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“No other Canadian manufacturer is set up to do this”: Q&A with Canada Goose CEO Dani Reiss, whose factories are churning out hospital gowns and scrubs

“No other Canadian manufacturer is set up to do this”: Q&A with Canada Goose CEO Dani Reiss, whose factories are churning out hospital gowns and scrubs

On March 17, the luxury parka label Canada Goose temporarily closed its stores in Europe and North America, along with its manufacturing facilities in Toronto, Winnipeg and Montreal. A week later, its CEO, Dani Reiss, announced those idle sewing machines would be put to use making medical-grade garb, adding Canada Goose to the ranks of companies undergoing wartime-style makeovers to keep health care workers stocked with essentials. He spoke to Toronto Life about how Canada Goose is swapping outerwear for hospital wear. 

The reality of this pandemic sunk in slowly for a lot of Canadians, because we’ve never seen anything like it. Can you describe the moment you first thought, Uh oh, this is serious?
At first, the world assumed this would be localized in China. Across businesses, leaders planned their responses around what things would look like when China resumed normalcy. When it started to gain momentum across continents, that was a real eye-opener for me. At that point, we all realized it was only a matter of time before the virus came here. 

You’re devoting Canada Goose’s manufacturing facilities to making medical garments. How did that decision come about? We’ve built one of largest apparel infrastructures in this country. Now we find ourselves in a unique position: no other Canadian apparel manufacturer is set up to do what we can. And maybe this is a higher purpose, to use what we’ve built to contribute to society. We won’t sit back and watch this all play out. If we can help Canadians, and perhaps even people all over the world, we will.

What will Canada Goose be manufacturing?
Our teams will focus on making scrubs and gowns. We’ve been in touch with health facilities in Toronto, as well as local and provincial governments, who’ve made it clear that these items are needed. We have more capacity and are capable of making much more than gowns and scrubs, so we’re continuing to find out what’s needed and how we can best use our resources to provide relief.   

And what are the garments made of? They’ll be made of a poly-cotton fabric. Our procurement team has been working tirelessly to source the materials we need—and that’s not an easy thing to do as fast as they’ve done it.

Who will be making the gowns? Are you using Canada Goose employees? We put a call out to our employees, asking who would be willing and able to join the effort. The response was incredible. It’s heartening to see so many people step up and offer to be a part of this.

How many sewers across how many facilities will be devoted to the effort? We expect to have approximately 50 sewers working at our Toronto and Winnipeg facilities within a week. We’ll obviously follow all health and safety precautions, including social distancing. We’ll limit the number of employees and increase sanitation measures. 

So how does a parka-maker learn how to produce hospital gowns? Is someone showing you the ropes? We’ve been in touch with teams at local health care facilities to understand what they need. From there, we’ve worked quickly to source patterns and materials. We’re starting with Level 1 garments, which are designed for basic care and minimal contact—they’re nowhere near as complicated as, say, hazmat suits. 

How many items do you hope to produce, and on what timeline?
Our goal is to produce 10,000 units as quickly and safely as we can. Approximately 2,000 will be ready by the end of this week. We also have the ability to expand to additional facilities in both cities as well as in the Montreal area as needed. 

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Is the government footing the bill for any of this?
We decided not to wait for the government, because we know how urgent this is. If we can partner with them in the future, we will, because that would enable us to do even more to help front-line workers. In either case—our current donation or future collaboration with the government—our efforts will not be for profit. We’ll only cover our costs. 

I imagine you’ve had a lot of difficult conversations over the last couple of weeks as you’ve stopped production and sent people home from work. What has that been like?
These decisions have serious implications for people’s lives, and it’s heartbreaking. But I’m also seeing examples every day of resilience and leadership. We created the Canada Goose Employee Fund to help employees impacted by closures who are not eligible for government assistance. As a part of that initiative, I’m not taking my salary for at least three months. To my astonishment, other employees also offered to contribute parts of their salaries. I shouldn’t be surprised, because we’ve built a great team, but I was taken aback. 

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve made to your daily routine over the last couple of weeks?
There’s been a lot more videoconferencing, obviously. In meetings, which are now calls, we often reach decisions and conclusions in half the time it would’ve normally taken. And I’m making time to reach out to team members I normally wouldn’t get to interact with. Personally, I’m finding myself reflecting more—on what the world is going to be like when this over. 

What are you doing to preserve your own health and sanity during social isolation?
For one, I’ve stopped shaving. I sent out a company-wide video update last week noting my quarantine beard, and the response has been positive. It’s a great conversation-starter for people I haven’t connected with in a while. I’ve built time into my schedule for exercise, which helps clear my mind. And I’m also enjoying wine, perhaps a little more than usual these days. 

And what about for fun?
Usually, I’m travelling. Now I get to cook dinner and have a family meal every day. I’m spending more time with my children, and I’ve introduced them to some of my favourite movies, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I Am Legend and other zombie classics.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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