Although the manufacturing sector is rarely associated with the words “cute” or “mommy,” both terms are key descriptors for Hamilton-based Mabel’s Labels, a company that designs, manufactures, and distributes custom labels for children’s clothing and accessories. Mabel’s Labels targets modern busy mothers, offering a wide array of colours, patterns, fonts, and styles. Customized labels are cut, printed, and usually shipped across North America the same day they are ordered. Ease of use is critical: some labels can be quickly ironed on, while others are “peel-and-stick.” All of the company’s labels are laundry, dishwasher, and microwave safe, as well as UV resistant and waterproof.
Twelve years ago, four mothers grew tired of replacing the many clothes, toys, and other belongings that inevitably went missing at their children’s schools and day camps. Using masking tape and markers to label these items had proven unnecessarily unattractive. At the time, these mothers—Julie Cole, Cynthia Esp, Julie Ellis, and Tricia Mumby—had 12 children between them, and also worked as full-time bankers, lawyers, and teachers. Starting with a few basic materials, small machines, and orders from supportive friends and family, the four women founded Mabel’s Labels in a family basement.
MABEL’S LABELS WAS THE FIRST OF COMPANY OF ITS KIND IN CANADA, AND ONLINE PARENTING COMMUNITIES QUICKLY STARTED TAKING NOTICE.
Baby Gizmo, iParenting, and PTPA Media all gave the labels “best product” awards, and sales soared. To meet its ever-increasing demand, the co-founders moved the business to larger home/basement, before moving into a dedicated production facility in Hamilton, Ontario. The facility is filled with overflowing vases of flowers, hand-folded paper cranes, cheerful quotes pinned to bulletin boards, and glitter-coated decorations.
Jordan Smart, director of finance and administration at Mabel’s Labels, reports that 90 percent of the business is traditional e-commerce, with manufacturing being done at the Hamilton location. The remaining 10 percent consists of non-customized labels, sold en masse to retail giants like Walmart and Target.
Mabel’s Labels has shipped to over 100 countries. It tries to be “borderless” between the United States and Canada, with a large percentage of its products being exported to the latter, and 1–3 percent exported outside North America. In the last five years, the company has attained over 200 percent growth, earning it a coveted place on Canada’s “Profit 500” list. Despite such impressive export numbers, Smart unhesitatingly says that Mabel’s Labels has no interest in offshoring or even relocating to the United States. The bulk of its business is in the Greater Toronto Area, and the four co-founders and most employees still call Hamilton home.
THERE IS AN IRREPLACEABLE SENSE OF COMMUNITY WITHIN MABEL’S LABELS.
All of the company’s employees are heavily involved in “the Big Bike Ride,” when they cycle around town on a single large bicycle to raise funds for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. They also volunteer their time with local churches and take responsibility for keeping one City of Hamilton park clean each year.
Community-minded generosity aside, Mabel’s Labels works hard to retain its competitive advantage. As other firms observed the success of Mabel’s Labels, the number of competitors surged. Nonetheless, the company is confident of customer loyalty and relies on repeat business. “Once they try us the first time,” says Smart, “there’s a good probability they’ll come back. We’re the best. . . . We focus on giving customers what they want.” This focus on customer needs means producing items of the highest quality. Mabel’s Labels vigorously test competitors’ products (as well as its own) to be sure that its products are superior. Creating the best customer experience also means engaging with clients on social media platforms, for which Mabel’s Labels has won several awards.
Due to its reliance on a strong online presence, Mabel’s Labels is constantly scouting for top tech talent. From systems engineers and graphic designers to new generation marketers, the firm needs them all. Nearby McMaster University and Mohawk College have turned Hamilton into a hotbed of tech startups, increasing the competition for workers with the desired skillsets.
Manufacturing in Ontario is very much alive, Smart says. While automation may not always fit with the stereotypical manual labour process of old, neither will it spell the end for workers. As information technology permeates the manufacturing process, it is not a question of replacing human beings, but of shifting the skill sets demanded of them.
As a testament to the company’s achievements, the four co-founders of Mabel’s Labels have won a string of awards, including an RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award, SavvyMom’s “Mom Entrepreneur of the Year,” and Chatelaine’s “Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs: W100.” The company has served celebrity moms, such as Victoria Beckham, Heidi Klum, and Reese Witherspoon, and its co-founders have even become celebrities in their own right along the way. By evolving from a simple parenting solution to a renowned company, Mabel’s Labels has shown that there many different avenues to success in the Canadian manufacturing sector.
Buy your own personalized labels on their website
In 2016, Mabel’s Labels was sold to CCL Industries, a Toronto-based company and one of the world’s largest label makers, for $12 million. While Mumby and Cole have remained with the company, Esp and Ellis have taken this opportunity to leave the company and pursue new endeavours.
Published on November 9, 2015
Founded by 4 moms, Mabel’s Labels designs, manufactures, markets and distributes personalized name labels and tags for children’s belongings. It is the creator of the market and its leader.
Headquarters: 50 Chatham St, Hamilton, ON
- Julie Cole, Cynthia Esp, Julie Ellis & Tricia Mumby, Co-founders and Co-executives
Year established: 2003
Number of employees: 40 + 15 seasonal (2015)
Revenues: 8-15M (2015)
Line of business
NAICS: 315990 Customized labels manufacturing
NAICS: 339990 Clothing Accessories and Other Clothing Manufacturing,
NAICS: 311814 All Other Miscellaneous Manufacturing
Waterproof clothing and accessory labels, including peel and stick name labels, iron-on, washing machine proof clothing labels, bag tags, allergy alert and medical bracelets, and household (spice jar, storage bins, books etc) labels.
Customers: Mothers, via e-commerce, online communities geared at moms, as well as several hundred brick-and-mortar stores in Canada and the U.S.
90 percent e-commerce and 10 percent traditional retail via agreements with Walmart and Target
Exports: 41 percent to the U.S. (esp. CA), 3 percent to rest of world
Sales to 100 countries worldwide
R&D, Skills and Educational needs
Employees: Website design, consumer insights analysis, finance, graphic design, marketing, systems engineering, industrial engineering, technologists
Education: IT talent from Mohawk, McMaster, Laurier
The company was founded by four moms tired of their children always losing belongings, and wanting something more aesthetically pleasing than masking tape and marker. They started in a kitchen, with orders from friends and family, but were featured on several websites. Sales exploded, particularly with U.S. orders. Most products are manufactured in Hamilton, but some non-customized labels, sold in Walmart, are produced in China. Mabel’s Labels gradually expanded from e-commerce to retail as well.
Growing number of competitors, but Mabel’s Labels tests competitors’ products to ensure that Mabel’s Labels is in the lead.
- No formal educational partnerships, but will consider
- Co-ops with Waterloo, Mohawk, Ivey
- Partner with schools, camps, and other organizations through fundraisers
- SR&ED and IRAP programs helped with automation process, successful government relationships
- Innovative product
- Excellent at engaging customer base through strong online and media presence- websites can earn commissions
- Strong brand – “cute” factor – high appeal, in touch with target market
- No cultural difference with US exports
- Market leader, 1st to est. in North America, highest quality
- Repeat customers
- Very specific market segment – once children are past preteen age, can no longer serve
- Growing use of e-commerce as purchasing method
- Expansion outside North America
- Expand beyond children’s labels into seniors’ labels, etc
- Increasingly competitive niche
- Easily copiable product
- Featured on The View, Today, The Early Show, Rachael Ray, LIVE! with Regis and Kelly, as well as in Parents, In Style, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, People.com, Forbes.com, Inc.com’s list of ‘20 Awesome Facebook Fan Pages’ and Hubspot’s ‘The 15 Best Facebook Pages You’ve Ever Seen’.
- Celebrity moms who have used Mabel’s Labels include Victoria Beckham, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Weisz, Heidi Klum and Reese Witherspoon
- Profit 500 of Canada's Fastest-Growing Companies - 5-year revenue growth of 256 percent
- 2014 RBC Women Entrepreneur Award-PROFIT Award for Excellence in Entrepreneurship
- 2013 Ranked #17 PROFIT/Chatelaine W100
- 2012 Ranked #27 PROFIT/Chatelaine W100 and were selected for a special magazine profile
- 2009 RBC Women Entrepreneur Award
- 2007 SavvyMom "Mom Entrepreneur of the Year"
- "Best Product" from Baby Gizmo, iParenting and PTPA Media