Name: Sean McCormick
Company: Manitobah Mukluks
Time exporting: 19 years
Export revenue: C$2.25mn (15% of turnover)

GTR: How did you get into exporting?

McCormick: In 1998 I attended some trade shows in the US with the specific mission of finding sales reps who could tell our story well outside of Canada. At that time, moccasins were seen as a ‘souvenir of classic Canadiana’, but I wanted to position the mukluk as a functional winter boot in the footwear market. We worked with [rubber outsole manufacturer] Vibram to create an abrasion-resistant sole and we use the world’s best natural materials for the rest. In 2003 our mukluks received a celebrity following after Kate Moss was photographed wearing a pair.
We saw from our organic traffic and growth that our product and our brand resonated as well abroad as it did at home. Everything we do comes from consumer pull and working with passionate partners who support our vision.
The largest challenge is always to make sure we are spending our very limited marketing funds on our lowest hanging fruit internationally. As we enter new markets, sometimes finding the specific audience to target with the best ROI requires some blind spend which we rarely have a budget for! That can be challenging at first, but it all comes back to our vision and having the passion to share our story.

GTR: It seems like you founded Manitobah Mukluks with a clear social purpose, but was it always your plan to turn it into an international business?

McCormick: Yes, that has always been our goal. As an Aboriginal-owned company, we make mukluks and moccasins like our ancestors did thousands of years ago, but we’ve adapted the designs for modern urban wear. Our vision is to build a vibrant, global brand that makes a significant social impact in Aboriginal communities. The more successful we become globally the bigger impact we’re able to make locally. We now sell to 50 countries. Outside of Canada, the US is our fastest-growing market and Europe after that.

GTR: Do you use banks’ trade finance products for your exports?

McCormick: Financing growth involves careful forecasting of inputs and outputs. Access to capital is essential for any growing business and it can be a major roadblock for Aboriginal entrepreneurs in particular. At first, Manitobah was funded with personal equity, bank loans and start-up grants from Aboriginal Business Canada. Later on we brought in private equity to fuel our growth. We’ve always used trade financing and Export Development Canada (EDC) was a partner from the start to help us grow our exports. Manufacturers have the inherent challenge of waiting for receivables to come in before they can reinvest in their inventory for future business. It can also be difficult to self-fund future growth to meet expanding demand. So we mainly rely on bank loans (that are insured with EDC) to continue fuelling our growth.

GTR: Would you consider using non-bank sources of trade finance?

McCormick: Ideally, we would continue to attract partners who are as interested in our social returns as they are in the financial ones.

GTR: What is your plan in terms of exports?

McCormick: We’d love to see the mukluk become an iconic winter boot here and abroad. It would be a dream come true to sell as many mukluks abroad as we do in our own backyard. We achieve that by increasing our brand awareness and telling our story.

GTR: Finally, what is your favourite thing about exporting your product?

McCormick: We love sharing our culture with the world. I’m a real Métis with an ancestral tie to Canada’s indigenous history and current realities. I bring my culture into every business meeting and every decision because that’s how I grew up.
It’s such a pleasure to succeed in business with a product that reflects that heritage. Mukluks have stood as the iconic winter boot and survival tool for our ancestors for generations. Now we get to see them sold beside top fashion brands everywhere.