Judges' Choice Porcupine Canvas

By Liz Cowan

Deni Poulin was looking for a change of career 30 years ago when he happened to notice that Sudbury had canvas shops, while his hometown of Timmins had none.

"Everyone was sending their tents to Thunder Bay to be repaired so I started a canvas shop in Timmins," he said.

Ever since, Porcupine Canvas has been catering to a variety of customers in the region, across Canada, and even overseas. Located in Schumacher, the business has been adept at responding to customer needs and changing markets.

When the company first began, Poulin started knocking on doors, including the mines, to let people know about the business. In the first five years, it grew exponentially.

"We started making tents as well and the first ones we made took us hours and hours but it was fun to watch us get better as we started doing more," Poulin said. "Now we are experts at it."

The company has always been looking at ways to improve its products and make them more user-friendly.

"We also go by recommendations from the clients," said business partner Chris Pronovost. "If they have been using a tent and need a different door opening, we will offer that to them. That is how a lot of our products have evolved. The customers themselves have approached us on design and what works and doesn't work and we take those recommendations and produce products."

A large part of the business is custom work, which Poulin said is hard to describe.

"I can talk for hours on some of the custom work we have done but it means whatever they want, we can do."

Customers often find products Porcupine Canvas has manufactured, but want them modified to suit their needs. It can mean canvas buckets used for drill bits transformed to hold samples of dog food. Clients may need a new technical instrument that requires a padded case, or the company may be asked to replace old cases that aren't made any more.

"That's how it goes. They may look at a product we already have and ask you to modify it or they have their own design," said Pronovost. "It's important to get the customers what they need and what meets their requirements."

When catering to individuals for custom work, the company looks at what industry the client is in to see if others might require it as well.

"We do some marketing in that aspect," she said.

Although Porcupine Canvas has hundreds of different products they have manufactured, tents remain the mainstay of the business.

After a year of research, an insulated tent is now offered and the company has been quite successful with it.

"It's another product line that keeps us busy," Pronovost said.

So have tipis, which it manufactures and sells all across the country. Tents for luxury camping – glamping – is another area the business is pursuing, along with drill tower covers for the exploration industry.

"Most of our clients are national, with a little bit of international," Poulin said. "If we do start exporting, then we have to be concerned about managing workload and increasing staff."

Finding experienced and qualified industrial sewers is always a challenge. Currently the company has between eight and 10 staff.

Throughout the years, Porcupine Canvas diversified into other areas such as an upholstery division, silk screening and retailing high-tech clothing.

"They were ventures we tried and now we have narrowed it down to two facets which have worked well for us: mining and exploration," Pronovost said.

As it celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, Poulin attributes the company's success to listening to customers and following up on their recommendations, along with a fast turn-around.

"Our employees take pride in their work and without them, we would be nothing," he said. "I enjoy coming to work every morning and every day it is something different."

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