Mark Philip taps into his passion for the specialty fabrics industry to update and diversify product lines.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“The world will always need tradesmen,” says Mark Philip, director of John Herber Ltd., dba The Canvas Technology Centre, Kaiapoi, New Zealand. Although Philip is now in charge of the company that manufactures a diverse and unusual collection of products—from theater drapes to awnings to polar shelter systems—he is, at his core, a tradesman. Philip draws from that core commitment to design and manufacture innovative products and to foster professional growth in the tradespeople who work for him.
Philip entered the specialty fabrics industry in 1985 when he took a four-year apprenticeship at John Herber Ltd., the company his parents Graeme and Diane purchased in 1979. He began his apprenticeship sewing awnings, boat covers and trampolines, progressed to tradesman, and in 1995, he and his wife Tania bought into the business.
At the time Philip began with the company, its primary products were canvas backdrops and scenery for theaters throughout the country. He and his father expanded the product line to include other theater products, including stage drapes, acoustic reflector panels, and blue and green screens for movies. Philip believes that product diversity helps protect the company during fluctuations in customer needs and the economy. The company also benefits from its position as lead manufacturer in a niche market. “Because of our product diversity the economic downturn hasn’t hit us too hard,” he says. “The demand for theater drapes has remained steady and even grown in the past five years. Drapes don’t last forever, and we’re one of the only companies who provide them in New Zealand.”
The other niche product of the company—and the portion that Philip is most intimately involved with—is its polar shelter line. More than 40 years ago, long before Philip came to work at John Herber, the company began repairing polar pyramid tents, the dual-layer tents that explorers have used for centuries as shelter in Antarctica. “The original workshop was very close to the Christchurch International Airport, from which the Antarctica New Zealand scientists flew to Antarctica,” Philip says. “Because the company was so close, it started doing repairs and recovers for Antarctica New Zealand.” (Antarctica New Zealand is the Crown Entity responsible for developing, managing and executing New Zealand Government activities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.)
“We started building the shelters from scratch about 30 years ago,” Philip says. “Eventually the United States Antarctic Program [USAP] saw our work and heard about our reputation for workmanship and quality, and about 15 years ago they came to us and asked us to build their [polar pyramid] tents as well.”
A couple of years later, Jim Davis of Rac-Tent Shelter Systems, Christchurch, New Zealand, commissioned Philip’s company to design insulated blankets for his web-beam framing system. The shelters were designed to be used for accommodation shelters, mess hall shelters, and scientific and workspace shelters. The blankets needed to be UV stable on the outside, flame retardant on the inside, fully insulated and lightweight. Philip worked closely with Davis to complete the design of the blankets, which originally were manufactured to fit two large shelter sizes.
In pursuit of quality
The design was effective, but after several years, Philip and Davis found a way to improve on it—instead of manufacturing the shelters in two large sizes, they adopted a modular approach. “Now we manufacture 1.5-meter-wide blankets so that they overlap the 8.5-by-1.2-meter-wide frame sections,” Philip says. “This way the shelters can be connected to create any size and length needed, and sealed from the harsh weather conditions.”
Sourcing the proper fabric and ensuring its quality for the shelters is an ongoing concern for Philip. A few years ago when the company ran short of flame-retardant fabric and his regular supplier couldn’t provide it in time, Philip found a local supplier that in turn contacted a fabric supplier that was prepared to dye and flame retard its own 8-ounce and 12-ounce fabric to John Herber Ltd.’s specifications so Philip and his crew could meet their deadline. “Quality control is especially important for these shelters, given the climate in Antarctica,” he says. “Thankfully, we have some very good suppliers—but I still check to make sure the fabric meets the specs.”
Recruiting for the trade
Philip’s business philosophy includes investing a lot of resources into hiring and keeping employees. “Finding people who want to learn the [specialty fabrics] sewing trade is a challenge,” he says. “We get most of our staff from the schools. We connect with the local school guidance counselors who look for students who might be interested in learning a trade.” Philip gives the students a few days of experience at the shop, and if they show aptitude for the work and are interested, he hires them and provides on-the-job training. “We probably end up losing money in regards to the amount of work we get from an employee during the first two or three years of training,” he says. “But if we’ve trained them right, we reap the rewards later on.”
Although Philip used to be the one to directly train the new hires, he’s now passed that responsibility on to another staff member. He continues to make sure that the training is conducted in a comfortable manner, using his principles:
- Try not to make the trainee too nervous.
- Encourage them not to worry about their mistakes, but to learn from them.
- Make sure they know that quality comes before quantity in the dictionary, and the same applies here on the job.
“I like to see quality come first and then speed,” he says. “Speed comes with experience.” Philip pays the employees well and makes an effort to accommodate their lives. The result is a staff that tends to stay with the company for a long time—the least amount of time an employee has remained with the company is eight years.
And when Philip is not meeting with clients, conducting quality control or improving product designs, he’s in the shop working alongside the rest of the staff. “When the large orders come in, I get on the sewing machines and help out so we can get the orders out on time,” he says. “Behind a sewing machine—that’s where I’m most at home.”