WALKERTON - For Larsen & Shaw, it all hinges on steel.
I had the privilege Tuesday of touring Walkerton-based Larsen & Shaw, a remarkable family-owned local enterprise that will celebrate its 100th anniversary in business next year, against all odds.
John Larsen, the grandson of co-founder Carl C. Larsen, is the owner and chair of the board of Larsen & Shaw. John is also a friend, a long-time buddy of my older brother Gord. I’ve always been aware of John’s business but had never been in the building before Tuesday.
At one point in the boardroom we realized that everyone in attendance was a graduate of Walkerton District Secondary School, including John, myself, my brother Gord as well as CEO Mary Jane Bushell and purchasing manager Dan Wong.
John has kept me abreast of his concerns about government policies that impact on a business like his. And rather than just reading and commenting on his email messages, I decided it was time to visit in person and learn more about what this important local enterprise does.
Larsen & Shaw makes some of the best hinges in the world, in a 93,000 square foot facility that has evolved, innovated and adapted to technological change over the decades, remaining competitive in one of the toughest businesses in the world. They are poised to introduce some robotic production, for the first time. All right here in Walkerton, with a dedicated workforce of about 100 who are rewarded with a progressive work environment and a profit-sharing plan.
The company has annual revenues of about $24 million and some $10 million of that goes into the purchase of the steel and aluminum that is the raw material for the tens of thousands of hinges produced each day.
John is meticulous and passionate about his family business. He is frank about the fact that if a person were to launch a hinge-making factory today, it would almost certainly not be done in Walkerton. But his family business has endured, against remarkable low-cost competitors in China and elsewhere, by innovating, learning and evolving. John’s passion is evident as he strides through the factory that his grandfather, his father and his older brother before him built and fostered.
Part of the “secret sauce” of Larsen & Shaw, as John explains it, is that every part of the process takes place here, with locally-trained skilled workers who design, build and maintain every aspect of production, doing all their own tooling in-house.
The machinery and expertise that turns ribbons of raw steel into flawless hinges is a marvel.
In addition to helping me understand operations at Larsen & Shaw, John wanted me to get a sense of the brutal impact that Canada’s retaliatory steel tariffs against the United States have had on his company. In a nutshell, steel costs for Larsen & Shaw have gone up more than 40 per cent because of what John and his colleagues regard as a misguided imposition of retaliatory tariffs by Canada, to protect Canadian-based steel companies that are all now foreign-owned.
I know much more today than I did yesterday about this business, about the impact of the tariffs and perhaps most important, about the impact of a local, century-old business that has been a pillar of its community. My pledge to John was to share that information as widely as possible.