A Sunny Future for a Shade-making Business

Shade Sails in Revelstoke push their prospects even higher.

4 minute read

Revelstoke business owners push their prospects even higher

It could be blue and stretched over a patio, red and overhanging a lawn, or yellow and creating a sheltered spot by a door. Visit backyards or linger outside businesses or in public spaces across Canada—including in Revelstoke’s Kovach Park and by Fernie’s community centre—and sooner or later you’ll come across one of Shade Sails Canada’s “shade sail” products, so-called because they provide shade and are generally shaped like a sail.

Now the Revelstoke-based company is heading toward an even stronger future. That’s because—in addition to having in-demand products—co-owners and couple Brydon Roe and Anne Murphy took part in the Trust’s Basin RevUp program.

Murphy says, “It transformed our existence.”

Brisk growth

About 20 years ago, Roe and his father began the company in Orillia, Ontario. Wanting “to put down roots in a smaller ski town,” Roe says, he moved the main office to Revelstoke. “The idea was to enjoy the lifestyle while growing Shade Sails.”

And grow it did. Some of this is thanks to Murphy. At first, the business imported the sails from Australia and New Zealand, where they’re popular. Then, when Murphy joined the family—and business—in 2012, it switched to manufacturing them, too.

Although Murphy had been a dental hygienist, she had said, “Well, I can sew, you know.” She had put herself through college by sewing, and actually had experience with a different company that had made blinds and drapes.

“That’s when we sort of went to the next stratosphere,” Roe says.

Help wanted

Since landing in Revelstoke, the business had expanded so much that it has moved to larger locations three times. But in addition to needing extra space, the owners also needed extra, in-depth aid.

In hopes of getting a strategic partner who could assist them with the business side, they went to the TV show Dragon’s Den, where entrepreneurs pitch business concepts and products in hopes of getting investors.

They indeed got an investor—but the opportunity wasn’t what they’d wanted. First, the investor only planned to be a silent partner, so wouldn’t provide the guidance that Shade Sails was looking for. Second, the investor’s own concerns were negatively impacted by the pandemic, which made him rethink his deal with Shade Sails. The partnership “fizzled out,” says Roe, “and we’re kind of glad.”

Instead, they benefited from Basin RevUp. This program helps businesses that are poised for growth with customized support, training and networking. It does so by connecting owners with experienced business coaches who create tailored, actionable plans designed to help the business address its individual challenges and achieve its growth potential.

“The beauty of the RevUp program is that the mentors weren’t just professors—they owned their own businesses,” Roe says. Plus, the couple could “tap into a broad network of RevUp people.”

Lessons learned

Roe and Murphy’s top takeaway was to pay attention to their financials so they could make informed decisions. For example, the business had gotten involved in creating low-margin items that sold at high volume—but it turned out that shade sails, their core products, were much better for the bottom line. “It made us decide which products we should market more,” Murphy says, “and which ones should be dumped.”

While the company had divided into two—Shade Sails Canada for residential customers and TensArch for commercial ones—they decided it made more sense to keep them as one, all under the Shade Sails banner.

They also took a closer look at staffing. Although the business usually has a team of six to 17 people, depending on the season, the pandemic had reduced it to Roe, Murphy and one other who rejoined them when regulations permitted. This allowed them to “start from scratch,” says Roe, “and rebuild it with more thought and planning.”

They created an organizational chart and clear job descriptions. They regularly decide upon objectives and key results that help guide staff—currently a team of about six people, with more coming on board soon.

A promising horizon

While the pandemic required adjustments, it also had a bright side. “Our business blew up because everybody was at home” and wanting to enjoy their yards, Roe says. Also, schools are now keener than ever on outdoor, waterproof classrooms, which Shade Sails can help provide.

The business also has a successful spin-off. To make good use of the material discarded while making sails, about two years ago the couple began the Green Bag Company, which turns the scraps into sturdy tote bags, storage bags and bags to grow plants in. Demand has quickly risen.

As for what comes next, Roe sees more growth and innovation. “We’re definitely leaders in Canada, if not North America, in shade. We’re very fortunate that we’re unique.”

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