If the shoe fits, sell it

Susan Riley April 7 1980

If the shoe fits, sell it

Susan Riley April 7 1980

If the shoe fits, sell it

Magnesium snowshoes: they may offend the purist, but they don’t clump wet snow. They are lighter, sturdier and more rodent-resistant than most of the conventional woodand-rawhide variety—qualities that have made them a favorite of snowstomping NATO soldiers since they were introduced 25 years ago by a small company in the sleepy Ottawa Valley town of Renfrew, Ontario. Magline of Canada Limited is the world’s leading manufacturer of magnesium snowshoes, turning out an average of 20,000 pairs a year— about one-fifth of total world snowshoe production—for the U.S., British, Norwegian and even Australian armies. Now, Magline is trying to improve its profit picture by breaking into the recreational market.

Magnesium snowshoes don’t sound folksy, but there could hardly be a more Canadian product. The shoes were de-

signed 20 years ago for the Canadian Army by Douglas Têtu, a Renfrew engineer. They were so admired by U.S. troops on joint manoeuvres that Tetu decided to go into business along with another Renfrew engineer (snowshoes account for about half of Magline’s $3.5 million in sales; the rest comes from industrial products such as lightweight aluminum buckets). Magnesium for Magline’s products comes from a nearby Renfrew mine while the stringing of the snowshoes—using nylon-covered cable instead of rawhide—is done by 300 Indians from two local reserves.

The Indians “knit” the shoes at home in their spare time to earn pocket money, welcome in an area of high unemployment. The webbing was designed for Magline by Mary Commanda, an Algonkian Indian from the Golden Lake reserve who based her pattern on the traditional designs of the Algonkians. “We tried all sorts of experimentation, but in the end the native patterns were best,” says Magline’s general manager Stewart Findlay. Efforts to string snowshoes by machine have failed; to achieve the proper tension it must be done by hand. Most of the 100,000 pairs of snowshoes purchased around the world each year are strung by Indians, with about 50,000 wooden pairs coming from Quebec.

Magline had the metal snowshoe market to itself until two years ago when its biggest customer, the U.S. army, encouraged a New York company to give it some competition. As a result, Magline lost some sales and some of its complacency. The ensuing decision to attack the much larger recreational market with the pricey $105 magnesium shoes was reinforced by the fact that a scarcity of clear ash has driven up the price of the best wooden shoes to $80 or $90. The company could hardly have picked a worse winter to launch its product than the one that just ended. The lack of snow in Ontario and Quebec left the bulk of winter sporting goods unsold on retailers’ shelves. But Magline will be back next winter, says Findlay, who predicts that within 10 years he will be selling 10,000 pairs a year to hikers and backpackers across North America in spite of the fact that snowshoes, so far, have not shown the same recreation boom as, say, crosscountry skis. But Findlay is keeping his tips crossed. At the same time, Magline is fishing for what could be the catch of the decade: a contract to supply the Chinese army’s search and rescue squads. Company officials are reluctant to discuss details but they have been talking about the deal for two years and waiting patiently for an invitation to Peking. Needless to say, it could mean a lot of snowshoes. Susan Riley