Logo - Business Development Bank of Canada - BDC

Entrepreneur makes the trek to a global brand

3-minute read

Sean McCormick

Fifteen years ago, Sean McCormick's company was a four-person shop manufacturing indigenous design mukluks and moccasins.

Today, the president of Manitobah Mukluks employs 50 people and his products are on the shelves of 800 retailers across Canada and sold in 22 countries around the world. Hollywood celebrities are regularly spotted wearing his footwear and his brand has even graced the pages of Oprah magazine.

"I started out slowly but eventually I opened my eyes to what was possible on a global scale," McCormick says.

In 1996, he first set up an operation in Winnipeg where he swapped leather and furs for handmade mukluks made by First Nations' women. McCormick, who is Metis, soon saw that retailers couldn't get enough of the beaded, animal skin footwear, and the idea for a company was born.

After developing a business plan with an indigenous youth entrepreneurship program offered at the time by BDC, he secured financing and decided to set up his own manufacturing operation in 1997 at the age of 23.

His products proved to be a hit with gift shops. In 2007, McCormick met his business partner Josh Fine (now Vice President, Sales and Marketing) and together they created the brand Manitobah Mukluks.

Competing with giants

At just 37, he is now competing with giants such as Australian sheepskin footwear maker Uggs that can afford multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns to entice fickle customers.

"We don't have that kind of budget," McCormick says. "Instead, we spend a lot of time with our retailers to make sure they understand our products and the story behind them."

The company has updated traditional footwear to appeal to urban dwellers. For instance, boots are now fitted with high‑abrasion rubber soles that are more suitable for pavement.

McCormick says a key to his company's success has been ensuring it has sufficient capital to grow.

BDC financed the expansion of its Winnipeg facilities. And in 2010, the company also benefited from an investment from the CAPE Fund (Capital for Indigenous Prosperity and Entrepreneurship), a $50-million private equity fund launched by former Prime Minister Paul Martin and 21 partner companies to promote indigenous entrepreneurship.

Hires Indigenous

For Manitobah Mukluks, recruiting from the indigenous community has been a top priority.

"We see ourselves as contributing to an economic renaissance in the indigenous community. It's an integral part of how we run our business."

His company has hired a large number of its employees through the Centre for Indigenous Human Resource Development in Winnipeg.

In 2010, the company launched a profit-sharing program with Indigenous crafts people called the Storyboot Project which produces premium boots in limited quantities. Profits are shared with the elders and artisans involved in their creation.

Manitobah Mukluks is doing brisk business but, like most companies in the retail sector, the firm has to deal with an unpredictable economy, the fluctuating Canadian dollar and changing consumer tastes.

To overcome these obstacles, McCormick has sought the advice of a coach from BDC Advisory Services.

"I've had to accept that I can't control everything," he says.

"Running this company is all about continuous learning. I don't think you can take anything for granted and that's what makes it exciting."

Lessons learned

  • Work with a comprehensive business plan and update it constantly.
  • Be sure your products and services stand out in the market.
  • Invest time with retailers to create buy-in for your product.
  • Secure the capital you need to grow.
  • Recruit young talent to energize your company.
  • Get the objective point-of-view of a coach to guide you.