Editor’s Note: It is with great pleasure that we welcome Mike Baker and the Wood Manufacturing Cluster of Ontario (WMCO) as regular columnist to Woodworking. Our columnists provide an incredible source of industry knowledge, experience and advice to our readers and we are thrilled to have WMCO join us.
On behalf of the WMCO board of directors and its manufacturing and associate members across Ontario, it is our pleasure to have been invited to contribute a regular column for Woodworking Canada!
We hope you will enjoy our column and find it valuable.
But let’s start with some introductions and a bit of history and context.
In 2009 seven wood manufacturers in the counties of Grey and Bruce in Ontario, were feeling the pinch of the recession, compounded by imports and increased costs. They decided to speak to one another about their common challenges to come up with some ideas that would benefit everyone. They started by getting into each other’s factories and building trust and establishing common ground. They collaborated initially on some government programs to help their facilities and began to share best practices and solutions to problems they shared.
The resulting collaboration inspired them to research the concept of ‘industry clustering’ (more details on clusters in the next column), and why it is so widespread in Europe. They sent two representatives to the Cluster Academy in Clusterland, Lintz, Austria, for cluster training, to see if they had what it takes to form a cluster right here in Ontario.
Sure enough, they did, and the cluster was incorporated as a non-profit in March of 2011, named the Bluewater Wood Alliance (BWA). The cluster initially had two industry experts working as co-managers to get it started: Sepp Gmeiner and Blair Tullis. They held networking events where manufacturers could meet with each other and with suppliers to share new technologies, expertise, and facilitate B2B activities and it soon grew to 25 members. In November of 2012, they hired me as their cluster manager, initially for three days per week. Networking events continued, but programming also ramped up to include plant tour Kaizen events, finishing training, and export projects to new markets. Very quickly the cluster grew and attracted companies from all over South-western Ontario.
In 2015 the decision was made to expand the cluster region to include all of Southwestern Ontario to accommodate new members and locations for meetings also spread across the region.
By 2016, the BWA hit 80 member companies and it was time for another visit to Austria for additional training and assistance with a strategic business plan. Board members increased from seven manufacturing members to 13: 10 manufacturing members, and three associate members. The board governance of the cluster model became ‘manufacturing centric,’ with by-laws that state while supplier board members can vote, they can’t become president, and can’t contribute to a quorum.
Collaboration between competing companies is encouraged through mutually benefitting programs and projects: as in the clustering model in Europe, and part of the reason European countries are ahead of us in Canada in many ways. We also realized at the time that BWA was the only industry-led and managed wood manufacturing cluster in Canada.
Support staff were hired to assist me, and I was named executive director in 2017. Programming, training, networking events and plant tours continued and as membership continued to grow, we also added support staff. Tara Davey joined us as program administrator, and Ryan Tabone as program coordinator/advisor.
Recently, the BWA board of directors realized that they were no longer the Bluewater Wood Alliance with the geographic reference. Members now came from Chatham in the west to Ottawa in the east, as well as the GTA and Niagara Region and north to Muskoka. Membership had grown to 130 companies; with approximately 70 per cent manufacturers and 30 per cent associate supplier members.
The board went through the brand and name change exercise with Canadybox Marketing facilitating. This took place over the course of four zoom meetings that took place between October, 2020, and January, 2021. The announcement for the name change from the Bluewater Wood Alliance to the Wood Manufacturing Cluster of Ontario (WMCO) was made in February, and I became CEO.
In tandem with this announcement was also the creation of the Wood Supply Chain Group Inc. buying group. This is a buying group created by members designed to increase sales for suppliers and cost reduction for manufacturers by way of rebate programs (not pricing based). More on this subject in a later column.
So here we are. Whew! What a ride so far. WMCO continues to be the only industry-led and managed wood manufacturing cluster in Canada. We look forward to sharing all the knowledge and experience from the collective members in the cluster with you, and introducing our members and their accomplishments.
In the next issue we will take a closer look at clusters and how collaboration creates win-win outcomes, both in our cluster, and clusters abroad.
Our global competitiveness as an industry depends on our ability to transcend the typical mindsets of ‘us vs. them,’ ‘we are bigger so we are better,’ ‘we have trade secrets,’ or in plain language, ‘you vs. your perceived competitors.’
Rising above this and realizing no one knows everything, and we all have something to learn, and share, the collective industry wins. We become more competitive as an industry and a nation.
This is the secret to the successes they are seeing in Europe where clusters and collaboration has been in place for 30 years.
Here is a video that demonstrates this: https://vimeo.com/519987856
You can learn more about the WMCO cluster here: www.wmco.ca