Building Unity at the Wood Manufacturing Cluster of Ontario

Matthew Bradford

Mike Baker is a firm believer in gathering strength through numbers. That’s why, in his ten years as Chief Executive Officer with the Wood Manufacturing Cluster of Ontario (WMCO), he has endeavoured to unite wood industry leaders and partners, addressing the obstacles and opportunities in their path. 

“We’re at the cusp of a lot of important change and evolution with our industry, and clustering has a very important role to play in helping companies together grow and thrive in that change by sharing perspectives, resources, and best practices,” says Baker.

Clustering may be relatively new to the Canadian wood industry, but the concept has already proven successful worldwide. Developed 30 years ago by Harvard economic researcher Michael Porter, “clustering” is a model that brings industry stakeholders within one region together (e.g., wood manufacturers, academia, government partners) to engage in projects, research, and other mutually-beneficial activities. 

Ultimately, adds Baker, “The goal is to elevate all players within the region to help make the industry more globally competitive.”

Enter: The Wood Manufacturing Cluster of Ontario

The Wood Manufacturing Cluster of Ontario took root in the Grey Bruce Huron Perth district around 2010. 

“There were seven companies in Grey Bruce Huron Perth who were experiencing challenges after the last recession. There was also an increase in offshore competition, and costs were rising,” says Baker. “Those companies started collaborating on a few projects that had been backed by government funding. They began forging relationships and generating mutual respect and trust during that time. That’s when they decided they might have the makings of a cluster.”

That early partnership led to the creation of the Bluewater Wood Alliance. In 2011, this Alliance sent two members to Business Upper Austria to establish an official wood industry cluster within Ontario. Upon returning, they incorporated the Blue Water Wood Alliance as a not-for-profit company. They hired industry veterans Sepp Gmeiner and Blair Tullis as part-time managers to get the initiative off the ground. 

One year later, Baker found an opportunity to join that team. After years of launching industry consortiums across Ontario and Atlantic Canada and making a name in human resources, he answered Bluewater Wood Alliance’s call for a part-time cluster manager.

“I was familiar with the exercise of going into a community, engaging industries, and helping them find common ground,” Baker recalls. “I knew how important it was for industries to recognize the value of networking and knowledge sharing and how that could lead to other value propositions that would help them grow and compete on the world stage. That’s why, once I saw that ad for cluster manager, I was confident I was the person Bluewater and excited to see what I could do.”

Baker’s experience and passion proved a good fit for the Alliance. Soon after joining the team, Baker wasted no time ramping up the group’s networking events, training programs, and outreach initiatives. 

“We kept adding more types of training and getting people together more often, and that’s when we started to really get companies from all over Ontario show interested in the Bluewater Wood Alliance,” he says.

In the years that followed, Baker and the team began expanding the Alliance’s staff and network. They also created collaborative projects for member companies through partnerships with Natural Resources Canada, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs, and other government partners.

Eventually, Baker notes, the size and scope of the Bluewater Wood Alliance had outgrown its name: “It got to a point where we had 130 members all over Ontario now, and our name no longer reflected our reach and ambition. That’s when we became the Wood Manufacturing Cluster of Ontario and developed a more forward-looking strategic plan.”

Taking root

At ten years young, the WMCO is poised for growth. Getting there, however, requires the skills and support to keep pace with industry evolutions and market trends.

“The wood industry is quickly getting up to speed and catching up with automation and integration that other industries have embraced,” says Baker. “So it’s really important for us to help our members stay on top of those ‘Industry 4.0’ trends so they can so continue to be competitive.”

Similarly, the cluster is helping companies explore new ways to introduce their products to international markets and position themselves for game-changing trends.

For example, adds Baker, “One of the biggest industry evolutions for Ontario is modular mass timber building. We plan to be actively involved in helping companies adapt and tool up to tap into that market.”

In the meantime, Baker is focused on bringing more value to the cluster’s members and raising the industry’s presence within the province.

“That’s my passion,” he continues. “I joined this cluster to help our companies elevate what they’re doing and how they’re doing it so they can be leaders at home and in the global market.”

Matt Bradford is a writer, editor, and longtime contributor at MediaEdge, publishers of Wood Industry e-digest and magazine. He has spent years reporting on the wood and construction industries and values the opportunity to provide insights into the secondary wood manufacturing community’s successes, challenges, and opportunities.

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