Saskatchewan company a strapping success
Release Date: February 2, 2006
By Nicole Strandlund – Business Edge
Published: 02/02/2006 – Vol. 2, No. 3
Walk into any office or worker-supply store, and you’ll find an expanding assortment of products designed to make our working life more comfortable: Gel mouse pads, chairs with lumbar support, adjustable footrests.
Thanks to a “eureka” moment, one Saskatchewan entrepreneur is leaving his footprint on this growing ergonomic product market.
It was a small step one day in Ben Dombowsky’s Moose Jaw basement that led to a giant leap onto the international stage.
“I worked for a company in janitorial,” says Dombowsky, “like a maintenance-supply company. And I had a customer who wanted a slip-resistant sole; a strap-on that they used to be able to buy, but they weren’t able to get anymore … (so) my wife and I started making a product to meet that need.”
ErgoMates, above, have been a hit for Safety Seven in the worker-comfort market.
That strap-on sole became TracMates, Ben and Shelly Dombowsky’s launch product, with which they started the company Safety Seven Manufacturing Inc. in 2000.
“Then, one day,” recalls Ben, “I was experimenting with different thicknesses and different densities of material, and I was walking around with a much thicker portion of material on my sole in the office and I noticed how cushiony it was. And it just dawned on me. ‘It’s just like walking on anti-fatigue matting.’ And it was like a eureka moment.”
Anti-fatigue matting, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health a! nd Safety (CCOHS) website, is designed to reduce fatigue caused by ext ending periods of standing or walking. However, such mats, made of various materials including rubber, carpeting, vinyl and wood, introduce a safety complication: If improperly installed, they can cause tripping or falling accidents.
So Dombowsky imagined an alternative, and in 2003, after research and trials of 24 strapping systems, Safety Seven launched ErgoMates, a portable anti-fatigue mat that straps on to a shoe.
With skyrocketing sales and a list of customers that include The Boeing Co. and the U.S. Air Force, the company has been at a full-out sprint ever since.
“Boeing is a significant customer of ours,” says Safety Seven’s new president and CEO Dean Gagne. “Because of the Boeing (deal) … we’re now approved for the U.S. Air Force. We are also approved for Lockheed Martin, their military division. General Motors has done trials with the product, Ford has done trials with the product, Toyota uses t! he product in a plant in Canada, Nissan has just started using the product, Hyundai has started using the product.”
Dombowsky marvels at the company’s rapid growth. “It started from working in our basement to six (employees) in house, and then we have 30 sales reps in Canada and the U.S.,” plus a contract manufacturer in China.
Without disclosing sensitive figures, Gagne revealed that the company’s sales doubled in 2004, more than quadrupled in 2005, and are projected to almost quadruple again in 2006.
Ergomates sell for around $50 US and Tracmates for around $15 US on the company’s website, although most of their business is done through distributors.
For the Moose Jaw company, setting its sights south of the border has been key to its success. “New innovations typically are implemented in the United States before they are implemented in Canada,” Gagne explains.
American and Japanese companies are quicker to adopt new manufacturing techniques or ergonomic practices, and commonly have an ergonomist on staff, he says. “Canada or Europe are a little bit behind in that regard, and they take a little bit more convincing.”
Andrew Drewczynski, a CCOHS ergonomist, agrees that only certain types of Canadian companies seem interested in ergonomics.
“Mainly, (Canadian companies) are interested in office environments: Office workstations, monitors, design of workstations and chairs,” he explains. “Because people are getting information about these exercising b! alls and they want to place them in their offices.
“As far as industry is concerned – I mean manufacturing or other branches of industry – not so much.”
But Drewczynski says what Canadians don’t understand is that equipment and products aren’t really the solution to fatigue and discomfort problems – they are merely Band-Aids.
“Ergonomics is perceived in Canada – and it is very wrong – it is perceived as a product. Because a chair is ergonomics. A screwdriver is ergonomics … My interpretation is much, much wider. It is the way we work – the way people work.
“Equipment is a part of it – no question about it. But it’s not even the most important. The most important is how we do our job. That is my philosophy. My personal crusade. And personally,” he says, “I am losing this crusade.”
When asked about ErgoMates, Drewczynski says, “That is part of my crusade also. ! In occupational health and safety (the one goal) that I like the most is: Try to reduce the hazard at the source.”
ErgoMates, he says, are a kind of personal protective equipment “that can be used only if any other way fails.”
Instead, he suggests, companies should replace flooring, or design “proper” jobs so that people don’t have to stand for a long time.
“So, I’m not so keen about (matting), generally speaking,” Drewczynski says. “But … if you go to our webpages (which he wrote), I recognize the need for this, and the use of it, and the benefit. But this is only secondary – a second line of defence.
“So, conceptually, philosophically, I don’t like this ErgoMates. But … I cannot say that it can’t be useful.”
Safety Seven’s list of customers is growing, and Gagne and Dombowsky are happy to share accolades they regularly receive from satisfied users. “Typically once you get in on a worker’s feet, there are about two pair per y! ear they would use,” says Gagne. “So the more workers you get it on, the faster you grow, because repeat sales rates are extremely high.”
Getting the original sale, though, takes a little longer – even in the U.S., says Gagne. Large companies “have to get tests from their safety people, they have to get tests from their ergonomists, and go through the whole process … it takes some time, but once the ergonomists test and use it, they love the product.”
After North America, next on Safety Seven’s target list is Europe.
“We’re working hard to build the U.S. (market), particularly aircraft manufacturing and automotive manufacturing,” says Gagne. “We want to establish ourselves and our credentials in North America, and particularly the U.S., and then we’ll span along the same types of industry lines into Europe.”
Europe, he says, with the exception of the Scandinavian countries, is two ! or three years behind in terms of manufacturing practices. But in spit e of doing a only “soft-sell” in that market, so far “there have been trials in the Finnish post office, and they’re looking at placing orders in the Finland postal system.”
With such a successful beginning, is Safety Seven worried about the competition? Not a bit, boasts the CEO. “We’ve actually patented the concept, not just the design. So somebody can’t say: ‘Well, let’s change 30 per cent of the product design and then all of a sudden we can go for a different patent on a different design.’ “But now, if you try to strap anti-fatigue matting to the outside of a workboot or shoe and you do it with a front strap, a side strap or a back strap, you’re in violation of our patent … So it’s a eureka (that Dombowsky had), but it’s even greater than a eureka. It’s a protectable eureka moment.”
(Nicole Strandlund can be reached at email@example.com)