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BCC recognizes Lifetime Achievement - Ed Lehtinen

There once was a boy who was told he might consider being a bank teller by his guidance counsellor in Port Arthur (before it became Thunder Bay) because he was kind of good at math.

He actually pursued a biology degree with the intention of going into medicine but somehow that got him a job with Mead Johnson and he and his wife moved to Belleville in December of 1969.

He moved on to work at Polytwine as a manager when it started and helped move the company from 10 – 200 employees. 

He had also started his own company – EML Custom Pack that offered packaging services to Procter & Gamble.  He provided 4 shifts/seven days a week until the international corporation opted to use an alternate resource for hiring.

He’d also been brought onto the Board of Quinte Full Growth - a local company that had been developed out of an initiative to provide accessible employment to people with disabilities (funny how what’s old is new again). The business was located in a Quonset hut on Maitland Drive with 6 people – 2 people in wheelchairs and one hearing impaired. 

He was there as one of eight Directors who were determined to rescue the organization.  Each made a personal investment to cover the debt owing.  They changed the name to Belleville Protective Gear.

When our recipient decided to get fully involved, he used profits from EML and cashed in all his RRSPs to buy out the other board members. At 40 years of age at the time, this was a risky move – and when I spoke with his son at the same time, we agreed, neither of us would have been likely to do the same – especially with a family to support.  It took nearly 10 years for the business to show a profit but managed to do it without borrowing money though they did have to put up all they owned as collateral. 

Still, he and one of the key employees, Mitch Auger – who also invested personally and has been there since the beginning, knew the potential of the product they had but the barrier was in the distribution.  Customers weren’t going to pay more for it so in order to be competitive, they were going to have to be international in order to manage the economies of scale.  While their competitors stuck with the Ontario market, they’ve expanded into 42 countries with 50% of their product made here in Belleville.  They also have office presence in the UK, the US and England – with customers everywhere.  By the same token, they have a specialized product in a very niche market.  By maintaining their connection to their customers they are well positioned to address the challenges their customers present and research & development continues locally – to the tune of 25 trademarks and 15 patents.  Along with the 1000s of product SKUs all originating from the original Impacto glove.  The technology around the anti-vibration protective gear has been their strength and the fingerless glove a few years ago continue to keep them leading edge.  The company started in with about $200k in sales and now achieve over $15 million a year.

Their competitors import 100% of their products – and while there is some off-site production, they’ve been using 9 of their manufactures for the past 15 years.  They now have 50 staff – some of whom have been with them for 34 years – and those who’ve moved on have done well pursuing their own ambitions.  And for anyone that frequented the Riverside Bakery or the Jamaican food booth at Waterfront, you might be interested to know that Doretta was a lead sewer for many years until she decided to open the restaurant next to the cabin (Doretta passed away suddenly in December).

With little turnover, they don’t seem to be experiencing the same challenges with labour shortages almost everyone else is – but they also embrace newcomers for the skill sets they have and their willingness to work.

They also pride themselves on their focus on customer service by digging in to make sure that they know what their customers need – and embraced web technology in the 90s and even sell on Amazon. 

That said, they’ve used local services to go global – such as JB Print – and they’ve supported local needs through contributions to numerous non-profit organizations and charities within the region.  The beneficiaries of their generosity are too many to mention but the Belleville Hospital Foundation, Children’s Foundation, KGH, Rotary, Heart & Stroke, Three Oaks, Red Nose are among them. I recall the conversation we had when we were talking about their 30th anniversary a couple years ago – and how they wanted to spread at least $30,000 around the community to celebrate their birthday.

And as a member of the Chamber since 1991, it was great to see their three membership plaques filled up…  we owe you a couple of year stickers and we’ll be sure to get you a new plaque next year!

I’ve managed to get through this without letting the secret slip – and truthfully, if you didn’t know the company name for all the charities they support (because they believe if you can, you must) – you might not even know they were here – tucked in over on Dussek.  They made a very conscious decision to stay in Belleville despite the lure of tax-free space in the Carolinas – the location between Montreal, Toronto and the States suits them and all their needs can be served by local business from packaging to promotions.

“Impacto Protective products Inc. (Impacto) is a Canadian based manufacturer of innovative safety products which are sold globally into a wide variety of industries. Over our 27 year history Impacto has grown via organic sales as well as through acquisition. By focusing on innovation, quality, and value for money to our customers we have grown and been able to increase employment locally as well as in other parts of the world. Over the years Impacto has won numerous product awards as well as Quinte Business Achievement Awards in both the small and large manufacturing categories.”