It’s the 1980s in Alberta. The 1970s oil boom has gone bust. Jobs are scarce, corporations are failing, and people are migrating out of the province. Hardly the best time to start a business… or was it?
“We started in the toughest of times,” says Denis Dale, president of Bob Dale Gloves (BDG®). “My father, Robert (Bob), started the company and incorporated in 1981. We launched in our garage in Sherwood Park. He and his business partners were early adopters of importing work gloves into Canada. Dad owned 50 per cent of the shares.” Later, Denis would buy out his partners.
Denis smiles as he thinks back to the early years. “Our largest customer at the time was Safeway. Without Safeway we wouldn’t exist.”
A glove company in Alberta, where the focus was heavily slanted to energy-related enterprises? To some the idea seemed doomed to fail, but Bob was a very smart man. He knew that oil or not, Alberta had many hardworking labourers, and those labourers need protection on the job. He and his partners started importing gloves into Canada from China. Within a year the business moved from the garage to a small warehouse.
“It was tough times,” Denis remembers. “I was 14 years old. My siblings and I would be in the garage tagging gloves and filling orders. We would work after school. We worked during the summer. We all helped to get the business going, but it was hard. Interest rates were massively high. People were going under and we were just starting out. It was the values my dad put in place that allowed us to succeed through those first, difficult years.”
When Denis was 17 the business started to grow rapidly. It was also the year he left home for a summer job up north.
“Suncor Energy offered me a job as an insulator,” he explains. “It paid a substantial amount of money back in the day. At 18 I was finished with school and went into insulating full time. My older brother had an accounting degree and worked for my dad. Insulating was an on and off type of job, so I’d help my dad between contracts.”
BDG was successful and gaining market share rapidly in Canada, and Bob was happy to see his children finding their own paths. In fact, when one of BDG’s partners asked Denis to become a salesman and a glove specialist in the distribution line, Denis left his comfortable insulating job and joined the family business. When the position didn’t work out, he went back up north for a year.
Then everything changed.
At first, it was all going so very well. Denis was 21, married, he and his wife had their first child, and his father-in-law was none other than Harry Buhler, the founder of All Weather Windows and a noted entrepreneur and philanthropist in Edmonton.
“My brother was still with BDG and I wanted to do my own thing. Harry offered me an opportunity to go into the window business. For the first year that went very well. I was offered a management position in Winnipeg, so I went home to talk to my parents about it.”
That’s when he learned that his parent’s long-term goal was for him to take over BDG.
“We had a long talk and negotiated a deal. I would work for BDG under the condition that I would buy out my father one day and if he passed away, my siblings would get a share, but I would get the company. We worked out a deal that saw everyone in the family treated fairly. Then I had to talk to Harry. He was disappointed but he understood because like me, he valued family.”
Denis joined BDG full time as a salesman and increased sales by 5 per cent during his first year.
“It’s going great! We are expanding. I brought youth, direction and new products to the table. I got us into welding gloves. The company was growing by double digits every year…” his voice trails off.
“Then mother became ill with cancer. Shortly after, my father was diagnosed with cancer. They had it at the same time. Mom died on July 10, 1994. Dad said he never wanted to be away from her; he joined her on Valentine’s Day in 1995.”
The Dales always valued family above everything else; the blow was emotionally devastating. Denis was grieving but also overwhelmed. Just like that he was a 28 year old husband and father with a growing business to run.
“I’m a sales guy. I’m not prepared for this,” Denis remembers thinking. It was his father’s words that he spoke shortly before he passed that would carry Denis through the next few turbulent years.
“Denis,” he told me, “You make all your decisions based on your heart. If business is meant to be won, it will be won. If it is meant to be lost, it will be lost. I gave you a set of values for BDG. If you stay with those core values, you will never go wrong. You will have tough years, you will have good years; but if you stick to our values, you will be successful. I’ve always driven the business with those core principles. Those values are what BDG stands for.”
“I called Harry.”
After more than a year of the family focusing on each other as cancer took its toll, Denis emerged knowing that he had to learn more about the business – fast. He was facing six employees and a great deal of inventory in a 4,000 square foot warehouse, and even though he was absent from the helm for months, business was still growing rapidly.
“I trusted Harry,” Denis admits.
He knew he couldn’t move forward without help. His father-in-law was more than happy to oblige. He sat down with Denis and they charted a path forward. BDG remains very grateful for the mentorship Harry provided Denis and the company during that difficult time.
With a newfound understanding of entrepreneurship and the desire to do his family, community and team proud, Denis invested his inheritance into the company and expanded into new retail markets.
Within a year, the company went from a 4,000 square foot facility to 10,000 square feet – and then they had to quickly open up additional bays to add more space. Four years later BDG was looking for land. During the year of the move to its current location, Denis bought out his two partners (they remain as employees, happy to work at the company they love even though they are in their late 70s), giving him 100 per cent ownership of the company.
Today BDG’s head office sits in a 110,000+ square foot facility on 5.5 acres just a few miles away from the garage where it all began.
In August 2003, BDG bought out one of their largest competitors in Western Canada – Gander Brand.
“They had been manufacturing in Canada since 1949,” says Denis. “We bought their operations in Canada and Sri Lanka, So, now BDG had its first Canadian manufacturing facility.”
“The purchase also allowed us to offer the highest quality of welding gloves and strengthened our relationships with one of the largest distributors in Canada.,” says Brad Dale, vice president and Denis’ son. “When we bought Gander Brand, it came with a lot of people and a new sales approach. This created a tri-lateral partnership with our clients, and we were now the manufacturer, distributor, and seller of the end product.
“We started a go-to-market strategy where we would visit sites and build gloves specific for our clients’ tasks. We changed from being a product provider to a solution provider. We have solutions for safety, solutions for distribution, solutions for our customer and their customers, and solutions for how we go to market.”
Brad continues, “When we launched that approach, our business grew tremendously in the industrial and safety markets.”
Like his father, Brad made his own way in the world and enjoyed a life of adventure, but those famous BDG values inspired him no matter where he roamed, and he decided to join the family business. Brad, who has a degree in business management, has worked in every position from picking orders to shipping. He spent time overseas to immerse himself in BDG’s logistics. He went to trade shows to learn from industry professionals, and he sat with the board of directors to learn hands-on management.
As BDG entered a new era, Brad helped to inject new approaches to sales, production and marketing, while never losing sight of the core principles on which his grandfather founded the company.
Denis couldn’t be prouder of Brad.
“It was street smarts for me, but education and hands-on training for Brad,” he beams at his son. “My father was street smart too; he didn’t go to college. For Brad to get his degree and do the things he’s done, it’s brought a whole other level to the table.”
Brad smiles, “At this point,” he says, “we are focused on our strengths and we are focused on solutions.”
Five years ago, BDG expanded to the United States. BDG also has a 50,000 square foot facility overseas.
“In improving our value proposition, we changed many things,” Denis points out. “One thing we changed was how we handle our imports because we wanted to increase quality. As part of our ISO compliance we inspect and tour our leather suppliers’ factories. We inspect during production. We inspect as the product goes onto the ship and after the cargo disembarks.”
This focus on quality and the multi-point inspections are not only for the goods and products of BDG. The company is passionate about ensuring every team member, locally and abroad, is treated ethically, and that all of BDG’s facilities and partners have safe and clean working conditions.
During the last 12 months BDG has built an entirely new executive team and appointed new directors in sales, purchasing, accounting and marketing.
“The executive team has tremendous strength; each member truly cares about BDG and its people. many of them have worked for successful blue chip companies,” says Denis.
“The new executive team has brought us to the next level and is helping us get ready for our next big step,” Brad agrees.
The company, who has always been a quiet supporter behind some of the largest PPE brands in the industry, is now moving in a bold, new direction. BDG is becoming more visible under its own brand, and as with everything the agile company does, the rollout of its evolved identity will be rooted in BDG’s values.
Today BDG is a leading solutions provider across North America, offering high performance hand protection for the construction, energy, automotive, enforcement, forestry, manufacturing, mining and utility industries. BDG is proud to be a Canadian manufacturer and importer with outstanding records for workplace safety and product quality.
Denis says, “We are one of the largest of its kind in Canada. Every province and every territory has our gloves. We are strong in Canada and working on being just as strong in America. We didn’t seek out the American market – we were asked to come into the US by our American partners because of the respect they have for BDG’s ethics and values. We are also exploring an opportunity in South America. We are becoming more global because our values are transferable to global markets.”
Denis looks around his office, which is inside the headquarters that overseas all of BDG’s operations locally and abroad. He nods to his son, the third generation that will run BDG one day. Staff pass by his window, smiling and happy to come to work where they are valued, appreciated, and respected. New products are being tested in the lab and the warehouse is filled from the floor to the rafters with orders.
“My father told me to stick to the company values and never waiver,” Denis concludes. “Dad, those values of integrity, honestly, humility, trust and innovation have brought – and will continue to bring – great success to BDG. Thank you.”
At 40, BDG continues to be an industry leader and one of Edmonton’s biggest success stories. Learn more at www.bobdalegloves.com.