MOLOK NORTH AMERICA LTD
From cities and national parks to restaurants and university campuses, Molok North America Ltd. (Molok NA) keeps them all pristine with its array of waste storage systems. Molok NA’s facilities are located in Mount Forest Ontario, and its achievements include being included in Canada’s “Profit 500” list. However, for the company’s chief executive officer, Marja Hillis, the road to becoming one of Canada’s “Top Female Entrepreneurs” was not always an easy one.
In the 1980s, Hillis’ father, Veikko Salli, owned numerous restaurants and fitness centres in Finland. His office offered a view of a nearby dumpster, with the accompanying birds, rats, overflowing trash, and smell. “There has to be a better way [to store garbage],” he declared. After searching for a solution and uncovering no results, Salli resolved to invent a solution himself, and the Molok container was born. Two-thirds of the container are underground, thereby cooling the waste and reducing odours in the summer, while also preventing freezing in the winter. The container’s innovative design increases its capacity by five times and is more hygienic compared to an above-ground container, as well as enhancing visual appeal.
Hillis was Molok’s first champion and sales representative. Initially, funds were limited. Hillis was also managing a fitness centre that was floundering in the global recession. “And the only person I didn’t pay was myself,” she recalls. When she came to Canada in 1997, it was as a single mother with a one-year-old daughter. Hillis knew one person on the whole continent, but she was determined to introduce Molok containers to the North American market. “[It was hard] trying to sell my dad’s product in a 99 per cent male market,” she admits. Initially, people didn’t take Hillis or her product seriously. “There were lots of struggles . . . . If you’re female, you must work harder to prove yourself. But I always had a vision, and everything I did, I did according to that vision.” Already a full-time mother and entrepreneur, Hillis decided to pursue a degree in French at the University of Waterloo, with a minor in fine arts.
With time, word about Molok containers began to spread and sales soared. Although the company’s basic product research and development is still conducted in Finland, Molok NA provides “Canadianized” solutions. Bear-proof lids for national and provincial parks, such as Algonquin Provincial Park, are a prime example. In a partnership with the Montreal branch of the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, Molok NA also developed donated clothing containers that save space, and protect against rain, and thieves.
Deceptively simple in concept, Molok containers are difficult to imitate in practice. There are hundreds of parts to the plastic containers, every one of which has arrived at its current form through decades of research and innovation. With characteristic magnanimity, however, Hillis says that she would welcome competitors. “Even though we have only a few repeat customers because these things last forever,” she explains, “it would take generations and generations to sell to everyone. Good competitors help spread the word.”
Hillis is equally generous with her 20 employees, saying, “They’re like family here.” Every year, she spends days preparing a Christmas feast for her staff and their families, as well as several barbecues throughout the year. The quality of the employees is a key reason for Molok NA’s rural Southwestern Ontario location. “The work ethics are just better here,” Hillis says. “People are loyal; we have employees that have been with the Molok family for over ten years.” Mount Forest is an excellent location for other reasons too. The unincorporated community is small, but there is a critical mass of manufacturing in the area. Mount Forest is also a 90-minute drive from the Toronto Pearson International Airport and even closer to Kitchener-Waterloo, and development charges for businesses are lower than those of larger cities. “It makes me so mad when people say manufacturing is dead in Ontario or Canada,” Hillis says. “When you go offshore, sure you’d get something cheaper, but you’re not in any kind of control over quality or delivery.” Dealing with local businesses is much better, she says: “As long as you keep innovating, and taking advantage of government programs like [the Scientific Research and Experimental Development] program (SR&ED), you’ll stay alive. . . . There are a lot of people here. Why [would] you go somewhere else?”
Conventional success notwithstanding, Hillis is continuously driven by a thirst for learning and growth, and has recently she returned to school for her executive MBA. Like Hillis, Molok NA is always growing, ready for whatever the future may bring.
Published on February 1, 2016
Molok is a new generation designer and manufacturer of the original semi-underground waste containment systems. Originally from Finland, the daughter of the inventor of Molok brought the idea to Canada. The company is Canadian-owned but still retains close ties to the original Molok Ltd, which provides some innovation support.
Headquarters: 152 Harry Bye Blvd, Mount Forest, Ontario, N0G 2L0
- Marja Hillis, Founder & CEO
Year established: 1999
Number of employees: 20
Line of business
Waste collection systems manufacturing
NAICS: 326198 – All Other Plastic Product Manufacturing
The Molok® deep collection system is a cylindrical, underground design, which allows for more storage capacity within less space; compaction from the natural force of gravity; and fewer odours from lower temperatures underground. Containers range in size and kind of waste contained. Other accessory products include different lids (bear-proof, or for clothing collection) and bag material (for liquids, organic waste etc).
Customers: Municipalities; provincial and national parks; restaurants; multi-residential properties; churches; universities (ex. Wilfrid Laurier University); schools; retirement homes; etc
Exports: Currently, none. Considering exporting to the U.S.; limited in future because can only expand within North America.
The product itself is now in over 40 countries worldwide
R&D, Skills and Educational needs
Employees: Employees come from different backgrounds in sales, waste industry, engineering, supply management, municipal, design, marketing, planning and strategy.
R&D: most general product innovation updates from Molok parent-company in Finland, but country-specific innovations (ex. bear lids, containers for oil waste) done on site.
Molok started in the mid 1980s with a vision by Finnish hotel-owner Veikko Salli, who wanted to create a new waste container that would be more aesthetically pleasing, odour-free, and space-efficient. In 1997, Salli’s daughter immigrated to Canada, and started marketing Molok to municipalities and park systems. Potential clients were reluctant because the containers required a different removal system, and so Marja Hillis’ husband started a waste removal company. Sales and clients have grown over the years, as more people become aware of their environmental footprint and the benefits of the Molok.
Many attempts at entry, but Hillis’s father was the original inventor of the patented design. Most entrants find it more difficult than expected to manufacture similar containers. Little threat from competitors, because the more similar products purchased, the more demand for removal services, and the more customers will be willing to install Molok containers (with removal already in place).
- Informal partnerships with universities – hire co-op students, esp. Waterloo.
- Fanshawe International Business uses Molok as case study.
- In Finland, several masters students did their theses on Molok from waste haulers’ perspective, later employed.
- Very appreciative of SR&ED program
- Innovative product
- Visionary, creative CEO
- Ability to customize product to client’s needs; focus on customers
- Continuous R&D support for basic product from Molok Ltd in Finland
- Product not easily copiable – manufacturing process deceptively simple
- Different waste removal system needed; market limited to customers within geographical range where new system is in place
- Very few repeat customers – product lasts for decades
- More environmental consciousness and push for environmentally-friendly solutions for industry and municipal
- Molok brand growing stronger due to new maintenance program -> increasing demand
- Several competitors/imitators of Molok
In 2012, opened new 39,000 sqft facility for assembly, R&D and manufacturing
- Profit 500, Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies – 5-year revenue growth of 195%
- Marja Hillis named to Chatelaine’s 2014 Top 100 Female Entrepreneurs; Entrepreneur of the Year Award by Canada Finland Chamber of Commerce