|Omni-Lite Industries is Fleet of Foot
From Calgary Business Week
By Mark Crncich
This Calgary high tech success story first made its name in the international track world. Now it is developing specialized products for retailers, manufacturers and the military.
It's a long way from Stephen Avenue Mall to Wilshire Boulevard (about a 24 hour drive). But for one Calgary company the long journey was well worth the price of the gas and sandwiches.
In May 1994, David Grant and his wife Catherine packed up most of the assets of David's fledgling company in a couple of suitcases and made the long journey by car, accompanied by most of the employees as well. It was risky, but southern California is the hub of North America's high tech sector and if they could make it there, as they say, they could make it anywhere.
Today, David Grant sits in a comfortable office in Omni-Lite Industries' 8,000 square foot facility, enthusiastically handling another of a long succession of media interviews he has given in the last year, this one by phone. His company has become an all-star of Calgary's growing high tech industry since it opened its satellite operation in Cerritos, California. Not so long ago it was a feature with Lloyd Robertson of CTV News and later an appearance on CBC television morning news. Add in the Financial Post, the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, along with various magazines, and Omni-Lite has become a true media darling.
Grant, a professional engineer by trade who has tinkered in a number of businesses in his career, has found that managing the media attention and promoting his company, which trades on the Alberta Stock Exchange, has become as important a role in running the company as anything else.
"Understanding the technical aspects of this business is critical and probably accounts for 25 per cent of our success," says Grant. "The financial aspect is 25 per cent and marketing is another 25 per cent. What I call the politics of business (i.e., dealing with the media) is another 25 per cent. Unless we have a rounded approach, we couldn't succeed.
What caused all the hype? It is partly due to the company's unique use of technology. Omni-Lite specializes in the use of composite metals to design and manufacture a variety of precision components that are far superior in a number of ways to traditional plastic and metal products. But what really propelled the company into the spotlight was the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
One of the most spectacular performances of the 1996 summer Olympics was American sprinter Michael Johnson's gold medal-winning dashes in the 200 and 400 meter runs, where he greatly out-distanced his competitors. It happens that Calgary's Omni-Lite was a big part of Johnson's phenomenal sprints. The American's famous golden Nikes were equipped with a new spike made from space-age ceramic material that was developed and manufactured by the Calgary company. The spikes are one-third the weight but just as strong as traditional steel spikes. Along with Johnson's success, athletes wearing the Omni-Lite spike captured 20 gold medals in Atlanta.
Later Canada's world record-holding sprinter Donovan Bailey and another of the world's top short distance runners, Ato Boldan of Trinidad, adopted the new spike. The success of athletes using his product is a particular matter of pride for Grant.
"I get a lot of personal satisfaction from meeting people like Ato Boldan and Marion Jones (reigning womens 100 meter world champion) who are so excited about our product," he says.
Well before the company's move to California and Olympic fame, Omni-Lite started in David Grant's living room, where he once ruined his carpet tinkering with materials. Actually, Grant says the foundation for his company started when he was a young boy.
"Even when I was very young I felt I would be doing projects of my own. I think I inherited an entrepreneurial and building spirit from my grandfather, Frederick Grant, who was a founder and builder of the town of Bashaw," he says.
Grant graduated as an engineer from the University of Calgary in the mid-1970s and went on to graduate studies and the University of British Columbia. His resume includes working in the Amoco research center in Oklahoma and working for PetroCanada's research group. He worked briefly as a marine and arctic consultant, tried his hand at real estate, ran a small manufacturing company and was a partner in a Calgary restaurant. Later, Grant was hired by Interra Information Technologies, a company specializing in radar mapping. Along with meeting his wife Catherine, a Singaporean, and working throughout Asia, he became interested in the lightweight materials used in the airplanes for radar mapping.
That interest later led to his living room experiments and then the vision for Omni-Lite. The company was incorporated in 1992 and entered the ASE junior capital pool program, which helped to raise funds. It later received a grant from the National Research Council to study uses of composite metals for product fabrication. The grant allowed the company to purchase its first manufacturing machinery.
The first products that Omni-Lite made were not destined for just any old customer but for one of the biggest sporting goods companies in the world. Nike. The first was a boron steel golf spike and later came the running shoe spike. Along with Nike, the company also has Adidas and Reebok as clients and the Ceramic Ultra-Lite spike is sold in over 1,300 stores in the U.S. Its contracts with sporting goods giants provided the cash for the company to buy new machinery and develop products for other uses. Today, Omni-Lite produces precision components for some 400 customers including automotive giant Chrysler, Canadian Tire and the U.S. military. The company has also established a number of joint ventures, including one with Textron Inc., an American aerospace conglomerate with US$11 billion a year in sales.
Grant says although Omni-Lite is a high-tech firm, it, like any other successful business, has won customers by becoming a solutions provider.
"In this business they are really hiring you to make a solution, not create a problem," says Grant. "We know the answer to our customers' problems before they are aware there is a problem."
The company spends between $4,000 to $5,000 a day in product development, carefully studying how composite materials can be used to replace traditional metal-based components. The manufacturing process to make the component parts is called progressive cold forging and while the vocabulary of the business sounds all too esoteric, it is really quite simple in explanation. The composite materials that are used come in the form of large coiled wire tubes. These tubes are fed into the cold forging machines, of which the company has five. These computer controlled machines, the largest of which is 20 feet long and weighs 12 tons, apply huge amounts of pressure to the materials, approximately 50 tons of force in each step, and the material is eventually massaged into its final form. The whole process is very precise and is supervised by a single operator at a central computer which is tied to all the machines. Omni-Lite currently produces up to 350,000 parts per day.
"When you stand in the middle of these machines it all sounds like a symphony and running the operation is much like being a symphony conductor," says Grant.
In spite of the success and notoriety south of the border, Grant has maintained very close ties between his company and Calgary. Calgary remains the company's head office location and its stock trades on the ASE, though there are plans to try to get listed on the NASDAQ index. Omni-Lite's accountants and lawyers are located here, as well as a number of its sub-contractors. The company also operates a manufacturing facility in Sundre that supplies the Canadian Tire account. Furthermore, some of its key employees are Calgarians, including Omni-Lite's production manager Michael Walker, a SAIT graduate.
"We feel very connected to Canada and Calgary. We believe the company has gained from the entrepreneurial spirit of Calgary and I don't think you could find that same kind of support for a small company as you do in Calgary," says Grant.
For the last two years Omni-Lite has grown its sales figures by a sparkling 350 per cent per year and Grant says he expects to see growth this year in the area of 200 per cent. The company boasts one of the fastest growing stocks on the ASE and it is on the verge of developing new products for Nike and a European car maker.
The Grants recently bought a house near the Cerritos plant and on most days David and Catherine tandem bike to work. For the last four years David and his employees have worked over 12-hour days, seven days a week. And, while he has set aggressive growth goals for his company, David says it is time for balance in his and his employees' lives.
"The success of this company is largely due to the tenacity of the employees
and showing to our customers our willingness to stay and get the job done.
Now we have to train ourselves to look at the personal side of our lives
and create a real balance, which is what we did with this company," says
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