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Entrepreneur of the Year: Don Champagne, North Bay Plastic Molders

At the onset of COVID-19 last spring, Champagne and his team at North Bay Plastic Molders quickly pivoted from producing parts for the mining sector to address PPE shortages in the medical industry.

Pivoting to meet a new product demand, or designing a component on the fly, is something that Don Champagne and his crew at North Bay Plastic Molders know only too well.

The small and nimble plastic parts maker and injection molding experts deftly transitioned as suppliers to the mining industry and dove into the design and production of recyclable PPE for front-line workers this fall.

The Corbeil-based company went into mass production of reusable face shields in late September, ramping up to make 150,000 units a week with the capacity available to turn out a million, if needed. 

"We were approached in early spring from Canadore College to do ProtectOn face shields and it took off from there," explained Champagne, the company's president, who established the business out of his garage in the mid-1980s.

The face shield production run involved putting together a consortium of the college's Innovation Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Prototyping (ICAMP) and Javelin Technologies of Oakville to design, develop and market the new ProtectON protective face shield.

The company is described by one of its supporters as "true entrepreneurial leaders" and praised their innovative spirit to "explore and capitalize on the synergies that are possible when the private and public sector join forces."

Acting fast on opportunity is something North Bay Plastic Molders has always strived to do for new and existing clients. Rush jobs are not out of the ordinary and have always been the growing 10-employee company's competitive edge.

"We do try to do good, quick service and that's what made us known well around the world for plastics and injection molding," said Champagne.

He was introduced to the process while working in mechanical maintenance for Ontario Hydro in southern Ontario. A friend, who managed a small Toronto injection molding plant, gave him a tour of the facility in 1979. 

The fully automated, clean and unattended shop triggered the entrepreneurial bug in the Corbeil native, who left the public sector, mortgaged his house and borrowed heavily to raise the financing for his first German-made injection molding machine.

Established in 1986, Champagne set up in a 7,500-square-foot shop and warehouse mere steps from his back door. 

The automated, 'lights-out' shop makes a wide array of custom-ordered drilling, blasting and roof-bolting parts for the mining sector and a diverse range of clients in Canada and overseas in Sweden, France, Spain, South Africa, Australia, the U.S. and to South American countries.

Once programmed, the molding machines can run around the clock.

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Mainly through word of mouth, the company has steadily built a diversified international client base over the years, making thread protectors and drill hole plugs used in mining and construction, shipping caps and dust plugs used by pipeline customers, pipe fittings and couplers for the geothermal market, and plastic floor grates.

The company has expanded to reach $1.1 million in sales annually and continues to invest significantly in equipment and assets to meet the growing demand for its products.

At the outbreak of the pandemic last spring, Champagne was in the process of moving from his shop, east of North Bay, into a new and expanded state-of-the-art 20,000-square-foot shop nearby on Highway 94.

The move allowed him to expand from five employees to nine full-timers, plus a part-time employee, with the possibility of adding more to the mix should production increase for pandemic-related products.

Since launching in 1986, the Northern Ontario Business Awards has become the largest annual gathering of its kind in Northern Ontario. These awards serve to heighten the visibility and influence of business in the North and bring peer recognition to the business leaders who create prosperity and economic growth.