How Superior Strategies became one of the few 100% Indigenous-owned PPE suppliers in Canada
In 2008, Jason Thompson was a supervisor at a lumber sawmill when prices crashed and business took a downturn. Eager for a change, he went back to school, studied human resources, and opened his own consulting business in Red Rock Indian Band, an Ojibwe First Nation in Northwestern Ontario. He began offering project management as well as health and safety training.
A decade of consulting later, Thompson ventured into the supply business; he began selling office supplies, industrial workwear, medical supplies and cleaning products. He also expanded his business by adding two locations in Thunder Bay.
When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Canada in March 2020, sales of PPE and other equipment took off.
"In the early days, we got whatever we could get our hands on," says Thompson. "It was crazy. We were moving so many products in a day it was overwhelming. Our neighbors were probably wondering what's going on, seeing all these trucks rolling out of our garage."
Scrambling to fulfill orders, manufacturers wanted Thompson to pay them up front for the masks and safety equipment he was distributing. But some of Thompson's new customers were large multinational companies used to receiving 30 or 60 days of credit. Despite the high number of sales, the wait between issuing and collecting receivables meant the company was running low on cash.
We were dipping into savings accounts just to keep the product moving.
Small, but flexible
Sales of health and safety supplies had been a sore point before the COVID-19 pandemic created a huge spike in demand for hand sanitizers and wipes.
With his existing toehold in the industry, Thompson found a gap in the market at the beginning of the pandemic.
Many of his competitors ran into supply chain problems when their existing suppliers could not deliver on their contracts. But as a young business, Superior Strategies wasn’t bogged down by pre-existing contracts and was able to source its supplies from anywhere.
Thompson gained more than 250 new customers in a year, mostly a mix of small businesses and large multinationals.
To solve his cash flow problem, he negotiated for payment up front. He also took out a BDC working capital loan in October 2020 to keep his business growing.
Superior Strategies currently does a roaring business selling Health Canada-compliant masks, disinfectants, and sanitizing wipes to other businesses. They’ve also established themselves as one of the few Indigenous-owned suppliers in the Canadian health and safety industry.
Helping the local community
Thompson, a Red Rock Indian Band citizen, is proud that his business is 100% Indigenous owned.
"One of the things I noticed is that while there's inclusivity in labour, for suppliers it still seems like foreign grounds. It’s still a struggle to get access to supply chains,” he says.
“But to do business in an ethical way, you have to be diverse. Everything we do is based on inclusion.”
As a member of the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce, Thompson is heavily involved with local economic activities.
The training and development branch of Superior Strategies offers courses on health and safety, employment skills, and hospitality. They also run cultural awareness programs on Indigenous issues. Some of their most recent partners have been the Ministry of Transportation and the Ontario Native Women's Association.
Thompson says that as a local business, Superior Strategies is committed to helping the Indigenous community find employment and gain opportunities.
"If you're looking for workers I'm happy to go out there and introduce you to people I know are community advocates and say, 'Hey, if you're looking for workers, we can help you do this.'"
Superior Strategies partners with other training organization around Thunder Bay to help people find work placements. One of its projects is contributing to a skilled trades training program in industrial machinery at Cambrian College in Sudbury. Six Indigenous students have recently graduated there.
"In resource-based projects, companies want to know how they can engage with First Nations people, and I believe we can be a part of that. We can help," says Thompson.
Our people aren't just snowshoe makers or dreamcatcher makers anymore. We bring a lot to the table.
Past and future
To deal with the struggles of running a business, Thompson credits his family as a source of daily motivation. He grew up without many luxuries, on a diet of what he calls “wiener water soup and Kraft Dinner”. He remembers watching his dad work all his life and witnessing the trials and tribulations he went through as an Indigenous worker. Thompson’s grandfather was a commercial fisherman, and the family tells stories about the struggles he faced decade ago.
"At one point in history, Indigenous people couldn't buy boat motors, because it gave them an added edge in harvesting fish. So people like my grandfather took the motors off their cars and put them on boats,” Thompson says with a laugh.
“When you think about how resourceful that is, getting masks and sanitizer in the supply chain is actually pretty easy."
His heritage is a point of pride for Thompson, who says his long-term plan is to manufacture PPE locally, on First Nations land, creating more economic opportunities for the local communities.
As Thompson plans for the future, he appreciates the support that he's received from BDC to get Superior Strategies to where it is now.
"The process of getting the loan was smooth and fast. As a small business owner, it couldn't have been easier. The local team has been very supportive,” he says. "To use my own language—Chi-Miigwetch. It's a big thank you for believing in us and in Superior Strategies."