A burnt steak is what Enzo D’Alessandro uses as an analogy to explain his guiding philosophy of life and business. According to D’Alessandro, “When I was young and working in the hospitality industry, a mentor of mine, a maitre d’, told me if a customer says a burnt steak isn’t done well enough, you don’t argue with him, you don’t tell him he’s crazy, or anything like that. You politely agree to his request and get him exactly what he wants. It’s that kind of empathy for people that I have carried with me ever since.”
According to D’Alessandro, the owner of Accuwrap, a multi-faceted wood-products manufacturer located in Concord, Ont., it’s not that the customer is always right, but that they want to be treated like human beings — flaws included. “I always ask myself how I’d want to be treated in a situation,” says D’Alessandro. “Nobody likes to be put in the wrong, so I don’t try to do it with others, including customers, associates — anyone.”
In January, 2008, Wood Industry published a profile on Accuwrap that included D’Alessandro, as well as co-owner and brother, Fabio. Now, five years later, we thought a follow-up might be instructive – a snapshot of what has changed with Accuwrap, and how that reflects on the industry as a whole.
Back in 2008, and before the global recession took full effect, Accuwrap was confronted with a now all-too-familiar threat within the wood industry: cheap goods manufactured and shipped from China. At the time, the company focused on mouldings and components for the RTA furniture industry, as well as wooden picture frames. The D’Alessandro family came to realize it could not compete directly with the Chinese in these industries, so they embarked on a new strategy: they looked for markets that were China-proof.
In other words, instead of trying to compete on cost, Accuwrap decided to focus on delivering quality goods on time to customers primarily located in Canada. By that time, the rising Canadian dollar had already taken away much of the export market to the U.S. However, what had yet to come was the global financial crisis and ensuing recession, which put even more stress on the company’s China-proof strategy.
“We were already in the process of becoming leaner and meaner, so to speak,” D’Alessandro says, “but the downturn hit us hard. We cut back wherever we could. Even when you don’t think you can cut more, you cut more. Instead of doing one job wearing one hat, employees had to wear five hats. One of us cleans the toilet. You make do with what you have.”
From its pinnacle of having over 70 employees when the economy was soaring, Accuwrap now has less than 20 workers in its employ. D’Alessandro waxes philosophically about the change, “I think the downturn allowed us to let some workers go who probably didn’t belong in the first place. The people who work here now want to be here and want this business to succeed. Surviving the tough times has made us a better business, and a better family.”
Part of surviving the tough times has involved constant adapting. A lot has changed since 2008, including Accuwrap’s China-proofing strategies. D’Alessandro provides a highlight: “It came to a point where my brother, Fabio, and I sat down in our conference room and promised not to come out until we had settled on an idea moving forward.”
The result was the Snapclip ceiling-tile system. As D’Alessandro describes it, “Snapclip is basically an extension of what we already do, which is to put wooden panels and sticks together. Only, in this case, it’s really simple, which is why anybody can do it in their home, basement, or wherever. “Although Accuwrap does not have an exclusive arrangement, and it can be sold in various channels, one of them is Home Depot.
The irony of working with a big box store is not lost on D’Alessandro. He says, “On the one hand, it makes for a great arrangement where we can provide the market with a quality product at an affordable price. On the other hand, they can sometimes work like a big bureaucracy where it takes months to get even the simplest of things done.”
However, another big retail chain has stepped into Accuwrap’s picture, and the experience has been a rewarding one for Accuwrap — and the launch is just in the process of getting started. Specifically, a division of Accuwrap called SouthBrook Cabinetry has become an authorized service provider for Canadian Tire Home Services and will offer Canadian Tire clients kitchen re-facing, new cabinetry, bathroom vanities, closet organizers and laundry/mud room organizers.
The initial launch will occur within the Greater Toronto Area, but the program will eventually go national. According to D’Alessandro, it’s just a matter of finding the right millwork companies to work with across the country to provide installation and other services. He says, “We’ll manufacture everything here in Concord, ship it out, and then rely on trusted partners to execute the final delivery.”
However, according to D’Alessandro, this deal with Canadian Tire was almost dead even before it started. “They wanted to do just cabinet refacing,” he says, “which is how it’s done in the States. But I told them it’s crazy. We’re basically already in the customer’s home, you have already approved their credit, why wouldn’t we offer them all the millwork services we can give them? Otherwise, they’ll actually go somewhere else and get the whole kitchen, bathroom vanities, and everything else.”
Canadian Tire was convinced, so the full program is set to go. For D’Alessandro, it’s another example of getting results by treating people like people instead of treating them like obstacles to profit. He says, “I think this worked because we ended up getting along extremely well with the people at Canadian Tire. They empathized with us, we empathized with them and, as a result, we think we’ll offer Canadians a great service at a good price. That’s what business should be about.”
For D’Alessandro and Accuwrap, not overlooking people and, instead, empathizing with them, is crucial for long-term success. D’Alessandro provides an example: “I go with suppliers that can fulfill a small order for me, even if it means they take a hit for that one order. In the long run, I’ll go back to that supplier for the big orders because I know they’ve got my back. My friends and associates in this industry are the same way. Short-sighted profit-takers are something we all try to avoid.”
The basic relationship between the two brothers at Accuwrap, Enzo and Fabio, has not changed since the days they were both in hospitality. Says Enzo, “I was always out in the front greeting people and wearing a smile, while Fabio worked the kitchen and ran a tight ship. That’s how we still do it today at Accuwrap. I’m more in the front office, Fabio’s on the shop floor, and we still get it done.”
Working as a family, empathizing with people and adapting to the times worked for Accuwrap. Who knows?
It might even work in the industry at large.