More Than Just ‘Bearing’ It ENJOYING EVERY MINUTE!
By Richard Rix
How does an industrial supply business grow? Through energy, intelligence, hard work and a sense of fun, that's how. As long as the products and service levels are top rate and in demand, it's a sure-...
June 1, 2009
By Richard Rix
How does an industrial supply business grow? Through energy, intelligence, hard work and a sense of fun, that’s how. As long as the products and service levels are top rate and in demand, it’s a sure-fire formula for success.
Other qualities help too, such as listening, caring and trusting your instincts — traits that are reputed to flow more freely from the female half of the population. Perhaps that is why Best Bearings Co. Ltd. — one of the only bearing suppliers in Eastern Canada with women at the helm — has become such a success since it was started up by Laura Birch at modest premises in west-end Toronto in 1995.
Within a year, Laura was joined by her sister Barbara Birch, and today their company services the whole of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and beyond with a range of products that includes bearings, belting, motors and power transmission products, including name brands such as WEG, Nachi and Jason.
In the intervening years, Best Bearings has built up a high level of expertise servicing all industries but particularly the food industry, most notably the bakery subsector.
Laura Birch already had a background in industry, having worked for several years with bearing suppliers and looking after such key accounts as the Jane Parker bakery division of A&P, famous for its specialty cakes for over 100 years.
To the solid technical foundation laid by Laura, Barbara brought sound business acumen based on previous management success and a background in economics and political science.
The sisters, just two years apart in age, quickly learned from one another and how to augment each other’s talents. It’s obvious to see that they continue to work together in a spirit of cooperation and good humour.
Today, both women are well versed in all aspects of the industry, with expertise that also extends to fabrication and conveying.
“There are two things which we decided on very early and which we have maintained over the years,” says Barbara. “They are to keep the business lean and to look after our customers really well. We go beyond just processing orders; we actually go out to the customers’ sites, if needed, to see exactly what they need, both to be helpful and to research other opportunities to be of service.”
The transition from being a supplier of such products as bearings, gearboxes, chains and belting, to being a company that also undertakes equipment fabrication and the design/build of conveyor systems, was a natural one, and Best Bearings consummated it through the creation of Best Conveyors & Fabrication. The division also services conveyor systems of all types.
“A breakdown can cost a company big dollars in downtime,” Barbara says. “If an immediate permanent repair is impossible, we can get it up and running on a temporary basis till it can be fixed. You can do anything with dedication and a flexible attitude.”
Conveyors in the bakery business are unlike those for most other industries, not just in how they are fabricated but why they are used. Rather than serve a material handling or packaging function, they tend to be used for accumulating product fresh from the oven until it is cool enough to be handled.
“We have helped companies get more from their real estate by building conveyor lines that reverse on themselves or go more than one tier high, or by hanging the conveyors from the ceiling and freeing up floor space. While we started out mainly servicing bakeries, we now custom- build for all industries.”
To illustrate her point, Barbara points to a range of pictures on the wall of her office showing the progress of projects on the go. “By the time the projects are complete and signed off, the wall will be covered with pictures showing all phases,” she says with a smile — a smile almost as warm as the one she reserves for the pictures on the opposite wall, those of her three children. Both Barbara and Laura are married with families and both women chose to retain their original surname.
Spiral conveyors are another widely used device for cooling, and Best Conveyors has custom-built spirals that suit the customer’s specific needs. Along the way, Best has acquired some redundant or unwanted equipment and today runs an active used-equipment division, buying and selling such industrial items as mixers, drill presses, stainless-steel hoppers, silos, augers and more.
“From being a strictly bearing and power transmission company, we have transitioned to being a full-service supplier,” Barbara says. “It is very important to be adaptable in this kind of business. The wide variety of services and products we supply lends itself to a healthy word-of- mouth type of advertising. Assisted by an effective website, bestbearings.ca,we are able to get our name out there. It also helps that we are well known throughout the industry because, yes, we are the ‘gals’ in the business.”
Asked whether her gender is a benefit or a disadvantage in the industrial world, Barbara thinks for a while before responding. “I think I can state that we tend to be more philosophical in our attitude than most men. We see our industry as ever-changing and we respond to that. We want to grow and adapt with the economy. We take on all challenges with optimism and try to take everything in our stride.
“The bearings business in particular is very male-oriented, with lots of ‘type A’ personalities in it. It is high pressure, high stress. It can cost thousands of dollars an hour when a line goes down and you might be dealing with someone who’s in a panic, which is likely to send their blood pressure and yours through the roof.
“On the whole, we try to be calm and direction-oriented by paying attention to details and dealing with little problems before they become big problems. We just ran into a snag on a big project, so to help that company keep running at full capacity, we provided a temporary fix until a scheduled shutdown, when we’ll install a permanent solution.”
The fact that the sisters are obviously great friends also ensures a high level of mutual support and empathy in both their professional and personal lives.
While Barbara is more on the day-today operations side, when it comes to the complete side of the business, the sisters don’t hesitate to call on subcontractors who are experts in their field, such as specialists in hydraulics, pneumatics, installation and repairs.
“We have an awesome network of contacts in all areas,” Barbara says, “and they seem to enjoy working with us. It wasn’t easy getting things going in the early days, though.
“We had to get where we are on our own, with no friends or relatives in the business, just sheer determination. We succeeded by being hard-working and honest.” Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she adds. “And maybe by using a little stealth.”
Barbara recollects that companies that did help in the early days include V. J. Pamensky and Nachi Canada, and their support has been reciprocated over the years.
“We believe in karma — what goes around comes around, that kind of thing,” says Barbara, “and we try to be helpful.”
As to the future, the sisters say they want their company to grow. “We’ll continue to take everything in our stride,” Barbara says. “We’ll continue to build on our strengths: customer service, our willingness to go above and beyond, and our strong commitment to listening to our clients.
“On the conveyor side, we are getting into wider and wider ranges and upgrading older facilities. Also, when we custom build or upgrade conveyor systems, we always ensure they are maintenance-friendly. We take everything into account to keep things standardized for each and every customer.”
If Barbara has a pet peeve, it’s the way people tend to pigeonhole her and her company.
“It has its pluses and minuses and there’s no doubt that our best customers are in the bakery business and we love it. But our customer list includes several hundred companies that are nothing to do with bakeries
, and we’re very happy servicing them as well. In fact, we believe the more variety, the better.”
Freelance writer Richard Rix is based in Toronto and may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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