Craig East: The doctor is in

CFO, Primex Manufacturing Ltd. CFO resuscitated company’s operations 

Rob Kruyt photo

From saving lives to saving businesses, Craig East, CFO at Primex Manufacturing Ltd., has it all under his belt. East grew up in Fernie, B.C., a thriving coal-mining and outdoor recreation community, in the ’50s and ’60s. Since the early 1900s mine rescue and industrial first aid competitions have been one of the East Kootenay region’s longest-standing traditions.

Showing an early interest in becoming a doctor, East competed as a member of an industrial first aid team, honing his skills during years of competing.

“My dad used to take me out on accidents as his assistant,” East said. “Middle of the night, middle of the morning, he would say, ‘Craig, you want to go?’ and I would.”

His father was a doctor, an insightful mentor who saw the value in giving East more responsibility than that of the average teenager, and who didn’t dismiss the value of his potential contributions just because he was young.

Picture East handing his father bandages or saline while tending to workers injured in industrial accidents, and you begin to get a picture of what made East who he is today. And though East ultimately decided on finance as a career, those experiences formed a big part of his character.

In his last year as an accounting student, he was in Kitsilano on a job at a manufacturing business, reviewing some working papers with the company president. “One of the guys ran into the office, saying [someone had] been hurt.”

They ran down to the warehouse. “The guy had his back to us. He turned around, and his arm was [gone] from the elbow down.” East snapped into action, taking charge and stemming the blood loss, years of experience handling workplace injuries kicking in. Indeed, he saved the man’s life.

It reinforced a valuable lesson taught by his father. “Practical knowledge, despite the age of the person, can really help other people,” he said.

In 2011, following the economic downturn of 2008, Primex was struggling. “On March 31, 2011, there was $13 million worth of debt on the balance sheet,” said East, who joined Primex in June of that year.

The company had a lot of people who were above average in experience and competence – but despite being rich in personnel capital, Primex had no money, East said.

“All we could do was teach people how to do their jobs better.”

“There was a lot of tough slogging that had to go on,” said Donovan Hammersley, senior vice-president of sales, marketing and engineering. “[East] implemented a lot of systems on the floor to capture the information that was required to know which products were profitable and which were not.”

It was one of the first things East did, and it gave the company a clear picture of what was working and what wasn’t. He restructured financial processes, instituting real-time metrics to measure performance.

Using that information, Primex honed its operations, divesting itself of four underperforming business units and, by the third quarter of 2014, eliminating more than $10 million of its debt.

East credited some key relationships, including the company’s private equity firm, TriWest Capital Partners, and Bank of Montreal, for helping him see the company through those dark years. The firm reassured the bank that Primex would be able to pull through the downturn.

“As I was coming through the door,” East said, “TriWest was telling the Bank of Montreal to trust me.” That trust rested in his experience digging other companies out of trouble, and went a long way toward reassuring the bank when it otherwise might have thrown away the keys.

This past fiscal year was Primex’s best.  First-quarter 2016’s net income was 50% greater than in any previous quarter, and directly followed two consecutive record quarters.

Beyond his first-rate financial acumen, East is a tireless champion for the well-being of Primex’s employees. When he needed to find a health and benefits plan for employees at its U.S. operations that was comparable to the one for their Canadian counterparts, East was dogged.

“He’s just tireless analyzing it to make sure the plans are equal,” Hammersley said. “He’s extremely caring, passionate, driven – but not just for the sake of ambition.”

East also contributes his time and energy through financial services to Options Community Services Society, a non-profit social services society, Board Voice Society of BC and the Surrey Board of Trade.

East is also “a character,” Hammersley said, pointing to the CFO’s penchant for colourful socks and made-up words. East himself confesses to a habit of collecting early-20th-century Gillette razor blades (“What’s so interesting about it is how Gillette changed to meet the growing changes of consumers. Their blades could fit on any razor of any competitor”) and a love of the outdoors.

“[My wife and I] trailer a lot – going over the mountain to see what’s on the other side.” 

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