Calibre Sales was originally founded as a part-time enterprise by Mansur Kanchwala out of his home in Aurora, Ontario in 1985. Fast forward more than 30 years and that one-man operation has developed into the country’s leading supplier of single-use and disposable packaging products for the food services and other industries, anchored by a 140,000-square foot facility in Vaughan, north of Toronto.
Kanchwala emigrated from Pakistan and was employed as an accountant when he started this business on the side due in large part because of the enterprising entrepreneurial spirit within him. One thing led to another and the venture became substantial enough to take it full time and branch out the distributor network while also expanding upon his product line.
Mansur Kanchwala remains actively involved in the day-to-day operations at Calibre Sales in the role of president with the majority of his time devoted to purchasing and negotiating with vendors as well as servicing several key long-term accounts. He has two sons working alongside him: Idris Kanchwala, director of operations, and Qusai Kanchwala, director of sales. Mansur’s two younger brothers are also employed by the company and are responsible for heading up distribution and logistics.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Qusai Kanchwala about the company’s incredible ascension as the go-to solution nationwide.
Following his time in university, Qusai returned to the family business for two years working in pricing and rebates. He then moved to the United Kingdom to earn an MBA from the prestigious London Business School, which was followed by a work term with PepsiCo in the UK. Upon his return to Canada, Qusai spent time with General Mills and then Google in both Toronto and then San Francisco in a sales and marketing capacity. It was about four years ago when his father asked if he would come back and help grow the family business.
Virtually every product sold from Calibre is a disposable item that is made from foil, foam, plastic or paper and primarily used in the restaurant and hotel industries although healthcare and other sectors are showing immense growth potential as well. Kanchwala estimates about 85% of the company’s current clients are based in Canada with the remaining 15% in the U.S.
“Our ultimate customers are mostly restaurants but we don’t sell directly to them, we sell to distributors, who then sell to the restaurants, who are the end users,” he explains.
A critical business decision that has led to so much success for Calibre was to take a broad category approach instead of a narrow, limited focus approach and it has culminated in excellent bottom-line results.
“Our strategy has been to be a supplier of everything, so we have a very broad product portfolio,” notes Kanchwala. “I think we’re up to 7,000 SKUs (stock keeping units) across all the different categories. We have become a single-source consolidator for our customers where we provide the opportunity to get a selection of products from different manufacturers.”
Another integral aspect of the company’s success has been its Just in Time distribution system. The prodigious 140,000-square foot warehouse provides Calibre with the ability to buy in bulk allowing for full container loads and truck loads of a wide variety of items to be stored that are readily available upon a customer’s request. This provides customers with the ability to make purchases in smaller quantities, which means not having to tie up their cash-flow and fill their own smaller warehouses with inventory far ahead of the time when the products would be needed.
“Our customers can draw from us on a daily, weekly or monthly basis – whatever works best for them. It was a strategic decision for us and it has worked out incredibly well,” says Kanchwala.
A third notable business decision for Calibre has been the corporate decision to focus on multi-unit accounts – national chains and big brand restaurants.
“Most all of the well-known restaurant brand names that people recognize have a touch point with us in terms of their packaging,” confirms Kanchwala.
Each of the large multi-units sees value in consolidating their purchasing with a respected and reliable vendor such as Calibre, which has access to literally thousands of different products. Having to make just one phone or email is the most efficient method for customers to obtain the products they require in a timely manner and in turn that process has helped develop Calibre’s business.
The vast majority of the packaging business is for takeout or delivery orders from restaurants whether it is black plastic with a clear lid, a paper box or a hinged container. In-dining products would include such items as napkins, straws and cutlery.
With more than 7,000 products from over 300 manufacturers, Calibre has become the de facto single-source supplier for virtually any food-packaging requirement, including customized branding. The company delivers products across Canada and the United States with its own fleet of trucks and a sophisticated logistics network to ensure fast and accurate delivery.
Maintaining a family-friendly environment has always been one of the core primary goals. A number of Calibre’s employees have remained with the company for 10 to 15 years, which is a testament to the culture and value that the enterprise espouses. There are currently about 50 employees with a little less than half being front-office workers in sales, accounting and customer service with the remaining individuals being comprised of warehouse staff who hold a variety of positions. It is often said that a successful company is only as good as the employees it hires and it’s something Kanchwala agrees with wholeheartedly.
“We just had our fiscal year-end meeting where the entire company gathers together to discuss how the business is doing. We had a tremendous year and we’ve had positive growth for the past five years. It may seem like a bit of a cliché but the truth is we couldn’t have done it without our team,” he says.
“We provide a staff lunch every month and there is a games’ room with a pool table and a ping pong table for break periods,” he continues. “There is also a quiet room with a bed and chair, which can be used for meditation or prayer. It’s the ability for people to have some quiet time and relax.”
As a means of keeping track of the vast inventory and expediting products accurately and on time, Calibre has an efficient warehouse management system (WMS) that is critical to its organizational success. The WMS allows for barcoding labels on all products that staff can scan for immediate identification.
“If we didn’t have that, imagine having 7,000 SKUs and a large warehouse without having this to keep track of everything,” ponders Kanchwala. “These types of things impact on your service capability. It would take so much longer without it and no doubt errors and other challenges.”
Environmentally friendly initiatives
Calibre has made it a priority to offer a wide variety of products that are environmentally friendly and sustainable, including biodegradable and compostable options, much of which is market-driven demand.
Plastic straws have been in the news a lot lately. In many regions the straws not only end up in landfills where they take hundreds of years to decompose but in many instances they wind up in the oceans causing all kinds of pollution problems and distress for aquatic animals. There is now a strong movement towards paper straws and other environmentally-friendly food materials and Calibre has been one of the pioneering companies to first move in that direction.
Ironically, paper straws were popular in the 1950s but were phased out when more inexpensive plastic versions were introduced by the 1960s.
American manufacturers are having trouble keeping up with demand for a number of these environmentally-friendly products and so manufacturers in China are now taking on contracts to provide paper straws to meet the ever-increasing demands.
“The eco-push is very much market driven. In addition to paper straws there is cutlery that is now compostable. Those movements are becoming more popular and it’s a big priority for us. We have to have a growing eco-line,” says Kanchwala.
However, eco-friendly items such as paper straws do come at a premium cost compared with traditional plastic products so there is definitely a degree of give and take within the market. Some customers demand it and are willing to pay the premium, but for others it may not be economically feasible at the moment if their margin structure doesn’t allow it – but certainly everyone wants to get there.
Kanchwala comes from a close-knit family and as such they always do their part to give back to the community.
“Where we probably spend the most of our time is within our local religious community. My father was one of the early immigrants of our local community so he is a pillar of the community in that regard. He continues to serve on the board,” Kanchwala proudly says.
The family spends a great deal of time volunteering, providing leadership wherever and whenever possible. Qusai is on the board of the Saturday school and his wife is a teacher. All of their contributions are done pro bono in addition to providing financial support for the community.
Kanchwala says the company is also always more than happy to lend support towards community-driven initiatives that their employees are involved in.
Looking to the future
There are definitely projected goals in mind that Kanchwala and his family want to reach over the course of the next couple of years, including healthy, sustainable growth for Calibre.
“I would like the team to grow a little more in terms of numbers and but to do it in a way where it’s not unhealthy; it needs to be positive, organic growth,” he says.
Category expansion at Calibre is currently very heavily focused on food service, such as restaurants and hotels. But there are also other burgeoning categories such as healthcare or childcare that present vast potential opportunities for the company while allowing it to work within the same infrastructure that is now in place. The prospect of international expansion is certainly on the radar screen but it has not been a main priority due to the overwhelming demands here in Canada and the current customer base in the U.S.
“Of course the market in the U.S. is much bigger and there is great potential there and beyond,” notes Kanchwala.
There is no corporate debt at Calibre Sales and Kanchwala says there are absolutely no plans to take any on. In other words, expansion will continue to be carried out with a very measured, conservative business approach to ensure there are no missteps.
“We are very safe,” he says. “Sometimes that may hinder us because we don’t have explosive growth but we have found taking the slow, sure way is the most effective and it has certainly worked well for us.”