Gavin Rich (Richlu Manufacturing)

David: Welcome to the “Manitoba Business Podcast,” featuring interviews with business leaders and entrepreneurs based right here in Manitoba. I’m David Noël-Romas. Today’s episode features the second-generation owner of a family business in the textile industry. I’m not sure how much people know about the history of garment manufacturing in North America and in Winnipeg specifically. But it was an extremely important sector of our economy that’s gone through many changes and this fellow has seen a lot of that firsthand.

I have to add that when we did this interview, I got to see one of their jackets that was worn and autographed by Dave Grohl himself. If that’s not the pinnacle of success, I don’t know what is. In this interview you will hear a third person besides the guest and myself. That voice belongs to my good friend, business partner, and occasional co-host, Ian Krahn. If you enjoy today’s episode, please tell your friends about the show. It’s available on all your favorite podcast platforms, including iTunes, and a transcript of every episode is also available on our website at www.manitobabusinesspodcast.com. Now without further ado, here’s Gavin Rich. So Gavin, thanks so much for taking the time.

Gavin: Great. Happy to.

David: How about we start by having you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Gavin: Great. My name is Gavin Rich. I’m the President of Richlu Manufacturing here in Winnipeg. We are a manufacturer and distributor of two key brands, a work wear and outdoor brand called Tough Duck and a safety personal protection equipment line of protective clothing called Work King Safety.

David: Awesome. Can you repeat the name of your company one more time?

Gavin: Sure, it’s Richlu Manufacturing.

David: Perfect. I just wanted to double-check that because I never know how to pronounce it correctly.

Gavin: Richlu. You got it.

Ian: Richlu. Okay, there it is.

David: Richlu, awesome. So and how did you get into making apparel?

Gavin: Richlu was a family company. It was actually started in 1939 here in Winnipeg by my grandfather, Abe Rich. Abe Rich came from Eastern Europe, I believe in the late ’20s. He worked for various Winnipeg garment manufacturers as a cutter. And while he was working as a cutter, him and my grandmother would be sewing and making garments in the evenings on a mail-order business that he started on the side. And eventually that grew into a company called Winnipeg Pants and Sportswear which enjoyed some good growth.

In the mid ’60s Winnipeg Pants or our pant division was bought by the Levi Strauss company.

David: Come on.

Gavin: And at the time we had a non-compete type of agreement where we could no longer make pants. And at that time, my father David had joined the business and had a little factory making outerwear and jackets. So he was actually making a lot of work wear and fashion outerwear. And that’s sort of how we evolved into where we are today.

David: Really? And so you obviously grew up in the business. What was, kind of, your first, I guess interaction with the business or your first experience with the business?

Gavin: My first interaction with business was before I can remember, was counting buttons and hangers. That’s the traditional first job of anybody. But being here, you know, young, three years old, you know, here with my father and my grandfather, it evolved from coming in on Saturdays and either arranging invoices or putting away fabric or putting away trims and raw material, to summers working in the cutting department, working in the factory, working in our outlet store. And various jobs all over, driving the truck, doing garbage duty, order desk, and really pretty much every job that I’ve done throughout my school and youth career here.

Ian: Oh, that’s awesome. Where did the name Tough Duck come from? When was that first started?

Gavin: That’s a good question. Tough Duck came out in the late ’80s. And the reason it came out is because the industry was changing where work wear was really a price-point type of item. It was a commodity and we did very well at it at the time. But we were seeing some changes in the marketplace where other brands were coming in with premium work wear, where the consumers were actually saying, “I’m willing to pay 15%, 20% more for work apparel if it’s going to last longer, if there’s a reason for me to do that.”

So we managed to grab that trend very early in the late ’80s and we started to make better work wear. So instead of a 10-ounce-weight shell on a piece of work wear, we would do a 12 ounce. Instead of double-stitching it, we would triple-stitch it. Instead of an aluminum zipper, we’d have a brass zipper. So just various types of improvements…

Ian: And the response was good to that?

Gavin: Excellent, excellent. Yes, excellent.

David: How did you identify that trend? What tweaked you to it?

Gavin: That’s a very good question. I would say that back then in the ’80s and now, is we are good at listening to our customer. I know that sounds like a big cliché, but we do listen to our customers. It’s a family business, relationships are very, very important. And that came from an understanding of the marketplace and feedback from our customers directly and knowledge of the marketplace.

David: Cool. What does that look like especially nowadays, like if you’re, you know, shipping jackets to wherever? How are you actually collecting that feedback from your customers?

Gavin: It’s the same way we’ve done it in the past. I mean, the business has changed a lot, where it’s a little bit harder because in the older days, in the late ’80s, we had quite a few independent stores, right? All of Canada and the United States was dotted with independent family clothing stores. In every small town in Canada, there was at least one. Portage la Prairie had three at one time, right? They had, like, two menswear stores and a family clothing store and that all. You know, then the big boxes come in and that all changes from there.

So the only thing is we got feedback directly from the store owners, because that was the bulk of our business. You could talk to buyers. So, you know interesting that actually our first order for Tough Duck was from a company called Sears Canada, which…

David: I’ve never heard of them.

Gavin: You’ve never heard of them. And you know what, we weren’t here with them for much longer either, unfortunately. They finally closed their final store.

Ian: Oh, come on.

Gavin: Yeah, it will be going in by end of October. I think there won’t be any Sears stores or websites here. So, in the old days, we would learn this from our customers directly. Now it’s social media. Now it’s email feedback. Now there’s many, many ways, surveys, many ways to talk, and our customers as well.

Ian: That’s awesome.

Gavin: We still have enough people to talk to on the floor to find out really what’s happening.

Ian: Do you guys sell direct or do you work with a dealer network?

Gavin: We absolutely do not sell direct. That’s a great question. We’re not set up that way. We’ve got really good partners that can sell, you know, to uniforms, to companies, to crews, to businesses, etc. We’re just not set up to do that. We know how to make really well. We’re manufacturers, we’re designers, we can distribute, we can market, and we can sell to distributors and retailers. So to start selling direct…

Ian: It’s a whole other game.

Gavin: It’s a whole other game. And we don’t sell direct on the web, either. And the reason is today we enjoy a very, very good business with other retailers and e-com companies. And that gives us a chance to partner with them, and that way we’re competing directly with our customers.

Ian: Is Amazon on there? Are you guys dealing with Amazon?

Gavin: Absolutely. We have been dealing with Amazon for a long time. There’s a lot of things we need to work on. But as a company, we’re really, really good at identifying trends and jumping on them. It’s been six years that we set up an e-com model and we were some of the first to do it and it’s helped us today.

Ian: It’s performing well for you guys?

Gavin: It is. The world is changing quickly.

Ian: Oh, yeah. Big time.

David: So in terms of the manufacturing, does it all happen here?

Gavin: No. We have manufacturing all over the world. Like, literally all over the world. Approximately 50% of our production comes here out of our Winnipeg factory.

David: Oh, really. Wow.

Gavin: And the rest of it comes from our own…we don’t own factories overseas, but we have dedicated partners that have been partners, frankly, for 20 years plus. And we have a QC team and we have production teams that are actually on the ground. So what we do is, even though we might be manufacturing overseas, here in our Winnipeg head office, we have designers, pattern makers, we make what’s called markers, and we know our yield. So we look at ourselves as manufacturers overseas as compared to an importer, if that makes sense.

Ian: What type of products do you make locally versus overseas?

Gavin: That’s good question. We do a lot of specialty uniform programs here. So an example is we’ll do utility whether it might be, like, a Saskatchewan Power, for example, we’ve got a program with them. They’ve got a certain type of requirements that they need customized, plus just quality that they can trust. A lot of these garments we make here are FR or flame resistant. Flame resistant garments have a lot of…it’s very, very expensive fabric. It’s got a lot of technology to it. There’s a lot of pockets, and detail and customization. So that we need to do here and that works very well.

We also make Tough Duck here and we have a contract business where we’re making luxury outerwear. Honestly, some of the greatest brands that you know in luxury outerwear we’re making here in Winnipeg.

Ian: Really? Very nice.

Gavin: So you’ve got, you know, garments that are that are, you know, both FR, safety, and high fashion.

Ian: Really? Oh my goodness. That is super cool.

David: What’s the size of the company in terms of head count nowadays?

Gavin: We have approximately 170 employees. And that includes warehouse, factory, people that work here in the building, as well as we have sales agents, and I mentioned QC and production people on the ground in our overseas factories.

David: Sure. Very cool. You mentioned earlier that you’re a maker and distributor marketer. You’re not interested in direct sales. What does that marketing piece of it look like?

Gavin: What does the marketing piece look like for the company?

David: Yeah.

Gavin: It’s something that we’re exploring now. And I’ll give you a great example is, you know, back in the old days we literally had…literally. We owned, I don’t know, 15 active labels. So let’s just say one company wanted a program of clothing and we’d give them one label. And then to give another company another exclusive brand we’d give them another label. And I use the word label very deliberately because a label is something you sew on the back of a garment. It’s in the neck.

David: Legitimately.

Gavin: Legitimately. It’s a label. It’s a label. But what is a brand? And since my career in the company, this world has gone from a label world to a brand world. And where Duracell batteries are as much of a competitor for me as any other clothing brand because we’re all competing, whether it’s mind space, or pixel space, or wallet share, or retail share or however you wanted to look at it. Attention, exactly, is that. So marketing for us is we have to be very aggressive, we have to make some noise. We have to rise above the noise, I mean. We tend to be kind of cheeky, a little bit on the edge, but through social media. Because social media’s given us a chance to really communicate with our end users…

Ian: I’ve seen some of your stuff where it’s like, you know, “This isn’t a fashion show, son.” Like…

Gavin: That’s right.

Ian: I love it. Like, it’s these cool kinda bolder lines. Like, you’re kind of calling it out, right? Like, “This is what a tough guy wears.” Like, if you’re outside, you’re in construction or whatever, this stuff works, right?

Gavin: That’s a great way to put it Thank you for saying that because it means something’s working. We have a billboard just over the Disraeli Bridge. And I think it’s a line that we’re very proud of because it speaks to who we are as a local company. It says, “There’s Tough, then there’s Winnipeg Tough.” And it’s a picture of a guy in Tough Duck. I think that explains us very well, is if you can survive a Winnipeg winter, you can survive any winter, and that’s where we come from.

Ian: Totally. And I can speak to that, too. Like, one of my first jobs was construction and, like, the first item I went and bought because I started in October or November, I went and bought the same thing that I see hanging on the rack there, an insulated pair of overalls right? And that got me through, oh, probably five years of construction through the winter. Then I wore until, like…I hunt with all my friends and stuff so I started wearing it outdoors in that capacity and I think still I passed it on to my brother when he started his construction job. And they’re still around. Like, it’s a super tough product and it’s the only thing that keeps you warm. Like, what else are you gonna wear?

Gavin: That’s right.

Ian: Wear all of the long johns you want, but it’s not gonna be like a pair of Tough Ducks.

Gavin: Great to hear.

David: So you mentioned, you know, some of the stuff you’re good at. What would you say are some of the challenges that you guys face, whether it’s external challenges or just things that you have to get better at internally?

Gavin: Don’t forget we were founded in 1939. We’re approaching 80 years. And a lot happens in 80 years. And I’ll quote the CEO of the American Retail Association. He made this quote earlier in 2017 and I don’t remember his name, but he said that in the retail business, change used to happen in a generation. So between my grandfather and my father, there was a gradual change of a business shift, of markets and how business was done. And these generational changes now are happening overnight.

So change is happening at unprecedented rate. And I would say the biggest challenge we have now is we have great opportunities. And I know this sounds really dumb, but which opportunity to go after. Because right now, when you have a lot of opportunities you wanna be able to focus. Whatever was going on and in the old days, you could have 15 labels. Today you cannot afford to support 15 labels. You need to focus and focus on your brands and really, really get your brands clean and out there and build on our success of Tough Duck and Work King.

So I would say that becoming a marketing company is what we’ve invested in right now and we’ve got that expertise in house but getting there, has been very, very challenging. But today we’ve got a great team. And I would say that we’ve gone through some growth. And growth can be very dangerous. So one of the things that were challenged with right now is we have too many styles. We have a catalog that’s a little too thick. We have too many SKUs, or stock keeping units, and that doesn’t do anybody any favors.

So, you know, we wanna be able to support better. We wanna be able to be a better company. And to do that we need to just be a little more focused. So, to be quite honest, those are the main things right now, is focus on our marketing, focus on really, really giving our customers what they need and supporting them with some focus.

David: Awesome. What does the process look like of increasing your distribution network? Like, how are you adding more distributors and supporting the distributors you have so that they can sell more?

Gavin: It’s a great question. I think what you have to be careful of when you’re in a mature market like Canada is to work with our current partners and grow with them. Because if I’ve got Joe’s Menswear on the corner, it doesn’t really help me to open up James’ Menswear across the street. It dilutes and splits the business. So, of course, the main focus there is to work with our current customers, really drive this marketing initiative that I’ve spoken about, and drive our new product assortment, drive our innovation. So in that case we wanna just make ourselves more valuable to our current customers

And I think the next part of going to market is, let’s say, the United States, where, you know, in the upper U.S. and the Midwest, North Dakota, Minnesota, very, very healthy business. Very good, you know, brand recognition. We’re making some waves. But now we’re getting into southern United States and eastern United States and these are places where we have to do some work. They don’t know who we are. They don’t know Tough Duck, they don’t know Work King Safety. So that would be a challenge. We do that through Salesforce, we do that through social media, we do that through basic sales efforts, trade shows and getting the word out. I hope that answers your question.

David: No, absolutely no. It makes a ton of sense. What about you? Where do you feel like you learned all this stuff?

Gavin: Where did I learn this stuff? Well, I would say the biggest mistake I made is, I’m a University of Manitoba graduate, but I didn’t get a commerce degree. And I kind of wish I did. I’ve learned here…

David: I thought you were just bashing on the U of M there. I thought that was gonna be the end of it, saying, “The biggest mistake I’ve ever made.”

Gavin: No, not the biggest mistake. I love U of M. No. I didn’t go into…or management as they called it at the time. I didn’t take a business degree. I did get a degree and I loved the U of M. So I learned a lot of that here just by doing. I mean, I’ve been here for a long time. So I first learned by listening to the mentors here. We’ve got a lot of experience.

My father who’s been in the business since the mid ’60s, he’s a tremendous source of information. We have a lot of employees here that have been here for many years with a lot of expertise that many of them are retiring at the moment. But at least before they do go off into the sunset, we get all their knowledge and all their inherent knowledge.

So I’ve learned from them. I’ve learned from there and I have to keep educating myself. You have to keep reading. I read voraciously I think Warren Buffett’s the greatest inspiration there. I think he reads 500 pages a day. I’m not quite there yet, but I do read pretty much every business magazine out there, all the industry trade magazines, keep up to date on the daily Bloomberg reports, things like that. So you’re always learning about what’s happening in the world, listening to people, talking to people, if that makes any sense.

David: That makes total sense.

Gavin: But a lot of it is just…

David: I think that’s actually a recurring theme, right? There’s only so much that I’ve interviewed people either that have gone to business school or that haven’t, and at the end of the day, there’s only so much that they can prepare for. You still have to be a continuous learner, otherwise you’re pooched.

Gavin: It’s everything. And I would say that I consider myself young and 50 it’s not really young, but if I don’t keep up I’ll fall behind. And I like to be up to date. I do like to be up to date on what’s happening out there.

Ian: How important is culture to you guys? What does that look like here at Tough Duck?

Gavin: Our corporate culture?

Ian: Yeah.

Gavin: It’s of course extremely important. You’ll notice everybody hear is wearing denim. Our dress code is wear what you feel comfortable with. The reason is I’ve always been taught to get my hands dirty. So if you wear a suit you can’t really be getting your hands dirty if you’re in the factory or you’re in the warehouse. So we tend to dive in. We have a culture of a family business, so it’s like a family. So there’s good and bad with a family, but it always comes from a good place. It always comes from wanting to the best for your family, wanting to the best for the people here.

And so the culture here is very open. I’ve got people here that are much smarter than me, have a lot of talent and abilities that I don’t have, or are able to work around my father and I. So the culture is one where the president is learning as well. I don’t claim to have the answers. But what I do have is great people and a process in which to come to those right answers and to come to that. So I like to think our culture is really important. It’s very laid back, but we’re accountable, we’re passionate and we love what we do every day. You can’t be here if you don’t like what you do.

Ian: So as we came in and we’re getting our visitor badges or signing in and getting ready to go up to the elevator, we’re noticing these framed garments along the wall. And I turned around, and it’s Dave Grohl on one of them. Where are all these signed, you know, clothing, coming from? How do these stories pop up? What’s…

Gavin: Well, it’s all very interesting. It’s some friends that I have in the entertainment business, actually some friends I worked with when I was at U of M. And actually there was a period of time when I graduated from school, and when I actually came to Richlu full time, I spent about eight years in the entertainment business, in television, which was such a tremendous experience.

Ian: Oh, very cool.

Gavin: Completely different than what it is here. And it gave me a lot of background and some contacts. But contacts are only good for once, right? So what really happened is we got a call from a friend of mine and it was the country duo Brooks and Dunn. This was about 10 or 11 years ago. And they were coming to Canada for a February tour. Okay, these were guys from the southern United States, not used to our winters. And the promoter called me and says, “I hear you guys make really good outerwear, I’m looking for something for Brooks and Dunn.”

So we put together one of our Tough Duck jackets. We embroidered it beautifully with “Brooks and Dunn.” And I happen to know that they came into the private airport and the gentleman that picked them up gave them our jacket so they could stay warm. And because they’re a work wear jacket and, you know, not just something flimsy or not just something you throw away, they said, “Wow, this is awesome.” Plus, they had their embroidery on it, and they kept it and they valued it and they gave it to their crew.

David: So cool.

Gavin: So the people that gave it to them said, “Wow. Because when we give away these gifts, they throw them away. But this is one of the first gifts that we’ve given to a country act and they love it.” So it just happened to be that the country acts would come here during the winter and it would just be a wonderful, wonderful relationship where…I mean, we would have the Brad Paisley tour bus stop, like, right here on Adelaide St.

David: To pick up their jackets.

Gavin: You know, everybody from, like, the lead guitar player to the roadies. We’d fit ’em up. Brad Paisley’s dad who drove the bus wears our stuff. It was just great. And I guess what it is, is I like to say we’re authentic, we’re real people, we’re a very authentic company. We don’t put on airs, we’re no BS here. And I think some of these country acts really, really see that because that’s who they are.

Ian: Totally, that’s a big time cultural thing for country music is kinda down to earth, no BS type of thing, right? And, yeah. That’s a perfect fit with you guys.

Gavin: So that’s how that happened. And then just things spread. So the percussionist from the Zac Brown Band was doing that PBS series a number of years ago with Dave Grohl. I’m sorry, I don’t remember the name, but they performed in different cities every night. And so Danny the percussionist was playing on this with Dave Grohl and he loves Tough Duck. Danny from the Zac Brown Band gave it to Dave Grohl.

David: Oh, man. That’s super cool.

Gavin: That’s how it rolls. And what’s was wonderful it was closet full of jackets that are signed. I haven’t even gotten the time yet to put them up. And then, for example, the Winnipeg Folk Festival, we’re partners with the Folk Fest. And I’m a music fun, a huge music fan. I should mention that. So, it’s just my own personal thing, so I love to do it. We’ve got that hockey players, we’ve got, you know, the 1972 Summit Series Team Canada team to sign something. So we’ve had a lot of exciting…

Ian: Oh, that’s super cool.

David: Wow, that’s fantastic.

Gavin: It’s just one of the things we like to do and it’s fun.

David: Totally. Wow.

Ian: It was very impressive coming up here, again, seeing everybody who signed it being like…I mean, even the feel of this building. I know this is a podcast, so you can’t see anything but, like, just a cool brick building in the Exchange, even, you know, an office…like, it’s just a really cool feel here.

Gavin: So, what you have is you have a garment company. So when I was a kid, you know, 40 years ago and you would come to Adelaide and McDermot Avenue, you would see nothing but factory, factory, factory, wholesalers all over the place, whether it was… You know, this building alone and this is where Tan Jay actually started, was in this building. There was a factory on every floor, and on the main floor where our accounting department department is, used to be manufacturers, reps all over the place. We had a sewing thread company distribute out of here. It was called the Apparel Mart. I mean, this was the center of the entire apparel business in the Exchange District.

In the old days, you know, you remember Eaton’s and Sears and all these old department stores, the buyers would come to Winnipeg for a week. They’d spend a day at Richlu. They would go down the street to our competitor, they would go across…they would have enough suppliers here to spend a whole week here and get their business done.

But that’s changed. So we are one of the last garment businesses still here in the Exchange District. So yes, you have the beautiful beams, we have…

Ian: Oh, it’s gorgeous.

Gavin: You know, it’s a gorgeous building but as I said a couple years ago, you know, when the fabulous restaurant next door, King and Bannatyne opened up, when it’s a $10 grilled cheese sandwich it’s time for the garment business to leave the neighborhood. It’s a great grilled cheese. It’s a great restaurant, but it’s out of our bracket. So it’s time to move.

David: Fair enough. Fair enough.

Ian: So, so what are the plans for the future? Over the next 10, 20 years, what does that look…are there goals that you wanna hit? Are there new, you know, categories you wanna take on, or what does that look like?

Gavin: I think one of the things we’re seeing is Tough Duck is becoming more of a brand in terms of outside of the work market. We’re creating clothing now that has more wearing occasions than just the workplace. Work wear is very fashionable today.

Ian: Yeah. Big time. I’m wearing it.

Gavin: You’re wearing it right now.

Ian: I love it.

Gavin: And so we’re coming up new styling in the Tough Duck line that are work-inspired, but not necessarily meant for the workplace exclusively. A lot of multiple wearing things. So that’s starting to take off quite well, and then we’re focusing on our safety and personal protection equipment business and our protective apparel business. And those two, Tough Duck and Work King Safety are really the pillars.

What we’ve given up over the years is we used to have a tremendous fashion business. We were selling all over the world. We had a tremendous fashion business going on. And that’s just gotten to the point now where we have to focus and we have to do what we do really well, and that is the work and protective apparel.

Ian: Well, you guys are doing it great.

Gavin: Thank you. Great to hear.

David: Yeah. I’m learning but I already knew the brand and it’s got a good reputation. Last question that I asked almost everyone who’s on the interview, and you already mentioned that you’re a voracious reader and you love to learn. So what are some of the book recommendations that you would have for the audience?

Gavin: I don’t have the author’s name off the top of my head, but there’s actually a book called, “Difficult Conversations.”  It’s not really a business book but it’s a tremendous book on how to sit down with somebody when you’re about to have a difficult conversation, an unpleasant conversation. I’m a conflict-avoider, to be honest. That helped me. And I think the biggest takeaway from that book is a word called “contribution.”

So if you’re talking about a situation in your business and the word “contribution” is a great word because it says, “How do we contribute to the situation?” It takes the word “fault” out of it. Nobody goes into work expecting to make a mistake. They’re going to do the best job that they can do. So when a mistake happens, it’s not a fault, it’s a contribution to that situation. So that book, “Difficult Conversations,” helped me become a better communicator. I’m a little more understanding of what’s going on on the other side. I’d say that’s a really good one.

And the latest one I read last year that I just found, one of the most enlightening, “Chaos Monkeys.”

David: “Chaos Monkeys?”

Gavin: Antonio Martinez, “Chaos Monkeys.”

David: I haven’t read it.

Gavin: Antonio Martinez. Have you read that book? “Chaos Monkeys.” It’s awesome. It’s absolutely awesome. And why it’s awesome, especially what’s going on now…it’s a true account of what’s happening at a startup tech culture in California. And it’s written by an individual that was part of the Y Combinator and eventually got bought by Facebook. And he talks about working at Facebook and how he started his business and his whole journey. And then when Facebook bought him and Twitter was after him, and just the way it worked. He’s a bit of an anti-hero, too. He’s not a perfect character by any stretch. He’s had to lie. You know, all the things that he had to do to get his startup off the ground.

David: Yeah, I’ll have to check that out. That sounds really cool.

Ian: That’s definitely going on my list.

David: Cool. Well, Gavin thank you so much for coming.

Gavin: Thanks, guys. Really a pleasure.

David: That’s it. Thank you for listening to the “Manitoba Business Podcast.” Once again, this episode was brought to you by Black Chair Consulting. We use social media to help businesses sell more. If you wanna find out about Black Chair Consulting, go to www.blackchair.net. Thanks so much. Have a great day.

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