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Brenda Hagerty and Porcupine Canvas: sales and customer-focused marketing

Features, Perspective | July 1, 2018 | By:

“Cold calls are a thing of the past,” says Brenda Hagerty, co-owner and president of Porcupine Canvas Manufacturing Ltd. in Boucherville, Quebec, Canada. “Calling someone out of the blue to try to sell them something just doesn’t work in today’s industry. What clients want are our feet on the ground.”

Hagerty’s history with Porcupine Canvas began in 2010 when she was hired for an inside sales position. Before that, she’d spent 25 years selling for a hydraulics company. “I’ve always loved sales, and I’ve always loved to sew,” she says. “Working at Porcupine combined my professional passion for sales with my personal passion for sewing—working in a sales position at a textile manufacturing company was my dream job.”

Time underground

Timmins, Ontario, where Porcupine Canvas was located at the time, is home to several gold, zinc, copper, nickel and silver mines—and when Hagerty came on board, the majority of the company’s sales was to the mining industry. Porcupine sold mining equipment, including bags, vests, safety equipment, exploration supplies, tipis and mining tents. Although it held a significant market share of the mining equipment industry, the company had never before hired a trained sales person—and the number of orders Hagerty landed caught the owner’s notice. He asked her to go out on the road. “So once a week, I’d visit the mines,” she says. “When you’re in the mines, that’s when you learn what the customer wants—not what you want to sell them, but what they need to make their lives easier. That’s when our sales started to grow exponentially.”

Local presence

The majority of the company’s sales were in the Timmins area, and the sales outside the area were usually the result of miners who had previously worked in Timmins and were familiar with the quality and range of Porcupine’s products. “I started thinking: If miners in the Northwest Territories are ordering from us because there’s nobody closer to them supplying the kind of quality products we’re making—we should think about setting up distributorships,” Hagerty says.

She contacted Dan Villgren at Sudbury, Ontario-based Sling-Choker—a wire rope fabrication and industrial supply company at 13 locations across Canada. “They were a good fit because they have inside sales people and outside sales people that make sales calls regularly to mines in those locations,” she says. “So we started distributing through them, and the sales growth was huge.”

From sales to the head office

Porcupine now has distributors in the U.S. and across Canada in addition to Sling-Choker. Near the beginning of 2012, Hagerty was promoted to assistant manager; by the end of that year she became general manager—and in 2015 she partnered with Villgren and purchased Porcupine. “The owner was getting ready for retirement, and although he was supportive of me selling more products, he was hesitant to invest the money needed for expansion and equipment,” Hagerty says. “When he initially approached me with the idea that I buy the business, he wanted me to partner with him and take over the company in five years, but I thought it would be better if I found a way to buy him out completely.”

When Hagerty reached out to Villgren to see if he would partner with her, his answer was an immediate yes. An expert in the mining industry, he operates mostly behind the scenes. “He’s the best business partner you could ever have,” she says. “When we first went into partnership he told me: ‘You just go with your ideas. If you try something and if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, we’ll try something else.’”

And when the time came to negotiate the terms of the sale, Villgren suggested that Hagerty’s life partner Bill Kowal take on the role. “Bill was used to negotiating huge contracts for corporations, so he was able to negotiate the price down,” Hagerty says. “And it kept me from having to negotiate with someone who at the time was still my boss.”

Yes to a new market

The company was strong and mining sales were still growing for Porcupine when an unexpected new market share practically landed in Hagerty’s lap. In January 2016, while at a mining trade show in Vancouver, it became clear to Hagerty and Villgren that glamping tents were in demand. “The CEOs of companies were stopping by our booth asking if we sold tents they could use for ‘bunkies’ at their cottages,” Hagerty says. “We sold more tents at that show than mining products, so we thought: ‘Maybe it’s time to give glamping tents its own website.’”

Porcupine launched Tenting in Luxury, a division of Porcupine Canvas, dedicated exclusively to luxury tents. Along with the glamping market came international growth. “We started dealing more with the U.S. and Mexico, and my strength is not international—my strength is Canada,” Hagerty says. “We decided we needed to hire somebody to help with all this international growth, and the name that kept popping into both Dan’s and my heads was Bill—he has contacts all over the world. So he came on board as director of sales and operations, and marketing.”

New friends, old friends

Even as the glamping market is taking off for Porcupine, Hagerty is careful to devote equal resources to mining. “The mining portion of the business is more of a consumer commodity, because miners are hard on their equipment and the products they use, because of the environment they’re in,” she says. “We spend quite a bit of money with Google ads—and I spend equally on both divisions.”

In September 2017, the lease on the 100-year-old building Porcupine was housed in came to an end, and Hagerty moved the business to a new location. “Timmins is a mining town. Trying to find industrial sewers—or anyone who wants to work outside the mines—is difficult,” she says. “We also knew we needed to be in a better trucking lane than where we were, 1,000 kilometers north of Toronto.”

Hagerty and Villgren found and leased an 18,000-square-foot building with 20-foot-high ceilings—on the outskirts of Montreal. She began renovating the space in June so that it’s now a lean manufacturing facility, complete with new production space, staff lounge and restrooms, office space and a showroom. “This showroom is beyond beautiful,” Hagerty says. “I’m so proud of it that when Bill and I get married in July, we’re going to have the ceremony in the showroom in front of one of our glamping tents.” 


Sigrid Tornquist is a writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn., and a regular contributor to the Review.

Porcupine Canvas’s old manufacturing space only had about 8,000 square feet of usable space, and low ceilings, making it impossible to have a showroom big enough to spotlight its glamping tents. So when Brenda Hagerty relocated the company to a larger building with 20-foot ceilings, she immediately began designing a 3,000-square-foot space for a showroom. “We’ve set up two types of glamping tents in the center of the space, along with tipis,” she says. “We have the bags off to the side displayed on antique wood shelving—and it all ties the industrial and glamping together beautifully.”

Hagerty decided that the showroom, in front of one of her glamping tents, was the perfect place to hold her wedding ceremony this month. “Dan is going to walk me down the aisle,” she says. “And I’ll YouTube the ceremony, of course. This is social media marketing heaven.”

How did you handle staffing  the company after the move?

We had 10 employees at that time, and nine of them made the move with us. We’ve also hired several more people since we moved here. That was one of the considerations for where we located. We looked at where the best available workforce would be for industrial sewers, and we landed in Montreal.

What are the special considerations you take into account when designing mining products?

We design our bags for the miners, not just a bag that the miners can use for an application—that’s an important distinction. I go underground with the miners. I wear gloves. Is this bag easy to open? Easy to close? Easy to access? Is it comfortable to wear? And if it isn’t, we change it.

We also keep in mind that the PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is always changing—and as a result sometimes the tool bags and cases the miners need to carry hide the reflective trim on the PPE. So I thought: ‘The more reflective we put on these people, the safer they will be.’ So any component of what we make that goes underground is first of all, fire-retardant, and second, it is high-visibility. We are the only company in the industry doing that.

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