Richard Gulland put Foymount on the map with Sierra Designs

·5 min read

Brudenell -- Sleepy Foymount, atop McCauley’s Mountain near Cormac, has had its moments in the public eye, first as a radar base on the Pine Tree Line and, in more recent years, as the site of the famous and much anticipated Blackwater Factory Store end of season sale.

The annual sale on the first weekend of August, brought thousands of dedicated fans searching for bargains in discontinued and seconds of the popular jackets, fleeces and other outdoor wear of the Sierra Design and Black Water outdoor clothing label. At the height of its success, the outlet store and the factory employed hundreds of local people, running its own bus to transport sewers and cutters from the small towns of the Madawaska Valley. Begun through a government sponsored LEAP grant as an initiative to create jobs, primarily for the women of the area, the fledgling garment operation was purchased by Brudenell’s Richard Gulland in 1982. It was Mr. Gulland’s vision, dedication and progressive management skills which led Black Water to international prominence within a decade.

Richard Gulland, 77, of Brudenell, born in Penetanguishene in Simcoe County, died suddenly and unexpectedly of pneumonia and a stroke in an Ottawa hospital on September 6. One of the employees of the company he founded described Mr. Gulland as ‘a force of nature’. Mr. Gulland was a newcomer to the garment manufacturing business when he took over the fledgling business. His background was in sales for a heavy equipment company in Toronto but his attention to detail and his insistence on quality took the little factory operation, in a former Air Force barracks on the highest populated point in Ontario, to international prominence.

It was the era of free trade, high interest rates and stiff competition from well-known established outdoor clothing lines such as Columbia and Patagonia. Mr. Gulland came up with the idea that licensing an established U.S. brand could give the little company an advantage, and he eventually struck a deal with Sierra Designs in the U.S. to bring the clothing label to Canada, to be cut, sewn and shipped from Renfrew County. He named the company Black Water Designs and for three decades it was the biggest employer between Pembroke and Renfrew, and the largest producer of Gore-Tex and Polartec products in Canada, helping popularize that style of clothing.

Mr. Gulland attributed Black Water’s success in large part to “high quality products made by

high quality people". As his competitors relocated their manufacturing operations to China, he was determined to keep as many jobs as possible in the area. The rural Foymount location was vital to the local economy in that it could employ local people in secure jobs and ensure work for young people who wanted to stay in the area. At the height of its presence, Sierra Designs manufactured in Foymount were in over 200 retail locations. A second popular line branded as Contour occupied a more accessible price point and distinctively carried the photo of local resident Earl McCauley as the outdoorsy model on the clothing tags.

Mr. Gulland and his wife, author Sandra Gulland, had themselves fallen in love with the area and the community in the late 1970s. In 1980, with Mrs. Gulland expecting their first child, they decided to try living in the country for a year, moving to their log cabin near Brudenell. They planted a garden and tapped their maple trees, enjoying the low key way of life, so unlike the hustle and bustle of their previous life in the greater Toronto area. However, the more leisurely way of life for Mr. Gulland did not last long as the opportunity for Black Water presented itself. Initially, the plan was for a small operation employing some 30 people, but Mr. Gulland’s vision of a high-quality outdoor wear manufacturing plant eventually employed almost 200 people.

“He cared about building a strong business but also about how that business could impact the lives of people in the area,” Mrs. Gulland said.

In 2002, Mr. Gulland sold Black Water to the Barrett Marketing Group, a Canadian company that continued operations in Foymount until 2010. Retirement freed Mr. Gulland to accompany his wife on research trips for her historical novels and to spend winter months in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. A very private person by nature, he rarely wanted credit or attention but quietly contributed to many worthy causes close to his heart. Indeed, the Gullands recently made the first and biggest donation to the Leader's recent Ukrainian fundraiser. Retirement also gave him the time to indulge in his love of cooking, enhanced by growing his garden and to enjoy being an ‘embarrassingly doting grandfather’ to the children of son Chet and daughter Carrie.

Under Mr. Gulland’s direction, Black Water helped create the area’s reputation as a destination for outdoor adventure as well as providing employment for hundreds of area residents for several decades, giving new life to the tiny community of Foymount. In his years at the helm of Black Water, Mr. Gulland proved that with dedicated leadership, a committed work force and innovative vision, economic growth and employment could thrive in remote corners of the Ottawa valley.

In keeping with the causes dear to his heart, for those wishing to honour his memory, the family encourages donations to the Killaloe Food Bank or other similar organizations throughout the Valley. A small private memorial in the Gulland garden commemorated Richard’s life and his enduring contribution to the life of the communities he and Sandra chose to call home.

Johanna Zomers, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader