A passion for parkas

Canada Goose President and CEO Dani Reiss plants the flag at the South Pole, wearing the signature outerwear he likes to call “the Land Rover of clothing”. In 2011, Reiss was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year for Canada.

Dani Reiss transformed a solid but static family business into a heritage brand built on a proud “Made in Canada” foundation. Now one of Canada’s fastest growing companies, Canada Goose sets the world standard for extreme weather outerwear.

Fresh out of university, Dani Reiss had no intention of going into the family business.

“I joined the company in 1997, but I never intended to stay for long,” says Reiss, president and CEO of Canada Goose in Toronto. “I’d worked in the factory during the summers while pursuing an English degree, and my ambition was to be a writer. I’d planned a big trip to Europe, and the idea was I would work there for three months to save some money for my trip.”

Established by Reiss’s grandfather Sam Tick in 1957 (as Metro Sports Wear), the company later grew into a major manufacturer of private label outerwear under the direction of his father, David Reiss. Supplying well-known retailers like Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean, David Reiss moved into supplying custom down parkas and coats for police forces, expanded into overseas export markets, and re-branded the company as Canada Goose. He also advised his son against joining the company full-time.

“I had never been passionate about parkas,” says Dani Reiss. “I wanted to do something with my life that had more meaning.  But that changed as I got to know the company, how our jackets saved lives, and just how much people loved our products. I had grown up with it, and eventually I saw an opportunity, because I didn’t think there were a lot of products in the marketplace that were real.

Reiss joined the family business “temporarily” in 1997. He has since established Canada Goose as an iconic world brand, with 10-year sales growth of 3000 percent.

Reiss did eventually make the trip to Europe, but not as a backpacker. He attended the company’s first trade show in Germany, where he saw Canada Goose’s worldwide potential.

“We had a terrible booth stuck in the corner, but when I walked around the show, I saw a huge display for Columbia Sportswear,” he says. “I’d read about them, and I knew that in 1985 they had been a $5 million company. I also knew we had been a $5 million company in 1985 as well.  Since then, we had actually shrunk, and these guys were now a $1 billion-plus public company! So my question was: how do you do that?”

Reiss has since answered his own question. While it’s not yet a billion-dollar company, Canada Goose is now the largest manufacturer of its kind in Canada. It has grown by over 3000 percent in the last 10 years, and is a firmly established, iconic world brand. Growth last year alone was 60 percent.

 The authenticity advantage

“The fact that our products are made in Canada has been a huge factor in our success and growth,” says Reiss. “Back in 2001, everyone was saying that it didn’t matter where you manufactured, that the consumer didn’t care. When I heard that two more apparel companies were leaving Canada for China, I thought that if everyone’s leaving, we’ll be the only ones left in Canada. What a great advantage that would be!”

Capitalizing on Canada Goose’s authenticity, Reiss first focused on building the brand in Europe. While Canadian retailers were leery of the “Made in Canada” strategy, European retailers embraced the company’s unique approach, and sales (at premium prices) took off.

“The Europeans said, ‘we don’t need another brand made in China’,” says Reiss. “Once we succeeded in Europe, we started selling a lot more in Canada. They were convinced by that external validation.”

As Reiss points out, cold weather is part of the Canadian identity. The company’s products are made in Canada and field tested in the world’s coldest climates, from the Canadian Arctic to Antarctica. Specialized products include the Constable Parka (developed with input from law enforcement agencies), the Expedition Parka worn by almost every scientist at the South Pole, and the Chilliwack Parka, designed for pilots in the far North.

“Our clothing has long been a favourite of crews on cold weather film sets, because it keeps them warm when they’re outside for 16 hours,” he says. “Now our jackets are used on-screen, to authenticate scenes in cold climates. We get product placement organically, because we are authentic. This is a great example of how authenticity works.”

The company’s growth and commitment to Canadian manufacturing has created hundreds of new jobs here. To meet the ever-increasing demand with greater manufacturing capacity, Canada Goose recently purchased Winnipeg-based Engineered Apparel. It also helps support the far North community of Pond Inlet. In 2009, Canada Goose partnered with First Air and the Northwest Company to open the Canada Goose Resource Centre. Free fabric and materials supplied by Canada Goose are transported by First Air for local tailors who make jackets and clothing for the community.

The success of Canada Goose has one downside: the company has been a target of counterfeiters eager to steal the brand’s good will. Canada Goose is fighting back with an innovative tool: a hologram that is sewn into each garment as proof of authenticity. The company also publishes a list of authorized retailers on its website. Despite this challenge, the heritage brand remains strong.

“If you ask an expert what to wear to the North Pole, they’ll answer ‘Canada Goose’,” says Reiss. “Word-of–mouth is probably our strongest marketing program, and it inspired our slogan: ‘Ask anyone who knows.’”