How Peng-Sang Cau's vision helped build a company from the ground up.
By Kelly Reid
Peng-Sang Cau, President and CEO of Kingston's Transformix Engineering Inc., shares a favorite analogy about what it means to be an entrepreneur: "A cook will follow a recipe, ingredient by ingredient," she says. "If they don't have all the ingredients, they won't make the dish. A chef, on the other hand, opens up the fridge and says, 'what do I have? What can I make?' An entrepreneur is a chef. We are constantly faced with obstacles, and we are constantly faced with situations that are not ideal. But you have to figure out how to move through that all the time."
Cau herself has faced many such obstacles through her life, from fleeing Cambodia with her family at the age of ten, to navigating a cultural and generational gap growing up in Regina and experiencing childhood racism, to trying to starting her own company as a twenty-something with almost no connections or capital. "I've gone through some ugly stuff," says Cau, "but at the end of the day, life is short. If you don't wake up each morning excited about what you do, you can't keep moving forward as an entrepreneur. I work all the time, but it doesn't feel like work because I love what I do."
Cau left Regina in 1990 to attend Queen's, where she studied marketing and business. After graduating, a short stint working at a Toronto company ignited her entrepreneurial spirit. "I was working for a company that was really instrumental to the future of Transformix in that I learned from them what not to do," she explains. "I didn't like the way the employees were treated, and my then-husband was also working at a company that he didn't really like the environment. So we started talking a lot about starting a company of our own."
Cau returned to Kingston in 1995, worked for Unilever for a time, but continued to get serious about starting her business. Soon after, Transformix Engineering Inc. was born in Cau's basement with just three partners. "Everything was difficult," Cau says. "We were all young, and starting out in a sector that was pretty traditional and pretty old. We didn't have connections, we didn't have experience, and we didn't have any capital resources. We started out with loans, and thankfully, my family and one of the partners had family that provided us love funds. And that's really how it started."
In the beginning, Cau and her partners were even discouraged from getting involved in the manufacturing industry. "We were advised to focus only on engineering and engineering design services," she says. "But we decided that there are weaknesses when you outsource your manufacturing. You have no control over the process, the timeline, or the quality. So we decided that we needed to bring all of our manufacturing in-house." Cau has long been an outspoken advocate for supporting Canadian manufacturing. "It's something I talk about a lot in various public places. Keeping Canadian manufacturing alive creates a lot of innovation and a lot of high-value jobs that other sectors can't."
Much of Transformix's success in those early days can be attributed to Cau's sales prowess. She credits her time at the Toronto company with teaching her skills such as cold-calling that proved instrumental to getting Transformix off the ground. "I find that cold-calling tends to be a weakness among entrepreneurs. They don't know how to sell. At the end of the day, if you can't convince anyone to buy your product, then you don't have a company at all." Over the past twenty years, Transformix has continued to grow, and now has a global client base, two Kingston facilities, and about fifty employees. "We've had a lot of triumphs," she says. "To build a successful manufacturing business in Canada is a triumph on its own, but some of our other big moments include a recent agri-project in Brazil that allowed a village to grow and prosper. We were creating jobs in another part of the world that raised the standard of living. And we also developed our CNC Assembly™ technology, which is an automated assembly game-changer. Just seeing all of the various departments working together, those are all highlights."
Which isn't to say that it's all been easy. Over the course of her career, Cau has experienced racism as well as sexism over the course of her career. "I could spend my career and my life looking for prejudice in every interaction, or I can choose to ignore it and focus on getting the job done—whatever that job may be—and that's what I've done. We all know that it's our job to keep working towards equity, but life isn't always fair. The unfortunate part is that I see too many people that will use that as an excuse to limit themselves. I'm very conscious of the fact that racism and sexism happen, but it's a matter of whether you let that obstacle stop you."
Cau, for her part, hasn't let any obstacles stop her. She continues to operate on her corporate philosophy, Success = I2RP, which stands for Innovation, Integrity, Respect, and Passion. "It really captures the essence of what I believe," says Cau. "I try to think outside the box, I don't make promises I can't keep, I'm passionate about what I do, and build respect in every relationship. The world is against you as an entrepreneur. It's a very difficult job. But I do love what I do."
Despite her busy schedule, Cau still finds time to volunteer on the board of Kingston General Hospital and sits on several of the city's economic committees. She's also a supporter of Kingston's first robotics team. In her downtime, she hikes and bikes around Kingston with her fiancé and their four children, and enjoys the downtown area of Kingston and its many events. "I think I have a pretty darn good life," she says. "I love where I am and if in the next five years I can continue what I'm doing and continue to build this company, that's what makes me happy."