Almonte firm is international player in sports systems

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by Marc Snelling

Almonte’s own Sport Systems Canada Inc. (SSCI) is growing.  Its facility on Industrial Drive is set to undergo a $1.4 million expansion, bringing new jobs to the local economy. The project will see an investment of $1,203,600  from SSCI with another $180,500 coming from the Eastern Ontario Development Fund. MPP John Fraser (Ottawa South) visited the SSC facility in August to announce the public-private partnership that will see SSCI grow their peak staffing from 21 to 31 people.

MPP John Fraser visiting with President Matt Mould at SSCI offices

This is not the first grant awarded to SSCI.  They were also recipients of a $100,000 grant from the Canadian Manufacturer’s & Exporters SMART Program in 2016.

In an age when so many manufacturing jobs have left North America, SSCI is bucking the trend.  A local success story, Sport Systems Canada has grown from humble beginnings to become an international supplier of sports infrastructure.  In 2017 SSCI was once again named to the Profit 500vc33, a list of Canada’s fastest growing companies — the 4th time on the list in the last 5 years.  Leaders in manufacturing of bleachers, padding, netting, flooring, barriers, basketball systems and more, their expertise has led them to projects around the country.

From new gym divider and basketball systems in the Khon Go Cho Sportsplex in Behchokǫ̀  NWT to upgrades of Swangard Stadium in Burnaby BC, to custom wall padding for the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Center, their high-quality work is in demand across the country.   SSCI is also a favored partner of American sports equipment companies working on multiple projects in New York and New Jersey.  The firm has supplied equipment through its dealer network to the gulf region, Africa and most recently has been awarded a contract to supply & install new stadium seating for the FIFA’s Barbados Football Club.

Queen’s newly renovated Richardson Stadium with SSCI bleachers

Some of SSCI’s most notable projects are right here in our local area.   Queen’s University’s recent upgrades to Richardson Stadium, as well as bleacher systems for the Carleton Ravens and Ottawa Gee Gee’s university football programs.   Ottawa U is Matt’s alma mater where he earned his engineering degree in (1997).  SSCI works with school boards, municipalities and universities across the province, even partnering with the National Basketball Association for a project here in James Naismith’s birth place.

SSCI began as Ottawa Hoop in 1978. Local father and son Dennis and Matt Mould of Pakenham, purchased the company as seasonal business in the 1990’s and still act as the driving force behind the business.  Longtime locals, the Mould’s came to the area in 1979.  They have shared their success as sponsors of many local efforts, both sports and non-sports related, including, the Almonte Fair, the Mississippi Thunder Kings, the Almonte Riverwalk, Augusta Street Park, the Kanata Lasers, the Hub Hospice, Beckwith Heritage Days, Puppets Up! and the Capital City Speedway.

Mould Family Memorial  Race Night at Capital City Speedway

Matt, a racing enthusiast, sponsors an SSCI car for the mini-stock series at the Speedway as well as sponsoring a Mould Family Memorial race in 2014 at the Capital City Speedway.

I had a chance to catch up with Matt, one of the hardest working lads I know, to talk with him about the continuing success of this business  and what it takes to succeed in today’s economy.

How many of your employees are from the Mississippi Mills area?   How much of your talent do you need to recruit from outside Almonte?

“In peak season (spring and summer) our team can swell to 30 people. Routinely we are in the 20 to 25 employee range with all staff within a half hour range.  While the majority of our staff come from Mississippi Mills, we have team members from Lanark Highlands & Perth, the Smiths Falls area and Ottawa.  About half of our people live outside of Mississippi Mills (within a half hour drive).  Travelling to Almonte from Ottawa in the morning sure does beat travelling from Almonte to Ottawa during rush hour!”

SSCI bleachers at Almonte Fairgrounds

When did the Mould’s come to the Valley?

“We moved from west Ottawa to Pakenham in 1978.”

How did Ottawa Hoop become SSCI?

“As the company evolved through the years so did its brand name. The firm was started in 1978 by Mitch Phomin (Phys Ed teacher for the OCDSB) as a seller & installer of premium residential basketball equipment.  The equipment became attractive to local agencies such as  school boards and municipalities due to its ruggedness.  Dennis and I purchased the Ottawa Hoop name and its inventory on a 50-50 basis in 1992 and operated the business seasonally by continuing to install equipment in the Ottawa area.  The business was a single-product business (goose-neck basketball systems) and it provided summer employment to myself and a number of high school friends over the years.”

“As the business grew, other municipalities & school boards began calling from across Ontario (and soon Canada) seeking the same equipment they had seen in the Ottawa area.  We only ran a Yellow Pages ad back in the day. So we can only surmise that word of mouth may have played a part in our market expansion.  Then we ran Yellow Pages ads in metro markets across Ontario and in key parts of Canada.  While we couldn’t support installations outside of Eastern Ontario, we thought we could sell and ship product to neighbouring municipalities and provinces.  Cue the name change to Canada Hoop.  In retrospect, I suppose we were doing an internet thing (for the institutional market) before the internet was cool.  I often think about the Sears Canada model with its catalogue stores or Montgomery Ward in the U.S. While Sears Canada is now winding down operations and Montgomery Ward ceases to exist, were they not the true pioneers of cross country commerce?  Didn’t the fundamentals of their business models look strikingly similar to the E-commerce companies that are dominating today?

Basketball net and padding manufactured and installed by SSCI

“Once our customers got used to great service (albeit with a very limited product selection) they began asking for more products such as mats, football uprights, benches etc.  We realized that while these products were not innovative or new in nature, the customers procuring this merchandise and installation services were looking for an easier way or a single point of contact from which they could do business.  Hence the name change to Sport Systems Canada Inc.

“Things really got going in the early 2000’s when we pivoted from Canada Hoop to SSCI.  We abandoned the Yellow Pages approach and went big on the Internet.  We also broadened the product offering becoming more of an aggregator of athletic equipment or a “one stop shop” for capital / facility equipment.  We made very few products back in the early 2000’s and tested the market by acting as agents for other manufacturers who did not yet realize the power and the reach of the Internet.  I really have to credit my good friend and former GM Dean Chandler who opened my eyes to this.  Dean worked on the website and I worked on sales, brokering deals with manufacturers and logistics.  I can remember when we both quit our jobs and decided to go into this full time.  Dean was the first full time hire we made and he came up from Hamilton to work with us.  We sold stuff by day from my parent’s basement on Blakeney Rd. and packed orders and loaded trucks by hand from Eldon Cavanagh’s shed on the 10th concession.

Custom bleachers – a popular SSCI product

“Another time that sticks out in my mind was in the early 2000’s when we started renting part of Al Potvin’s old Hilan Playstructures buildings out on the 8th Concession of Ramsay. I remember making gym floor covers for UCLA at night with Brent Normand who worked at Coady’s Car Care during the day and a mere 12’ from the overhead door of the shop, there were Limousin cattle staring at us from behind an electric fence.  I said to Brent, “Can you imagine what the people in California would think of this?”   Things really got going in the 2000’s with the internet we were selling all over the U.S. and Canada.  It didn’t hurt that the Canadian dollar was trading at about $0.68 USD either!

“To this day we still sell the same old goose-neck basketball system that launched the company back in the day.  Now instead of selling about 50 per year we sell almost 300 per year which only represents about 5% of our annual business.”

How was SSCI selected for an Eastern Ontario Development Fund (EODF) grant?

“Our current General Manager, Jeff Hurrle, is in tune to these programs. Jeff had his own business during the  Ottawa tech boom and went on to work as a sales rep at the Business Development Bank of Canada for their consulting division. Jeff has been to a lot of companies in the Eastern Ontario region and is familiar with business retention and growth programs.  Jeff recommended that we apply for the EODF grant to hedge costs associated with the possible need for future hires and expansion.  I had heard of the program through our accountants KHM in Carleton Place as they have clients that have taken part in this program as well.”

What advice would you share with today’s students who would like to work at SSCI or do what you do?

“It takes an entire team of people to make things work. People in the office, on the floor, good vendors, subcontractors, good installers and good customers.  Things don’t always go the way you plan, but when everyone is rowing in the same direction good things can happen.

SSCI’s 5-tier bleacher used in Ottawa’s Byward Market and many other locations

“I would urge all students to get exposed to as many things as you can when young.  Try different things, move around or just put your best face on every day if you like what you are doing.  The world is more competitive and there is a great generational divide happening now with a lot of people retiring.  There are tremendous opportunities available for students and youth nowadays but they have to be willing to work to get ahead, and really move things forward.  Don’t just show up like you have to, with your hands in your pockets looking for a job.  Do something to stand out from the crowd, and be patient.  The work world doesn’t offer instant gratification or an easy go.  You still have to make your own way at the end of the day.  We are always looking for good students during the peak summer season for installation and warehouse work.  Those that work out are invited back and often, they come back year after year during high school and during post secondary.”

Does Ottawa Hoop’s beginnings in basketball relate to Almonte’s claim to fame as the birthplace of James Naismith?

“It is purely coincidental but it is something that we talk up when we have customer’s engaged. Our American customers really find it interesting.  We also tell them about Pakenham being home to the only 5-Span Stone Bridge in North America. That gets some sideways looks.”

What does it take to succeed in the manufacturing industry in 2017?

“I’m not 100% sure yet, but I have some theories.  Every day is a learning experience.  I like to think it takes a good strategy but one that is iterative in nature; keeping things custom so that the work does not go offshore, blending a bit of automation into the mix to ensure competitiveness, offering installation that can’t be off-shored or replicated by lower wage markets, balancing supply with demand, working within the constraints of legislation, being flexible with staff, making the environment engaging and professional.  Things aren’t like they were in the early 2000’s when there was a Foosball table in every department and catered lunches.  Those days are gone (I think), many of those companies are gone but there will always be a need for high quality products which are made by high quality people using advanced technology to supplement throughput.  I think that firms who manufacture and sell direct and have a razor sharp focus on controlling waste and non-value added costs will be the ones who will succeed if they listen to their customers.”

What green/environmental practices do you implement at your Almonte facility?

“We re-purpose things like wood, steel, aluminum and cardboard and whatever we can into things like new products, fixtures & dunnage. This stuff is bought by the pound and you have to pay someone by the pound to get rid of it.  So you really need to control & re-purpose wherever you can.  We recycle whatever drops we can as well, we often set surplus or out of spec materials aside for locals to pick up.  It is not uncommon to take a hike or a snowmobile ride in Lanark county and see wood piles covered with vinyl off cuts or ice fishing shacks sheeted with surplus material from Industrial Drive.  At least it’s getting used!”

SSCI plans to complete their expansion project by 2019.