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ENTREPRENEUR: THE INNOVATORS Going beyond toasty long johns

Decision-makers at a crossroads

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A transition is set to take place in the executive ranks of Stanfield's Ltd. While the company won't say exactly when, Jon Stanfield will replace his father Tom at the helm. The president of Stanfield's Canada will become the fifth generation to head the Truro, N.S.-based 156-year-old clothing manufacturer. Best known for underwear and toasty long johns, the company in recent years has acquired smaller clothing brands across North America to expand its line to include firefighting apparel, lingerie and winter sports gear produced under a variety of banners. As CEO, Jon will be tasked with increasing that reach and keeping the company competitive. Although its challenges are many, the biggest obstacle is the power of its competition -- large foreign brands such as Hanes, Jockey and Calvin Klein. The bulk of Stanfield's products are made in North America (a small percentage are imported) while the competition relies heavily on overseas production, putting Stanfield's at a cost disadvantage. Jon Stanfield discussed his vision for the company in an interview with Quentin Casey. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Q How long have you been with the company?

A I've been in a management role since 1994. But my date of hire was some time in 1984 at the age of 13. Back then, I was sweeping floors and putting boxes in the stockroom -- doing whatever I was told.

Q Was it always assumed you would join the family business?

A There was never any pressure to do so. I wanted to stay on. It's obviously a privilege and a great opportunity to follow in your father's footsteps. He's run the company since the mid-1960s. I remember him saying, 'Once you get here, it's going to be very hard for you to leave.' I'm 41 and I'm still here.

Q You'll soon be chief executive of the entire company. What's your vision?

A There's obviously a need to grow. Organic growth is very challenging in the Canadian market for three reasons: retail consolidation, a lack of growth in the apparel sector and stagnant consumer spending. The only way to take it to the next level is through acquisition. We've made two major acquisitions in the past two years, and there's a vision to do more acquiring. My goal is to build the company and provide an opportunity for the sixth generation to be involved.

Q Stanfield's is, by its own admission, known as "the underwear company." Obviously there is a sense of pride there. But does the company need to shake that traditional perception?

A I think we do. We have to become more of an apparel company in the eyes of the customer. They see us as their source for underwear products. Therefore, it's very hard for us to expand our brand into different categories. We are trying to change the image of our brand through packaging, product development and advertising. We're trying to convince the consumer that we're different.

Q What's the biggest obstacle in pushing into new territory?

A It's very hard to take a well-established brand and push it successfully into another category. For instance, it's hard to make consumers see Stanfield's as a provider of women's underwear. That's why we bought a company -- the Sterling Group out of Montreal -- that's already successful in that space. Our strategy is to find leading brands in other categories and buy them up. We're branching out.

Q What's the biggest challenge facing the company?

A Remaining competitive on price versus our competitors. We continue to manufacture here in Truro. That puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Nova Scotia is not a low-cost nation.

We scrutinize our costs as much as we can. Certainly there would be savings in moving all our production offshore. But we're known for being made in Canada. You can't take away 156 years of history very easily.

Q You were born and raised in Truro. You'll soon helm one of the town's biggest employers. That must provide you with a sense of pride.

A Absolutely. It's an honour. My father, who remains my mentor, taught me a lesson: Be true to your employees and they, in turn, will be loyal to you. I think that has been one of our success factors. We have third-generation factory workers. Our workers believe in us. And we believe in them.

-- Financial Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 11, 2012 B8

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