spaces in a temporary state of emptiness
"The DNA of our company..."
Such a vacuous hipster expression. A buzzword like zen or storytelling, brandied about to promote the illusion of depth. An empty slogan meant only to project substance where none exists. That’s our jaded 21st century view anyway… and it can certainly be the absolute truth of the matter. But when values do appear within a company, when people come together to share in a common goal and experience, when bonds are formed and benevolent ghosts begin to linger and serve as a collective memory....then DNA does indeed become real and we're no longer facing subterfuge. If all goes well, the organism evolves over time....single helix, double helix. It survives and it thrives.
This is a story of family, rebirth and loyalty—the kind of loyalty that keeps people around for ten, twenty-five, thirty...forty-four years. Can you imagine that? Forty-four years and not wanting to leave? Not because you need to, but simply because you belong. Because you're home.
Today is gray and rainy, March in its chaotic glory. For the moment all of it exists in a temporary state of emptiness, but soon will come the familiar voices, the hustle and bustle of a midweek morning in the heart of Toronto.
Soon, it all begins.
an impromptu portrait.
NAFTA was looming, a storm brewing over the horizon. Not yet ratified, the controversial agreement was still on everybody's minds, threatening to shift the industry in ways no one could yet imagine. In 1991, in this climate of uncertainty and doubt, Robert Kahn's life was thrown into turmoil.
Milton Kahn was the son of a tailor who never forgot his humble origins and to whom everyone was equal, regardless of where they stood on the social ladder. He founded Reliable Sewing Machine Company in 1953, at a time when everything was possible and the opportunities for growth were endless.
"At heart my dad was a sales guy, he ran a sales and services organization. He didn't do branding or marketing..." Robert smiles, lost in thoughts "I used to see him on some nights. He would get magazines and newspaper articles..." Like ransom notes? I ask "Yes...he would have the glue sticks and paste them on an 8.5x17 paper, bring it to Fabulous Quick Prints in downtown Toronto, print up 1000 copies. That was his advertising!"
He laughs. A kind laugh—fondness without a hint of derision.
In March of that year Robert shattered his ankle, necessitating 15 bolts to put everything back together. A few weeks later his father was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. In May Robert met Alice, who would become his wife and lifelong partner. On August 27th, his father passed away. Over a thousand people attended the funeral service—a testament to the man's impact on his community.
On August 28th, Robert inherited a business no one else in the family wanted.
In 2001, ten years after taking over his father's role, the company had to relocate down the street, to a flat-roof building with a ceiling that looks nothing like what you'd expect from outside.
"That wooden ceiling was here already. I think it was a test back in the day." It's a stunning feature that fits perfectly into the ecological, health-oriented lifestyle that defines the person Robert has become over the years.
In many ways, he's a man on a mission. Personally as much as from a business standpoint. Every Monday, the company fridge gets filled with organic juices from a local business—Robert is a bit of a fitness nut, trying to get everyone else on-board. He regularly works out at Bang, on Queen street, just to stay in shape physically and mentally following a health scare several years ago, a tumour in his spine which had to be removed through surgery. The tumour turned out to be benign, but it put things in perspective "It changed me, physically. I remember going to the doctor and saying can I still do head stands? Yoga? He looked at me like I was insane."
When the company first moved into the new building, its core business was still primarily based on sewing machines. Today, everything has changed—all due to Robert's willingness to completely start over and shift Reliable's entiremodel, embracing consumer products and rethinking the company's identity. But through it all what most impresses me is how much this team feels like a family. It's a recurring theme from everybody I talk to. In spite of the challenges, in spite of the transformations, most have not only stayed on but embraced the new direction of the company.
Even those juices find their way into the lunchtime breaks.
The sun is setting when we get to Kensington Market but we decide to just walk around. I haven't been here in years and Robert is a regular. I start to sing the theme to King of Kensington—an old CBC sitcom from the seventies:
-"When he walks down the streeeet....!"
-"Man, You're such a Canuck..."
I am. It's fitting though: he knows the stores and the owners, the restaurants. A true Toronto native, born and bred. "It's literally through fear of failure, that I managed to keep the business going" he says. Certainly a humble way of describing it. What I've seen so far, however, feels much more profound. He reinvented his father's creation to cope with a new reality, kept jobs alive and growing through foresight while competitors failed to adapt: "In the garment industry you had us...you had two or three other major players..." Are they still around? "No".
It's an impressive achievement. But more importantly there's a passion here, at the core of it all. A sense of joy, a care for the people who make all of this possible and a love for the business. Its spirit lives on, but this is no longer Reliable Sewing Machine Company.
And we're a long way from 1991.