Risks, Ethics, and Innovation: How Quebec Furniture Manufacturer South Shore Thrived in a Time of Crisis
Ambre O. Khiari
Founded in 1940 in Sainte-Croix, Quebec, furniture manufacturer South Shore has weathered many challenges, including the current labour shortage and global compensation that hasn’t made life easy on most companies. But thanks to the attentive management of its human resources department coupled with a willingness to embrace innovative technologies, South Shore has been holding its own. In fact, in the spring of 2022, after 80 years of producing interior furniture for both residential and office use, the company expanded with a new outdoor collection.
“The last two years have greatly increased the desire and need to want to properly furnish one’s outdoor space to fully enjoy every ray of sunshine,” Vice President of Consumer Experience Nicole Basenach recently told Le Soleil newspaper. “So, our offer comes at the right time!”
The move to expand during a pandemic showcases South Shore’s flexibility, adaptability, and commitment to its employees in a time of crisis. As other plants were shutting down and sending employees home, South Shore was embracing virtual opportunities, making expansion plans, and ensuring each of its 1 000 employees felt connected and supported.
“Our values are not just something written on the wall,” says CEO Jean Laflamme—values that include acting ethically and authentically. In fact, before Canadian government support was available, the company went ahead and paid all its employees in full. It also donated furniture, money, and services to 5,000 recipients in 2021 through its foundation dedicated to helping youth and families.
Of course, to achieve successful outcomes and embrace a people-first mentality, Basenach points out that companies need to have resources dedicated to innovation. “You also have to be able to make mistakes,” she says. “In fact, we have a budget set aside for this riskier work. To be innovative, a company can’t just look at short-term profitability.”
In addition to launching an online sales department, other changes needed to contend with staffing shortages included outsourcing some of its production to a plant in Juárez, Mexico, and welcoming 12 workers from the Juárez plant to Quebec.
“If we didn’t have a factory in Mexico right now, it’s clear that moving there would be a solution to the labour problem we face,” Jean-Stéphane Tremblay, President and COO, told Journal de Montréal in February 2022. “It’s good for us. These are people we know who already work for our company. They know our processes, our machines. They come here and they can start work immediately. We gave them French courses in Mexico. We bought two houses to host them.”
Automation and robotics
South Shore has been turning to innovation long before COVID-19. In 2004, for instance, it launched its first online sales of pre-assembled furniture (before IKEA) to keep up with the Chinese market. Today, the company ships one million pieces of furniture a year in North America through Amazon, Wayfair and other outlets. More recently, the company has “automated and robotized” certain tasks by working with research centres and robotics firms. It also has a new digital finishing process scheduled to be implemented by the end of 2022.
As Luc Sirois, Quebec’s chief innovator told La Presse: “You need to have someone who is completely, or at least largely, dedicated to innovation in the company. If innovation is not part of someone’s job description, nothing will move forward because everyone will always end up having more pressing things to do.”
A concept not lost on the minds at South Shore where an six-person “Innovation Cell” focuses on opportunities in technology, Basenach points out that it’s had to rely on innovation once or twice before: “We have known that we must constantly innovate, whether it’s with new products, our processes or our business model.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused some unavoidable delays—the main barrier to progress being the lack of people. As Sylvie Pinsonnault, Senior Vice President, Strategies, Innovation and Sustainable Development, at Investissement Québec-CRIQ, told La Presse: “The entrepreneur caught up in the daily routine does not have much time to consider the changes to be made and we are there to accompany him. We offer a moratorium on the repayment of capital that can go up to 48 months because we know that it takes time to see the benefits of an automation or robotization project,” she said. “You have to think about making the greenest changes possible, because again, it’s important to stay competitive. More and more, calls for bids contain sustainable development aspects. Our companies must embrace the planetary movement.”