Supply Chain and Alpacas (Yes, Alpacas)

Danny Côté has taken an uncommon path. He became a leader in supply chain and procurement without ever earning a degree from a university, relying on experiences to develop his skills—and now hopes to wrap up his career as a camelid farmer.

The artist Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “To create one’s own world takes courage.” Danny Côté began to draw the contours of his self-made life when he was in his early twenties. Less than thrilled by school, he left university after a short time so he could dedicate himself to music. By no stretch of the imagination did the young man appear positioned to begin a long and successful career in business.

But then fate stepped in: his mother, who had been widowed when Danny was ten years old, married a structural engineer for a company called ADF. Côté was mesmerized, watching his stepfather labour over plans on a drafting table day and night. Intrigued by the young man’s interest, his stepfather asked him if he wanted a job with the company— Côté did.

Côté began with mostly administrative duties like bills of materials, but as time went on it became apparent that he had a special aptitude for business processes and a keen sense for the bigger picture that would characterize his career moving forward.

“I was doing a lot of estimation by hand, looking at drawings, and learning structural steel,” Côté says. “Then I thought, ‘Can I bring something more to the company? How can I optimize the work we are all doing and make sure we bring value?’”

Granted a small budget, Côté put together a computer system that managed the overall activities of the company, from estimations to fabrications to procurement, all the way to shipping and installation.

The optimization of supply-chain processes was a boon for the small company. It went from building staircases in homes and minor industrial jobs to urban high-rises and airport facilities. What began as a $5 million structural shop grew into a $300 million fabricator during Côté’s twelve years there.

Côté says that he relied mostly on common sense when developing the system.

Did you Know?

Alpaca fibre is water resistant. With a similar water weight to that of cotton, alpaca fleece is lighter than wool, but can still keep the body warm.

“When you map a process, you have to understand all the interrelations among the company’s disciplines,” he says. “It’s important that you understand what finance needs, what quality needs, and what the construction guys on site need to be successful. The end result should be an operation that delivers revenue.
If you understand the company’s needs and you make the process as simple as possible, it will work.”

After his success with ADF, Côté was getting calls from companies asking him to optimize their supply chain, and the projects just kept getting bigger. A job as director of procurement with SNC Lavlin took him to Algeria, where he ended up building a hanger for 747s. A chance encounter there led to a project creating the biggest shopping mall in Northern Africa. Côté worked around the clock for three years to see the project to fruition.

“It brought me to another level,” Côté says of his experience in Africa. “I was working with a different culture, different people, different language; a lot of times the only guy speaking French, but I was still able to make it happen, on schedule and on budget.”

His next stop was Turkey, where a company placed Côté in charge of procurement for a gold mine. The company’s owner asked Côté to purchase more than half of the equipment for the project in Turkey. Côté travelled the span of the country prequalifying manufacturing firms, preparing workshops, and certifying welders. In the end, he was able to buy 60 percent of the equipment within the country.

“It was a lifetime achievement,” he says.

Success continued to breed success—and more travel. After the Turkey project, Côté became procurement director for international firm Rio Tinto, a job that took him to Iceland rehabbing an ore-mining smelter. He also spent time in China observing equipment manufacturing and helping the Chinese company develop quality-management processes to meet world standards. Once he finished the project in half the estimated time, the company asked him to go to Singapore, but he felt it was time to settle down—at least a bit—in Montréal, and took a job there with communications firm Telecon. From his office in Québec, he would remember seeing huge farms with sheep and horses during his time in Iceland, and how he would speak with his girlfriend about somehow returning to the bucolic country where they had grown up. That’s when alpacas first came into his mind.

“We looked at different animals,” he says. “We ended up seeing something on alpacas on TV and decided to go a little further. We found out the animals are very resilient. They have the right balance between strong and soft. They live in the high mountains; they can survive in negative-thirty-degree weather without eating; their fibre is amazing.”

“If you understand the company’s needs and you make the process as simple as possible, it will work.”

As with everything else he’s done, Côté’s decision to breed alpacas is focused on processes and the long view. He recently purchased twenty-three acres of forest for the project. The idea is to begin with just a few of the animals and expand gradually. The acreage will have small cabins for people to stay in, in order to bring a bit more income in as the business develops. Eventually he hopes to use the animals’ fibre to create a line of sportswear, which ties into his own enthusiasm for skiing and biking.

Côté recently left Telecon, but he knows the alpaca business will take a while to get going and says he is going to make himself available as a consultant for supply chains during the ramp-up period.

Although he has somehow always managed to do what he wanted while making money at the same time, Côté says this was not his goal.

“Money was never the objective,” he says. “I have made great salaries, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to put people together to bring value, help people achieve their goals, help companies grow, and make sure people can optimize the way they work. That’s what I am.”