Profile - You Can Go Home Again

Meet Kathy Cheng!

Kathy ChengKathy Cheng joined her family’s garment manufacturing company at her father’s behest. Today, their in-stock apparel line is one of the fastest-growing promotional suppliers in Canada.

Kathy Cheng is on a mission. Since 2009, she has served as president of WS & Co., Ltd., her family’s Canada-made garment factory in Toronto, and is the founder of Redwood Classics Apparel (asi/81627), an in-stock garment line recently named by Counselor as the fastest-growing ad specialty company in Canada. Business is booming, awards keep rolling in and reporters can’t get enough of Cheng’s sales and marketing acumen. And it all started with one objective: to fulfill demand for quality garments made in Canada, by Canadians.

As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Cheng watched her parents strive for years in Toronto garment factories to fulfill their dreams in their adopted country. Her father continued honing his skills as a cutter, and decided to take the next step in 1988, when he opened Wing Son Garments Ltd., a small-scale sewing contracting company.

In the meantime, Cheng had moved away from manufacturing to a position at a global intelligence firm, where she worked 14-hour days. As her father watched her toiling away, he asked a pivotal question: “If you’re going to work so hard,” he inquired, “why not work for our family and all the families we provide for?” Cheng acquiesced, and joined Wing Son in a business development role.

As Cheng grew into her new position, the company faced significant industry-wide challenges, including aging craftspeople and offshore competition. By 2008, these hindrances, coupled with a worldwide recession, made a significant hit on Wing Son. The following year, when Cheng became president, she took on the unfortunate but necessary responsibility of slimming down the workforce to just 40 people.

“We considered shutting down completely,” says Cheng, “but our staff motivated us to continue on. We couldn’t just walk away from those who helped us make it in Canada. So we moved forward to preserve our Canadian-owned and -operated environment.” During this seismic shift in the company’s operations, Cheng found a clear opportunity for growth in the renewed demand for Canadian-made apparel.

As the company started back up with a smaller workforce, Cheng led Wing Son’s rebranding as WS & Co., offering high-quality, Canada-made products, and founded Redwood Classics Apparel as its in-stock garment line. The strategy worked. Today, upscale brands such as Coach, HBC, Holt Renfrew and Roots Canada turn to WS & Co.’s retail-quality Canadian garments and options in custom fabrication, colors, specialty washes, decoration and more. “We focus on relationships with clients who share our value proposition,” says Cheng. “They understand that people and planet come before price.”

The decision to shift the company’s strategic focus to Canada-made has certainly struck a chord with consumers. In June 2014, Counselor named Redwood Classics the fastest-growing ad specialty company in Canada, after it increased its revenues by 160% between 2011 and 2013. In January 2014, WS & Co. received gold in the Made in Canada and Best Embroidery categories at the PPPC Image Awards Gala. Plus, Cheng was recently named a Change Agent by Canadian Business magazine, and earned a coveted spot on the Women Executive Network’s list of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada.

“I believe that if you will it, it will happen,” says Cheng. “Stay the course and don’t let anyone tell you that your idea isn’t worthwhile. If we can inspire immigrants to achieve their dreams, then WS & Co. is a success story.”