Manufacturing B.C.-Designed Products Overseas

Jeff Zamluk, Swell Source | BCBusiness
Jeff Zamluk hates offices so he runs a business without one.

Overseas factories are producing more B.C.-designed products—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing

At just 28 years old, Jeff Zamluk is already living his version of the dream. He doesn’t have employees, an office or warehouse to manage, yet since 2008 his manufacturing companies, Swell Source Inc. and Cascadia Board Co., have been profitable enough to enable Zamluk to buy a house in Victoria, travel and ride boards—surf, skate and wake—pretty much whenever he wants.

The secret to his success lies in Swell Source’s offshore procurement of product for the action-sports industries (via three distinct brands, Cascadia Board Co., Zed Skimboards and Forbidden Snowboards) and marketing collateral for liquor industries from signage and bottle openers to custom coolers and bikes. Working with foreign factories, he says, allows him to do what other manufacturers can’t: he can manufacture “anything”, and custom work is a specialty.

According to Craig Williams, vice-president of the B.C. division of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, Zamluk’s business model represents a new reality. “You see guys who just sit on airplanes or are on their laptops and they’re running manufacturing businesses. It’s a different model than the old smokestack industry, but it can work,” he says.

Though Canadian manufacturing is losing its low-end jobs, Williams says, high-end jobs such as engineers, marketers, designers—as well as spinoff jobs—is a robust sector, and manufacturing numbers are back to where they were pre-recession. He adds that while keeping jobs and companies in B.C. is important, there are certain things that, when produced in high volume, don’t make sense to manufacture here.

“There’s no point in standing up for manufacturing to be done in Canada if you go out of business because you can’t compete,” he says.

The market for the boards that Swell Source produces for Cascadia Board Co. (stand-up paddleboards, surfboards, skimboards and more) has grown at such a rate that this spring Zamluk’s factories in China were at capacity, leaving him to wonder, “what the hell we’re going to do—if I don’t have product, my clients won’t come back.”

In the grand scheme of offshore manufacturing, it’s a good problem. Williams says that more often issues arise in six other key areas: R&D, quality assurance and control, lead time, intellectual property protection, the legal system in the country you’re working with, and the social stability there.

A glance over the FAQ page on the Swell Source website and it’s clear that Zamluk is accustomed to battling skepticism regarding offshore manufacturing. He began producing skimboards offshore when he was just 18, after demand for the boards he had been making for two years in his father’s workshop exceeded his ability to supply. A friend suggested he check out a factory in Thailand that he’d heard made surfboards.

“I Googled them, called them up and got this German guy on the other end. He said they were a growing factory and wanted to support young, small businesses. So I sent him off what I thought was a pretty sweet skimboard design. He said it would be ready in a couple months and I said, ‘Sweet, I’m going to come visit,’ because you have to remember that this was back when the impression of offshore factories is they were slave-labour sweat shops and nothing good came from them,” says Zamluk. “I was definitely concerned about the production aspect and the moral aspect of it.”

Ethics are also front of mind for Vancouver-based fashion designer Nicole Bridger, CEO of Nicole Bridger Design Inc. Bridger’s business focus on sustainability makes it desirable to produce locally, but it’s the fashion label’s small quantities—100 units per style— that make it possible. “You need to make 1,000 units or more to move overseas,” she says.

She recently bought the Vancouver factory where she produces her garments (her line represents 15 per cent of its output; the rest is manufacturing for other clothing companies) to keep production local “so I get better quality control and can manage quicker lead times,” she says. But, she adds, she may manufacture overseas one day, and cites a lack of skilled labour here that’s available in places like China.

Zamluk travels to China several times a year to ensure products are being manufactured ethically, environmentally and to the highest quality standards. “There’s quality labour over there, those factories are legit. We make 100,000 of something that’s unique and well made and we put the Swell Source tag on it—‘Designed on Vancouver Island, made in China’—and new clients start calling,” he says.

With some 70 active accounts on the action-sports side of his business and 135 marketing collateral accounts, Zamluk’s business is booming. He has no plans to slow down yet, but early retirement definitely factors into living the dream.

“Freedom 30, that’d be awesome,” he says, laughing.