufacturing."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2014 B6

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

Martin Cash on Twitter: @martycash


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