There’s no doubt that anyone who chooses to fight needs to lose many battles when they are young. The stories integrated into this article were published in 1997. As a young man I needed a mentor to steer me in the right direction, not some damn coach. This mentor was by no means an ordinary individual; he was known as the plastic man in the sporting goods industry. He told me to learn how to fight or how to get a man drunk in order to get what I want.
People tend to forget that the things they take for granted today were at one time revolutionary concepts. Go to the Hockey Hall of Fame and look closely at the equipment worn until the 1960's. It was heavy, cumbersome and offered minimal protection. Using the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, as far as equipment and protection went, it was a beginning, maybe even the end of the beginning and a time for a new beginning. Because, along came Mac.
Athol McLean (Mac) Carr Harris was born in London, Ontario, August 14, 1914. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry and served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, ending his career in the RCAF with the rank of Flight Lieutenant, a pretty unassuming thumbnail biography for a man who would revolutionize the world of protective equipment in the sporting world. Typically Canadian, with more than a modicum of modesty, his invention does not carry a single reference to his name. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) in no way resembles Athol McLean (Mac) Carr, but to those in the know in the world of plastics, the names are inseparable.
Prior to 1958 most protective equipment was made of wood or vulcanized fiber, a hard brownish sheet of material imported from the United States. To increase the protective properties of these materials they had to be fortified with leather or felt backing. The other major component of protective equipment, especially football helmets, was cellulose acetate butyrate. The major drawbacks to this substance were it was brittle in cold weather and would crack under pressure. There were no thermal plastic molding materials available then which were satisfactory for applications requiring impact resistance in below freezing temperatures.
Mac had read about a new high density polyethylene material developed in Germany. He noticed a great increase in rigidity and thought it would be an ideal replacement for the low grade protection offered by the current products in the sporting goods industry. Mac took a sample of the material to Bob Ostrander of Wellinger and Dunn, at the time one of the leading sporting goods manufacturers in North America. Ostrander agreed with Mac that the material could be a suitable replacement for the materials that Wellinger and Dunn were currently using.
For Mac, the sporting goods application provided the ideal opportunity to expand his newly formed injection molding business. With a $900 investment (big money in 1958) Mac built a mould for knee caps for a child's leg guard. Mac took the HDPE knee cap to Wellinger and Dunn where a felt back was added and the new product was shipped off, to Sears and Roebuck in Chicago for testing. Upon receiving the results of the Sears and Roebuck testing, Wellinger and Dunn immediately ordered 12,000 pairs of the knee pads. The genesis of protective equipment had reached another beginning.
Mac assumed if the pads were okay for children, they would also be well received by older players. Realizing the risk to his company if his product failed, since both the moulds and the HDPE resins supplied by chemical manufacturers such as Dow, DuPont and Union Carbide were very expensive, Mac forged ahead and the new era of protective equipment was born. The new pads, molded in various colours and sizes were well received and ordered by every equipment manufacturer in Canada. It would be the 1970's before there would be another major change in the process, this time using sheets of preformed resins. This allowed for a wider variety of moulds producing pads of different shapes and thicknesses, so each pad can be tailored for more specific uses.
John Cooper, was the Vice President of the sports goods division of Cooper Canada Ltd., the largest manufacturer of hockey equipment in the world. The production and research and design departments of Cooper reported directly to him. "I was very closely involved with the work that Mac Carr Harris was doing." Cooper said recently "I can support the key and vital impact this (HDPE) had on the athletic protection industry at that time. The use of these technologies was originally introduced by Mac and are now used universally.
Cooper's comments on the importance of Mac's contribution are echoed by Donald P. Clarke, of the Canadian Plastics Institute. "Mac was an important member in the development of the first high density polyethylene pad for athletic equipment." Clarke adds that "Canadians must come to understand that the most important benefit from the innovation has undoubtedly been received by the thousands of sportsmen who have greater protection from the increasingly severe body contact that is inherent in most sports. The welcomed reduction in injuries has led to significant savings in medical and treatment costs."
"The explosive growth in the number of participants in Canadian sports has naturally expanded the businesses of the manufacturers of athletic equipment. A large factor has been the increasingly higher quality of their products, in part due to the introduction of this innovation. Canada is now considered the world leader in the manufacture of hockey equipment."
Clarke is blunt in his identification of the source of this product. "The original idea of using HDPE was the concept of Mac Carr Harris. At that time he was in the plastic injection molding business and new materials were just being developed. Everybody in the business was constantly looking for applications which would keep their molding machines busy twenty four hours a day. It was the only way they could survive.
"Clarke tries to put some of the numbers in perspective. "Each player's uniform contains approximately 24 pads. In 1995 there were over 30,000 amateur hockey teams in Canada totaling more than 400,000 players. This means there are more than 10 million protective pads on the ice in Canada. When these numbers are expanded to a world scale, including baseball players, the numbers top 20 million. Canadians must realize that the penetration of this innovation has been total, which is 100% of the former vulcanized pads have been replaced by the innovative HDPE pads.
My first contact with Mac was by phone in the early 1980's. His company had been producing the plastic pads for 20 years when he called and told me he had athletic molded plastics I might be interested in. I explained to him I was operating a sporting goods repair business on a shoe string out of the family home. Mac wanted to know the address and when I told him, he asked if it was near the old Wellinger and Dunn plant he had visited so many times before.
Mac arrived armed with samples of his product and showed me how I could use the molded plastic to repair the equipment more cheaply and quicker. Embarrassed, I explained the familiar financial plight of the small home based business ... no money. Mac looked at me, told me to wait, and left. He returned minutes later with a box of "samples" I could use to try his product. He grumbled he couldn't charge for samples and maybe I could use them. A month later, more "samples" arrived. He became a regular visitor and we did business, but I could not get over the idea of a man running this large company taking the time to look after the little guy. Mac believed in offering a hand up, not a hand out.
Unfortunately, Mac also suffered a major setback. In the early days, to supplement the revenue flow of his company, Mac developed a plastic tent peg known as Durapeg. They were manufactured and sold by the millions throughout Europe and North America. Mac took a case of copyright infringement to the Supreme Court, only to be told he didn't have a case because the rival pegs were a different color. Mac was furious and the entire incident seemed to sap a lot of his drive and energy.
Unfortunately, Mac passed away in Oakville, most hockey players are unaware of his contributions to the sport. I always felt a leader should give strength to others. He always told me that if I shouted loud enough, people would eventually hear me. As my mentor, he said, “As long as you contribute something, it can never be wasted. The beauty of life is that you can always come to terms with something, rather than nothing.” I remember his war stories, “More Canadian boys died practicing flying planes than in battle itself. The ones I trained died in battle because I cared.”
It was painfully clear to me that this man had some pain and regrets. He required a certain sense of humility for him to serve his country. Mac was persistent, “Try to look into the past and paint a picture for the future. No one can remain the same, if they do, they may become useless.” That is why in this battle, with this American, I listened.
He wasn't drunk yet, but he was working on it. My American colleague, who like me, owns a sporting goods store, seemed to be itching to re-launch the War of 1812. "There's something about you Canadians that troubles me." The fact that his face was flushed, he had both paws wrapped around a double bourbon, clued me in to the fact that maybe I was in for some trouble.
I must admit that I was feeling the effects of the beers I consumed, but in my mind, my faculties were still sharp. I was also a tad belligerent. "Come on, if you've got something to say, spit it out. Skating and pussy footing around an issue is almost un-American. But of course, you don't need a Canadian to tell you that do you?" He smiled, ordered himself another double, me a beer, cocked his head and said, “The only thing worse than a Canadian is an arrogant Canadian, and worse than that is an arrogant Canadian who is trying to be smart."
We clinked glasses and he continued. "Even more galling is the fact that you Canadians think you have the divine right to the wealth you create in your own country and no one else can have it." I started to interrupt, but he silenced me with a wave of his hand. "You whine and you whine about the big box stores coming in. You want a level playing field. Yet when it comes time to pay your bills, you whine about being poor and the American store stealing all of your business and then you don't want to pay. You want a level playing field without paying your bills. You guys are a disgrace to capitalism. Maybe it’s because you got too many commies in Ottawa handing out this and that to everyone.”
“Sure you and I are small in comparison to the box stores. But, can you imagine stocking a store and then asking the trade to accept 30 cents on the dollar because you can't afford to pay them. But please continue to keep shipping. If they don't keep shipping you can't afford to pay them anything." I knew he was talking about National Sports, they almost went bankrupt and the owner asked the sporting goods trade to accept his offer. At that time they were the biggest sporting goods store in Ontario.
“Remember I'm rich. If I go down, the suppliers will never get paid. Remember I've been in business a long time. You owe it to me and my family. My name has been synonymous with sporting goods for a long time. All I ask is the trade to consider me as a Canadian with some degree of nobility, which ranks me far above the rest. If you want the market to plummet, I have the unpaid stock to do it."
He paused, looked at my empty beer bottle and ordered another with a wave of his hand. All he was doing was coming up for air. I didn't get a chance to respond. "Look, you probably think I’m giving your eulogy with American virtues. You know in America the pop singers are rocking and rolling in money. Rich baseball stars symbolize wealth to millions often end up deep in debt with nothing solid to show for their efforts. The poorest families can often succeed in saving enough to start profitable businesses. The perpetuity of wealth in America is to unseat the wealthy. New developments almost never emerge from an industry leader. Kodak failed to pioneer the instant camera. IBM lagged behind in adapting copiers to word processors. Even the Silicon Valley has developed the mind frame to destroy Microsoft. Do you know a guy named Burton Klein? He shows a pattern of corporate leadership lagging, in varying degrees, to all of the key 20th century breakthroughs. You see? If you want wealth by gentry, look at Canada. You sit there with a beer bottle in your mouth and you assume you are smarter than us. Sure, it's okay for your banks to come into America, but our banking institutions aren't good enough to come into Canada? Ain't that right kid?"
I mumbled something about Canadians not liking their banks in construction trailers on mall parking lots. He didn't even realize I had interrupted him. He continued on his roll. "You Canadians pride yourselves on a stable banking institution, perhaps the best in North America. But what happened in the 70's when they lost billions in foreign investment? Have you ever asked who picked up the tab? In the 90's, with the real estate debacle, ask yourself who picked up the tab? Kid, in America it’s three strikes and you’re out. If there is a stock market collapse, who will pick up the tab? Will it be like the Japanese who asked the public to pick up the tab?"
I put my beer down and grinned at him, which slowed him for a second. I asked "Do the words savings and loans mean anything to you?" He glared. I had questioned his authority, his divine American right to be right and uninterrupted. He chose just to ignore me, as if I had never spoken. After all, good Canadians should be seen and not heard.
"But kid, did you know that small firms begun by enterprising men can rise quickly to play important roles in the national economy? God help us if our financial institutions become like yours." "Stable?" I asked. That comment was met with another glare and the continuation of a born in the USA tirade.
"I don't want a system that frowns upon the essential resources of men and ideals. In America we believe in a technological future that springs from human creativity that consists of surprise. Business is not only the best route to wealth, it is the only route for those without education. I lived and worked in Canada for two years. What made me sick was the attitude of the Canadian upper class who were taught to disdain the poor who go into business. The upper class choose secure and uninspiring jobs in bureaucracy. They choose to disregard the great opportunities of building business in favor of work in government or as bank tellers. They gave up their real prospects of great wealth. They made a deal with society, exchanging the possibility of great achievement for the assurance of security, leisure and limited demands. Then they were faced with an influx of new Canadians, commanding great access to the Canadian economy. They arrived with no heritage or great inherited wealth. Rich people who inherited saw their wealth whither away in a few decades. In Canada it is always the declining rich that shout the loudest against the new successful business class. But in America, families of zero wealth built our nation. Your Canadian banks don't understand that old money does not create new money."
His pitch was now approaching a near evangelical zeal. "Little do you realize that America is built on setbacks which lead to innovation and new achievement." He stopped, looked at me, ordered another round. "You know what kid? You make me sick. You thought you could come here and persuade me to help you. You want to take on the big stores head on. Look at you. You're a beer swilling Canuck. You must be a dreamer from a different planet. You know I am an old man. I lost my wife to cancer. It took me 35 years to build what I have. I started with nothing and I will die with nothing. Sure my kids are spoiled, never visit me, and can't wait for me to kick off so they can pick my carcass clean." He paused, looked at me again and said "Are you willing to give up everything you built?”
I nodded in the affirmative. "You told me you have six dealers, including an ex-alcoholic, combining to keep small sporting goods stores afloat. I am just one, trying to fight this battle alone." He smiled, shook his head. "Not six anymore. It is now seven. You're in kid. We will meet in Montreal."
We shook hands. I looked him square in the eye. "You have to admit though, you told me once before that the thing you missed about this country was the beer. Let me buy you one." He put his arm around my shoulder and we headed for the bar. Under his breath I could hear him mumble "Canadian. No matter what, they can always put things in the proper perspective.”
I often think about my friends Mac Harris and John Cooper. With John Cooper, I always felt that his father probably felt he was weak, which is why he chose to sell the business rather than passing it on to him. Oddly enough, he built a plastic and metal manufacturing company that supplied the industry on a global scale.
Mac and John were leaders and innovators. Their products changed our way of life, but until you read this, you probably didn't know who to thank. They were both good men and became the bulls of the sporting goods industry. A couple of days ago I had a CEO come into my store. We started to talk; apparently he was taking a class on how to be a better leader. My friends, there is no class for that. Everything is based on past, present, and future. If you’re able to think logistically and tactically, then you should be a leader rather than having someone coaching you.
The principles between a small and big business are the same, it’s very simple. When you achieve a certain footprint in life, the belief system and disappointments are never far from the influence and disappointments of the mentor. The exact moment of freedom is without the presence of the one who taught you. You’re constantly reshaping your comfort zone and the people along the road that inspired you silently.