How the Bluewater Wood Alliance Manufacturing 'Cluster' Works
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Members of the Bluewater Wood Alliance learn best practices and ideas for improving their own factories through tours of fellow members.
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Author's note: This is my second installment in a series of blogs profiling the Bluewater Wood Alliance (BWA), a successful wood product manufacturing “Cluster” of companies located in southwestern Ontario, Canada. To our knowledge, there are no other wood product manufacturing clusters of this kind operating in Canada. However, this type of clustering is very common in Europe.

The Bluewater Wood Alliance idea grew out of an initial successful cooperation between five companies: B&G Furniture, West Bros. Furniture, Crate Designs, Hanover Veneers and Spec Furniture. They worked together on a three-year project to improve their productivity and company skill sets with the help of funding from the Bruce County Futures organization of Ontario. 

Initially, it was necessary for executives of each of the companies to acknowledge that although they may be competitors in some markets, they all had similar needs and challenges that could best be met by working together. It is also necessary to view the need to support the larger industry as a whole, and not be caught up in domestic competition. The BWA founders looked at the global marketplace and its inherent challenges and opportunities in determining ways to improve their individual company's competitiveness.

Seeing the successes mount, local governments of Grey and Bruce counties, through the Grey Bruce Regional Economic Development Partnership, funded a Needs/Opportunities Analysis of the Advanced Wood Processing (AWP) Industry in Grey and Bruce counties. An Enterprise and Company Analysis of the industry in the two counties, followed by a Context Analysis and an Opportunity Analysis.  In the process of conducting the research, it was discovered that economic clusters had been successful in the United States and Europe within the AWP industries. It was determined that the clustering concept should be further studied in the context of the wood products manufacturing industry in Grey and Bruce Counties.

An opportunity presented itself to attend a Cluster Academy in Linz, Austria in January 2011 where information on establishing and running manufacturing clusters was to be presented in an intense four-day program. Two delegates from the BWA attended this training.

The information gleaned from the Cluster Academy was used in formulating the interim plan for BWA. and helped shape discussions with the funding body. The final version of the report was accepted by the Grey Bruce Regional Economic Development Partnership and it was determined that a project would be initiated to form a wood products cluster around a not-for-profit corporation.

The BWA formed a board of directors consisting of seven company owners; the cluster was officially established as a not-for-profit corporation in May 2011. Now in its third year, The Bluewater Wood Alliance continues to grow and serve the wood products manufacturing industry in Grey-Bruce and now the greater “cluster region,” as a 1-2 hour driving radius of the Hanover/Walkerton area of Southwestern Ontario.

What Makes the BWA Tick?
So what makes the BWA unique? The first main point is that it is a “bottom-up” driven organization. This means that the manufacturing members drive the activity of the Alliance. The board members represent the membership and steer activities that are led and executed by the Manager.

Mission: The primary mission of the Bluewater Wood Alliance is to increase our member’s competitiveness by improving their know-how, raising their powers of innovation and increasing internationalization. 

Vision: The vision is for the Alliance to lead in the management of a cluster organization in support of its members’ increased competitiveness in wood products manufacturing in Ontario.

Collaboration: As a cluster, BWA member companies engage in many mutually beneficial collaborative projects, networking events, plant tours, focus groups, and round table exchanges.

Networking events engage the supply chain on the latest of their expertise, technology, and trends. Plant tour focus groups use continuous improvement to drive improvement exercises for host members. Round table exchanges allow members to have discussion on hot topics that they identify as valuable and timely, and they share best practices.

Project examples include a website configuration tool that is approaching Phase 3 of development. This “plug in” feature will allow customers to configure products to purchase through each of the BWA member’s websites. Another project is an export development initiative that is in its second year targeting Dubai and the UAE where companies get exposed to a new global market. Other recent projects include a finishing training project and yield optimization, among others. These projects will be referred to in more detail in future blogs.

The main message is this: None of these companies would have access to this activity if it were not for the collective vision of industry leaders who decide to take action and work together. This type of organic synergy cannot be prescribed by governments, only supported by them. It takes the open mindedness and forethought of business people that acknowledge that they always have something to learn, and are open to new ideas to improve, and most important, be open to share their mistakes and successes for the benefit of the industry at large. This is win-win.

Mike Baker is the Manager of the Bluewater Wood Alliance (BWA). His role involves bringing diverse wood sector companies together for collaboration on projects, facilitating value-added networking events, and developing and executing the business plan. This includes growing the Alliance with new member development and retention through member driven programming. Recently, Mike led the BWA on an export development exercise to Dubai, UAE, and also continues to liaise and work with government and industry partners to support the ongoing development of the BWA and its activities. Learn more at

Read: Bluewater Wood Alliance: A True Manufacturing 'Cluster' Model

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