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OUTSIDE IN: Connections, products keys to success, says P.E.I. exporter

Stephen Hurst, president and founder of Top Dog Manufacturing.
Stephen Hurst, president and founder of Top Dog Manufacturing. - SaltWire Network

Outside In is a five-part series that delves into the global issues affecting business in 2019.
In Part 1 we look at the big picture on trade and introduce you to three Atlantic Canadian companies winning at the export game.

BEDEQUE, P.E.I. — For a P.E.I. company exporting to 23 countries, there’s more to being successful than knowing trade agreements.

Stephen Hurst, owner and president of Top Dog Manufacturing in Bedeque, P.E.I., says personal connections and quality products are keys to success.

Hurst’s business was named P.E.I.’s 2018 exporter of the year. The award was presented by Premier Wade MacLauchlan in September during Export Day.

Hurst launched the company in 2004 with business partner Wayne Linkletter, who was bought out in 2017.

Top Dog Manufacturing makes reusable, antimicrobial, protective garments — such as aprons, sleeves, caps and gowns — made from a polyurethane film for food processing facilities.

The 23 countries it exports to includes U.S., Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Iceland and a number of places in Europe and South America.

Top Dog ships by truck, or by boat out of Halifax or Montreal for overseas orders. Some customers also pay for shipments to be flown in.

Hurst tries to find distributors that are family-owned businesses. Establishing that personal connection cannot be done over the phone or by video conferencing. It has to be happen face-to-face. Hurst has the stamps on his passport to prove it.

“Our largest customers — one in Russia and one in Mexico — they’ve actually been to my home in P.E.I., stayed in our home overnight, ate at our dining room table. And, I’ve been in their homes at the other end. So, that’s quite unique as how we really do lock down the personal piece,” he said.

“Our distributors find it the most refreshing approach to doing business because they do business with other international suppliers and they don’t get that. So, that’s a huge challenge that we tackled from the outset. And, we nurture it all the time.”

He explains that the quality of the products — and the reason they’re more expensive than competitors — is that that they’re durable and don’t have to be replaced as often.

Hurst uses the analogy of buying a more expensive BMW compared to a vehicle of lower-price and lesser quality.

“It’s the engineering. It’s the ride. It’s how long you’re on the ride and how long that will last,” he said.

That’s the basis for the company’s slogan — “Save Big with Durability.”

“We always say: ‘Are you interested in learning how you can save money by paying more for a product?’ ”

Top Dog Manufacturing also promotes being a Canadian company.

“We make sure the Canadian flag is on all our boxes and bags and artwork because buying from Canadians settled people down a lot. We, as a manufacturing country, are well-regarded.”

Jennifer Hambly, the company’s general manager, is in charge of the day-to-day activities, which requires being up to date on trade agreements.

“Every country is different and requires different paperwork,” she said.

The company also recently hired John Percival as its director of business growth. He said Top Dog Manufacturing is currently looking to expand into more European markets, such as in Denmark, Spain, Germany and Slovakia.

Hurst said people are still surprised to hear about the company’s accomplishments given that it’s based in a small P.E.I. community.

“To us it’s not (a surprise) because we do it every day,” he said.

But being based on P.E.I. can also mean it has to answer more questions from potential European customers than if it was based in a larger, more well-known city like Toronto.

Even so, exporting to other countries has been a learning experience, both in terms of cultural learning as well as managing large orders to different places. Hurst recalled when the company broke through into the European market with its first Russian order in November of 2007. The challenge early on was meeting the needs and shipping on time to large Russian container orders as well as other customers.

“We’re an overnight success, but it took us 15 years,” Hurst said.

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