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Like most retailers in Canada, Surmesur has been on a 14-month roller coaster. Riding waves of shifting lockdowns and safety protocols, they've had to make tough staffing decisions, pivot their business and plan for the future – all in the face of dramatic uncertainty.

In business, change is inevitable. But the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a level of change that businesses couldn’t foresee or plan for. Our #SmallBusinessRedefined series showcases small businesses that have found ways to reimagine their business through new opportunities – whether it’s through a new product, a new market, or a new way to fulfill. Learn how these Canadian businesses have pivoted to adapt, innovate and thrive in a changing and uncertain environment.

Among the turmoil of the pandemic, Surmesur endures, having been able to stay afloat thanks to quick actions, government support, and a just-in-time inventory model that’s allowed them to stay nimble.

Featured last year in a #SmallBusinessMatters podcast, RBC recently caught up with Surmesur co-founder François Thériault to see how things are going.

The Surmesur difference

Surmesur provides made-to-measure clothing for men, offered within a highly personalized customer experience. Before the pandemic, a visit to Surmesur would involve one-on-one service lasting about an hour, where the client and staff would review material, designs, fit preferences, personal histories, sports scores and anything else under the sun.

“We get to know our clients inside and out,” says Thériault. “They become our friends and ambassadors.”

Unfortunately, it’s not a model that works well during a pandemic, whether stores are fully closed due to lockdown, or opened at minimal capacity where interactions have to take place behind masks and plexiglass.

So how has Surmesur managed to stay afloat? Thériault credits three things:

A quick pivot to PPE production

Practically overnight, Surmesur switched out their business model of made-to-measure clothing and became one of the biggest importers of PPE for the province of Quebec. From fast-food retailers to grocery chains, their masks were distributed everywhere. “On March 23rd we recognized the opportunity to produce masks,” says Thériault. At four a.m. the next day we reached out to the Quebec Government. The day after that we had an interview and had seized a new opportunity,” explaining that they figured things out as they went. The company’s opportunity spotting and fast decision-making helped create a brand new revenue stream that kept them in business.

Government relief

The Government of Canada has been instrumental in supporting businesses throughout the country. Thériault explains that their accountant was on top of every news item and grant opportunity. “Having a very good accountant has been key in this – someone who has known about available money and how to get it. It’s helped us sleep at night, knowing we’re not going to lose our business,” says Thériault.

Their “just-in-time” inventory model

Contrary to many retailers, Surmesur barely stocks any inventory. With everything custom made, they haven’t been sitting on suits, jackets and shirts that people haven’t been buying. “We are probably one of the luckiest businesses this way,” says Thériault. “We have almost nothing in stock – the pandemic has shown us the strength of our business model.”

A hopeful future

Thériault wishes he had a crystal ball to see into the future. Will people return to work? Will there be a need for suits and shirts again? Will people be eager to shop for new things? Unsure as to whether there will be a gradual return to normalcy or a massive surge in demand, it’s difficult to create a strategic plan for the months ahead. So for now, Thériault and his team are holding steady, watching the market in the U.S. and getting ready for any scenario.

“We are keeping an eye on different opportunities,” he says. “If stores end up closing and there are cheap leases available, we can be ready for a quick expansion. Either we’ll go in for fast growth or take it easy and wait until the storm is completely over.”

Recognizing that every company will have a different back-to-work strategy (and employees will have different preferences), it’s unclear which way the pendulum will swing. But, Thériault is hopeful for the future, given retailers aren’t investing in suit inventory right now – and once men do return to the workplace, there may be a big shortage. “If we position ourselves properly, it could be the hottest market we’ve seen in our ten years of existence,” he says.

For now, Surmesur is evaluating a website redesign and product line expansion (which were discussed in the #SmallBusinessMatters podcast) as they figure out their next steps. “This is such a big puzzle,” says Thériault, who thrives on solving problems and diving into the unknown, like a true entrepreneur. He’s excited for the future and the wide range of opportunities it might bring.