Local businesses sewing up new venture

Businesses in Calgary are facing extraordinary challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, the opportunity to transition has saved jobs in uncertain times.

Two local companies, Hippo Hug and Alberta Garment Manufacturers, have come forward to supply face coverings for frontline City of Calgary workers.

“We had a need for a significant quantity of these face coverings. What better option than to support local businesses in the process. They had the ability, we had the need, it was a made-in-Calgary solution,” said Deputy Chief Sue Henry of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency.

Alberta Garment Manufacturers has been supplying coveralls for City workers since 2016.

The specialty workwear company answered the City’s call for businesses to help source items like face coverings. Owner Adrian Bussoli says the company primarily caters to the oil and gas industry producing goods such as flame-resistant clothing, but production is down due to the current economy. The chance to adapt and begin manufacturing an entirely new product such as cloth face coverings is a natural opportunity for a business looking to shift focus, Bussoli said.

“It does protect and grow jobs - it’s not only stabilized but increased for us. We don’t look at it as one month or two months but closer to six to 12 months. It gives us the opportunity to develop our expertise in other areas. This situation allows us to become a more diverse company, we’re assessing the long-term changes that may occur… I think it’s going to have an impact on our product line for our customers and The City could conceivably become one of them.”

Helping keep a variety of front-line workers safe is a bonus, said Bussoli. “You do feel really good about it. You’re doing something that’s going to benefit people and the community, there’s no question about it. We’re local and we’ve got a relationship we want to develop and do the right things for our community.”

The opportunity to pivot and do something new could have a lasting effect on his business, said Bussoli. “Calgary has always been known as an oil and gas city, but Calgary has evolved over time, there’s an appreciation that’s growing for diversification. I don’t think anybody believed there is any apparel industry locally. This is an opportunity to show there’s a place for different things, from fashion to workwear. There’s now an awareness that there are companies that can do certain things that you can consider down the road.”

Another business, Hippo Hug, was already making custom-made material for Calgary Fire when The City reached out to owner Leslie Brooks to ask if she was game to make the shift to sewing fabric face coverings for Transit operators.

“I thought if I can make enough that I can keep everybody employed, great. We always joke if it requires fabric and a sewing machine, we can do it,” said Brooks, who has hired more workers to meet the demand and reconfigured her production floor to ensure staff are safely a minimum of two metres apart. “It’s been super positive, everybody we’ve interacted with has been awesome. I know for sure all of our costs are covered. Whether or not my business is making a profit is not really a concern for me -- really my goal was just keeping my staff employed,” said Brooks.

Brooks herself cranks out several masks a day, and with all workers sewing furiously, the company can supply up to 1,600 masks daily. The rewards include spotting their masks being worn on the job, says Brooks. “It’s fun to start to see our masks in the wild… it’s making a difference in someone’s life.”

The opportunity to plan for the future is an added comfort. “It will help us when we get back to making more than masks, we’ll be able to talk with people from The City and say 'What can we be creating that will help you do your jobs better?'” said Brooks. “When we make it through this as a community I hope that it really changes us in a good way… I think there’s the potential for everybody’s eyes to be opened up to what local can really do if given the opportunity.”