Sean McCormick grew up wearing mukluks. Little did he know that one day, he’d be introducing people all over the world to his uniquely Canadian childhood footwear.
Today, the young entrepreneur owns a company that makes and sells mukluks and moccasins in four different continents.
“You name a country,” says McCormick, an energetic chap whose mother is Métis and brought him up in that tradition. “This year, we’ve sold to 50 countries on our e-commerce platform. E-commerce allows us to get into markets that we couldn’t get into otherwise. The internet allows a small company like ours to really go global. You name a country: England, Italy, Russia, China, Korea, Brazil, the U.S. — we’re there.”
McCormick, who freely admits he could talk about his company forever, emphasizes its mission and its socially-conscious brand.
“I grew up very cognizant and in tune with my Métis heritage,” he says. “I was brought up with a strong sense of social responsibility. Between that and growing up wearing mukluks, that set the stage for my career.”
It started in 1990 when he worked in a tannery in high school tanning leather and fur and, through a trading post he set up, he’d trade with First Nations women who made mukluks.
“I would sell their mukluks to souvenir stores,” he said. “I couldn’t keep them in stock so I decided to do it myself.”
In 1996, he took a nine-month Aboriginal youth entrepreneurship course and came out with the business plan for Fleeceline, a mukluk and moccasin maker.
“I took it to the bank and started the company in early 1997,” McCormick says. “For the first few years, we only had 10 people; we were selling to souvenir shops.”
In 2004, when his factory was in Brandon, mukluks became fashionable and the company saw a surge in demand. “We went from making 1,000 pairs a year to 1,000 pairs a week. I opened a second factory in Winnipeg. Then, two years later, when the trend passed, it all came crashing down.”
McCormick said the boom made him aware of the power of brand and the size of the footwear industry globally.
“It opened my eyes,” he said. “My vision was to expand. I created the Manitobah Mukluks brand in 2008 with the intent of selling footwear to the world.”
That’s when he teamed up with Vibram, the highly reputable sole company, to make his mukluks more versatile. “We took 10,000-year-old footwear and made it suitable for the 21st century,” he said. “That was the start of the fast growth.”
It didn’t hurt that celebrities — Kate Moss, Megan Fox, Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake — were buying the shoes. Even Prince Harry bought a pair for his girlfriend.
Nevertheless, McCormick says he’s not a fashion company. Rather, he is a maker of “the best winter boots in the world,” with a brand that’s authentic and community-based. Forty per cent of staff at the Winnipeg headquarters are aboriginal people and he strongly supports the artists who make his mukluks. One of his programs, called StoryBoots, has the company marketing custom boots — works of art — made by Métis artisans and turning over 100 per cent of the proceeds to them. “We help them reach a global audience,” he said. “And get the price they deserve. A woman from Norway House First Nation Manitoba is selling her mukluks in France. It’s a culture-preservation thing and it helps me pay back the debt [to the trade.]” Another program teaches young people how to make mukluks. At Carleton and McGill universities, students can now get credit for courses in mukluk making.
On the commercial side, he emphasizes his direct-to-consumer e-sales, but he also wholesales to the likes of Holt Renfrew, Neiman-Marcus and Nordstrom. He’s proud of the fact that he’s never paid for advertising. Rather, his brand reach has expanded through creative marketing and its story.
Manitobah Mukluks has three levels of product: The artisan pairs that sell for upwards of $1,000; a made-in-Canada collection featuring premium manufactured products that sell between $250 and $350, and a line produced in a Vietnam factory, one in which McCormick will soon become majority owner. The latter sell for between $130 and $350.
“Eventually, I’d like this company to be owned by the aboriginal community, as a social enterprise,” he said. “That’s my ultimate goal — always has been.”
McCormick used two of Export Development Canada’s services to kick off his exporting. The Export Guarantee Program gave him access to working capital and Accounts Receivable Insurance protected him against default from buyers.
FIVE QUESTIONS with Manitobah Mukluks owner Sean McCormick
1) What was your first export sale?
“We’ve always had some customers in the U.S. on the gift and souvenir side of things.
2) How did that first export opportunity arise?
“I did a trade mission back in 1997 and I met a Denver trade merchant. So that how it came about.
3) When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
“As a small company, trying to compete with billion-dollar brands, the level of focus, investment and planning — you have to be really prepared. Planning only takes you so far. Being aware of the real costs and how much investment it’s going to take is hard to get a grip on. In the beginning, I was a little naïve about how long it would take and how much effort it would take.
4) How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
“It’s the e-commerce. Everything is online. Technology levels the playing field. We can tell our story online and win against the big companies. When we go to a trade show in Europe, some of the booths of our competitors cost more than we’ve ever spent on marketing over our 20 years. It’s hard to get noticed in those places. Online it’s not. I love the democratization where you can put your best foot forward and have a chance at success. If you had told me four years ago, we’d be selling in 50 countries today, I would have laughed.
5) What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about export and trade?
“What you need to know is — what’s your strategy, what’s your focus? You can’t be everything to everybody. You need to know what you’re looking to do and focus on that. Our focus isn’t trade shows around the world, it’s focussing on e-commerce worldwide.”