Wednesday, April 6, 2016

We used to make things in this country. #231 & 232: Moffats Limited (Weston, Ontario) and W.C. Wood (Guelph, Ontario)

Canadian Homes, June 1961

Thomas Lang Moffat was born in Crossford, Fife, Scotland in 1836 and emigrated to Canada with his family when he was 5 years old.  He started an iron and brass castings company in Dundas, Ontario with a Mr. McCallum. Eventually, he moved to Owen Sound where he got a job as a moulder at the firm of William Kennedy & Sons.  In 1882, he moved to Markdale, Ontario where he founded a general engineering and machine shop, T.L. Moffat and Sons.  They produced mill machinery, steam engines, pulleys, plows, mangles, and various ornamental castings in iron and brass.  Business was slow until the company was persuaded by a local hardware merchant that the future lay in stoves, so they turned their energies to this end, producing their first stove, the "Ploughboy" (which a picture of a man with a plough cast into the door). Their stoves were good but their location wasn't.  Though a fortunate happenstance, one of Moffat's sons was sent to sort out problems with one of their stoves owned by an influential woman in Weston, Ontario.  She was so pleased with both the stove and his help that she introduced the Moffats to local businessmen who in 1893 financed the building of a factory on Dennison Avenue, west of Jane, using stones from the banks of the Humber River. The company's products became highly regarded in local markets and abroad:  one stove was hauled across 200 miles of the Sudan, and another was shipped to the Fiji Islands.  In 1907, T.L. Moffat passed away, and his eldest son, John King Moffat, took the company reins for the next 23 years.  (As an aside, his sister Agnes, who was born in 1905, studied medicine and subsequently became Peterborough's first female doctor.  Her family was apparently not happy with her choice of vocation.)

The Moffat company is credited with inventing the first electric ranges for the domestic market, becoming world leaders in this area. To see a 1916 Electric Catalogue No. 10, click here:

In 1946, the Avco Manufacturing Corporation (formerly the Aviation Company) of Greenrwich, Connecticut bought Crosley Radio and Television which, in addition to its entertainment products, also made major appliances.  The same year, Avco licensed the manufacture of Crosley products to Moffat.  In 1953, Avco bought Moffat outright. From here, the story needs to go back in time. In 1927, five companies (McClary Manufacturing Company, London, Ontario; Sheet Metal Products Company of Canada Limited, Toronto; Thomas Davidson Manufacturing Company Limited, Montreal; E. T. Wright Limited, Hamilton, Ontario; and A. Aubry et fils Limitée, Montreal) merged to form General Steel Wares (GSW) Limited. They acquired the Happy Thought Foundry Company of Brantford, Ontario in 1920, followed by the Easy Washing Machine Company in 1958.  In 1962, Beatty Brothers Limited of Fergus, Ontario acquired a controlling interest in GSW through a reverse take-over, merging the two large firms.  Here's where Moffat comes back into the story.  Under the leadership of Ralph Barford, GSW acquired the Moffat Company in 1971, making GSW the the only Canadian-owned, full-line appliance company.   The Moffat acquisition, probably Barford's largest, brought GSW into the big six full-line appliance makers. The other five, all foreign controlled, were Admiral, GE, Inglis, White and Westinghouse.  GSW merged with General Electric Canada in 1977 to become the Canadian Appliance Manufacturing Company (Camco), making it the largest major appliance manufacturer in Canada. The same year the company acquired the major appliance operations of Westinghouse Canada, exclusive of the "Westinghouse" name.  Those products were re-branded as "Hotpoint" and sold along side of the GE, Moffat and McClary brands. Under Camco, stoves and refrigerators continued to be built at the Weston plant until 1983 when production moved to Hamilton, Ontario and then off-shore.  

According to a 2009 article in the Toronto Star:    

For decades, these neighbouring communities northwest of downtown Toronto flourished, with their Victorian and post-war homes, small shops and a major rail line that fed one of the most industrious parts of the city.  But what was once the manufacturing backbone of Toronto – a thriving working-class hub where everything from bricks and bicycles to stoves and steel was built in local factories – is now an industrial wasteland. Companies that produced iconic Canadian products like CCM skates, Moffat stoves and Dominion Bridge steel closed or moved off-shore while subdivisions, shopping centres and fast-food outlets moved in. Locals figure up to 20,000 jobs have been sucked out of the area over the years.

In 2004 Camco was re-purposing itself as a "multi-product distribution company" (i.e., no longer a manufacturer) and it closed the Hamilton plant, which was built in 1977 on the same location where George Westinghouse had begun a foundry and lamp manufacturing plant in 1912. (Electrical manufacturing became Hamilton's second biggest industry, after steel.)  The 37-acre site was sold to McMaster University in 2005 as "a wonderful legacy for the generations of Westinghouse and Camco employees who were employed at Longwood Road."  It is now called McMaster Innovation Park. Manufacturing moved to the US and to Mabe Mexico S. de R.L. de C.V., the GE major appliances affiliate in Latin America.

The Moffat name continues to survive as a brand apparently owned since 2000 by the Italian Ali Group. However, the former Moffat factory in Weston was replaced with a Sobey's store.  As for Camco, I direct readers to GE and Mabe Screw Canada.

In a similarly sad tale, in 1930 W.C. Wood, a successful entrepreneur in the same league as Ralph Barford, founded a company to design and manufacture small electrical equipment for farms, expanding to hardware, military equipment, farm equipment and home appliances in 1950.  Beginning in 1964, the company refocused on home appliances business and by 1980 had become Canada's largest manufacture of chest freezers, upright freezers, and single door refrigerators. Eventually it would become the second largest freezer manufacturer in north America and one of the top five in world. The company had plants in Guelph and Ottawa and eventually opened an American plant in Ohio. According to, in 2005, Whirlpool arranged to manage the entire Wood branded freezer business. From comments I've read online, at that point quality began to decline. In 2007, the family sold the company to Red Diamond, Mitsubishi’s private equity arm. states:  

What happened to W.C Wood was the consequence of a reckless, greedy spending spree that began on Wall Street and would eventually spread to factory towns around North America. The tombstone was pre-ordered when the owners of W.C. Wood sold the company off to a New York-based equity firm, Red Diamond Capital. With that move, W.C. Wood became just a file in a “portfolio” of companies. 
When Red Diamond bought W.C. Wood in 2007, no brand name was sold more often in Canada’s freezer market. Its revenues were in excess of $200 million. Though the company was far from stable—its sales had already been slipping—its troubles only increased under new American ownership. 
Last month, the company cut 148 workers in Guelph and further slashed spending. It still wasn’t enough. When push comes to shove, private equity firms, including Red Diamond, will do anything to protect their profits. Now workers are out on the streets of Guelph.    
Private-equity firms like Red Capital are in the business of buying often struggling companies they hope to sell later at a profit. They buy the businesses with a combination of their investors’ money and ultra-cheap loans that went off the charts in the middle of this decade. 
The biggest problem with these private equity firms is that they strip the companies they buy of assets and flip them for a fast buck. That loads those companies up with dangerous amounts of debt, which sucks out the money demanded by investors. This arrangement puts those investors first, and pays little attention to employees at the bottom making the products. 

In 2009, W.C. Woods declared bankruptcy in Canada. Almost 800 people were put out of work, 250 of them in Guelph.

As of 2014, the former Guelph factory (which included the original distillery section of Allan's mill, which had been preserved by the Wood company) was being redeveloped to include 685 "dwelling units."

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