Craig Fawcett builds up a business by building up the staff.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“Skills can be taught, but you either have character or you don’t. When you find an employee with character and work ethic, those people are your golden people—people you’ll do anything to build up,” says Craig Fawcett, president of Lethbridge Custom Canvas in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. Fawcett and his family moved to Lethbridge when his father bought the company in 1989, and he draws a straight line between the success of the business and the success of the employees.
Before buying the company Fawcett worked as a sign language interpreter at a school for the deaf in Puerto Rico. Although he loved the job, the beginning stages of carpal tunnel syndrome let him know that, for him, a lifetime career of signing was unlikely. At the same time his father was looking to quit his job as sales manager of Calgary Tent and Awning (where Fawcett had also worked in the past) and buy his own business. He purchased the awning/tent portion of Ducan Canvas in Lethbridge and he and Fawcett began building the business using their combined knowledge of the industry and innate people skills. After his father retired, Fawcett and his wife, Noreen, took on the full responsibility of running the company.
The approach Fawcett takes to managing employees is holistic and comes at a cost, but the payback is substantial. His staff is cross-trained, invested in their work and driven to excel—in an atmosphere that is lighthearted and generates concern for the success and well-being of the employees.
Cross training the employees is an ongoing endeavor for Fawcett and his staff. “Because we’re a small shop, we have to cover a lot of bases,” Fawcett says. “There’s such a wide variety of products we manufacture—from awnings to teepees to high-end boat covers to big industrial curtains for enclosing equipment—we divide the duties and cross train for manufacturing those items that tend to be more in demand.” Fawcett has one employee who concentrates on making the teepees, one who manages the high-end, specialized products, and another who handles the large, heavy items, such as tarps, trampolines and wall tents.
The employees train each other on their particular areas of expertise so that one sewer can take over for another during an absence, or provide added help during high-volume production times. When one sewer broke her elbow and was unable to continue in that capacity, Fawcett created a sales and administrative position so he could keep her employed as well as retain the vast knowledge about fabricating tipis she had amassed over the years. Notebooks she had filled with detailed instructions on sewing tips and techniques are used to augment the training of newer employees.
Opportunities for training extend beyond the four walls of the shop. Last year Fawcett took his production staff to IFAI Expo Canada in Calgary. The group attended seminars, took part in social events and toured a local tent and awning business (Calgary Tent and Awning). “I wanted my staff to see how another shop is set up, meet the employees and ask questions,” Fawcett says. “I wanted them to see how they pattern projects and how they attack a problem.” Beyond expanding their technical education, the experience solidified the bond for Fawcett and his staff. “It just built so much more loyalty,” he says. “The experience made us feel more connected.”
Fawcett also makes sure to enter the IFAI Canada Honours Program, an annual competition that recognizes excellence in projects manufactured with specialty fabrics. “I’m proud of what we do and know we do top-quality work,” Fawcett says. “But it’s also important for the staff to see the caliber of work we’re competing with.” Fawcett’s company won the Outstanding Achievement Award for illuminated awnings in 2009.
Throughout the year, Fawcett continues to make building relationships with his staff and their families a priority. Besides the annual Christmas party that he and his wife host at a local country club, they also plan a no-holds-barred summer picnic for staff, their families and friends. And on the occasional Friday, after an especially demanding week, he buys pizza and the group enjoys an extended lunch hour. “We just sit back for an hour and a half, eat pizza, talk and don’t worry about anything,” he says. “Those are things that help build loyalty and camaraderie.”
The atmosphere of mutual respect that Fawcett encourages in the workplace paves the way for creative and collaborative problem solving. When faced with a challenging project, Fawcett and his employees will brainstorm possible solutions until they can agree on the simplest, most effective one.
A recent project Fawcett was working on required designing and sewing a cover for a roll cage for one of the city’s backhoes. Traditionally the design would include snaps and turn buttons, which would require drilling into quarter-inch-thick metal every six inches in order to mount the snaps. Together with one of his sewers, Fawcett decided to wrap the material around the supports and use Velcro® to fasten it. “What often happens when presented with a challenging project is that you automatically pull from past experience—kind of like a default mode,” he says. “But when we bounce ideas off each other and don’t worry about stepping on toes we often find a simpler, more cost-effective way to approach a project.”
Sometimes, however, saving money isn’t Fawcett’s bottom line. What he spends on social events with staff and on training opportunities like taking them to the IFAI Canada Expo trade show is money he considers well spent. “It’s an investment you make and you don’t worry about the cost because it’s a good investment,” he says. “You get a good return on it.”