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Swenco Limited in The Waterloo Chronicle

Bob Vrbanac photo

Bob Vrbanac photo

Swenco Limited assistant general manager Matthew Rowlands and President and owner Paul Sweeny show off their newest product, the Steel-Flex steel toe overshoe. After receiving Certification Europe designation for the product, they’re hoping it gives them a toehold in the important European market.

Industry leaders

By Bob Vrbanac
Chronicle Staff

Advanced manufacturing is always touted as the wave of the future that will power Ontario’s export economy and lead to prosperity.

A Waterloo company called Swenco Limited is proving that future is now with its innovative products and its push into the European market with certification approval for its new Steel-Flex steel toe overshoe.

Swenco Limited has been in business locally for 52 years, and is one of the sole survivors of what was once a thriving local shoe, boot and footwear industry. Founded by Derry and Una Sweeny in 1962, the company is now run by their son, Paul Sweeny, who has brought innovation and new product development to the manufacturer of protective footwear products.

Sweeny, president and owner of the company, said the reason that they’ve remained relevant was by becoming industry leaders in providing steel components for safety shoes and boots to the big suppliers.

“There was once a vibrant shoe industry in this community that employed almost 10,000 people in the 1960s with factories like Kaufman, Greb,” said Sweeny. “We started making steel shanks because our customers were right down the road and we supplied millions of products over the year to Kodiak and the Greb and Kaufman factories.”

But as those operations moved offshore to take advantage of cheaper labour, Swenco kept specializing in components for safety and opened up other markets for their products.

“We started with steel shanks and moved into steel plates and opened a venture in China in 2005,” said Sweeny.

“We will do over six or seven million pairs over there this year.

“We changed with our industry and started exporting to Philippines, Korea and Japan. Now 80 per cent of what we make here is exported out of Canada.”

There was also a constant commitment to investing money back into research and development at the company to continue to be at the cutting edge of industrial design and processes and lead the conversation on safety advancements in the industry.

“We’ve automated the heck out of our operation here, so we can still make steel plates in Waterloo, Ontario and export them to Vietnam, Bangladesh, Cambodia and China, and still compete with manufacturers over there,” said Sweeny. “Now we’re all about innovation and looking at new products and markets.”

“For us to compete with the fly-by-night Asia factories we have to differentiate ourselves,” said assistant general manager Matthew Rowlands, who joined the company three years ago and has been leading some of that innovation. “That means adding technology, or R&D into products that necessarily haven’t had them.

“Steel toes haven’t come anywhere in 30 or 40 years, same with plates and non-metallic materials, so that’s where our focus has been.

“We put about 15 to 20 per cent of our sales back into R&D because we’re trying to push this industry forward to levels where it’s not right now. ”

That’s all culminated in the Steel-Flex product the company hopes to make synonymous with safety footwear and earn brand recognition like Gore-Tex does in outerwear and apparel.

“If we can become leaders in the technology involved in our industry that puts us in a good position,” said Rowlands. “Now we become a thought when people start sourcing their product.

“That’s the reason we have the big name brands in North America. It’s not because we’re the cheapest because we’re not, but it’s because we stand behind our product, we’ve been here forever, and we know what we’re talking about.”

The plan is to expand the Steel-Flex product used in their overshoes that allow visitors and others touring factories to simply slip on their product over the shoes they’re wearing and proceed through production areas.

Sweeny, who is an avid fisher, sees the technology someday being incorporated in boots and waders that people put on when they go in stream. It provides stability to the footwear they’re wearing while protecting them from sharp rocks and other dangers.

“We realized that a lot of our customers only knew us for the product they bought us for even though we make a bevy of components,” said Rowlands. “We wanted to show them everything we did and for us to grow we took one of our biggest strengths which is our Steel-Flex name and hopefully has people coming to retail and asking for that name.

“That in turn will build our brand and build the recognition.”

“Even on a pair of boots, people will ask if it has Steel-Flex, and retailers will be able to say yes it does,” said Sweeny.

The big test comes in breaking into the European market which is the last great untapped market for the local advanced manufacturer. More than two million manufacturing enterprises operate in the European Union according to stats collected by Eurostat.

They hope their European certification gives them a toehold in that market.

“We’ve got the sticker now, so now it’s a matter of how we can crack that egg,” said Sweeny. “I know they’ve been pretty nationalistic over the years, but this will give us a way in now.”


A pdf version of this article can be downloaded here.

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