Built on Trust and Change
If you enter “Canada’s heritage” into Google, you will get back over seven million “hits,” or results. None of them appear to “get it.” The first return is for the Canadian government’s Heritage Canada program for magazines. This is where millions of tax dollars are given to magazines that have no heritage, at all, but rather are fulfilling a street-level urban fantasy to create one. Other Google returns deal with our military history, our flag and a program to promote garden-seed diversity. The fact is, Canada’s heritage following the entry of the Europeans is commerce.
Nobody understands better the marriage of commerce and heritage than does Terry Kraemer, one of the owners of Kraemer Woodcraft in St. Jacobs, Ont. After all, his grandfather, Dan Kraemer, started Kraemer Woodcraft back in the day, right across the street from where Walter Hachborn was founding Home Hardware.
Originally an industrial wooden-ladder shop started in 1916, then N.E. Martin Woodworking became Kraemer Woodcraft in 1951, making this year its 60th anniversary. Dan Kraemer was, as were most residents of St. Jacobs at the time, an old-order Mennonite, and the single-horse, black carriages emblematic of that order are still common along the streets and by-roads of the St. Jacobs area.
In those early days, Home Hardware had a mandate to create buying co-ops, and, obviously, asked the locals. Kraemer Woodcraft became part of the Home Hardware co-op back then, and now is a registered retailer of Home Hardware, and is the only vendor to Home Hardware in that position. According to Terry Kraemer, they are also their preferred millwork vendor, so with 1,100 Home Hardware stores across Canada, it is extremely likely that the lumber desk, shelving, check-out or other fixtures in your local Home Hardware originated with Kraemer Woodcraft.
Not a company to carry all its eggs in one basket, Kraemer Woodcraft has also cultivated relationships with Canada’s university system. What started out as a job or two has grown to campus stores at Wilfred Laurier, University of Toronto and McMaster, generating, according to Kraemer, hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue each year. “All the universities talk,” says Kraemer. Start a rapport and it snowballs.”
Another successful program for Kraemer has been through local builder organizations. “We joined the Grand Valley Construction Association,” he says. “Through that, we have had a lot of contact with a lot of contractors. You get a low percentage of jobs through their tender process, but you work for one or two and you become preferred. Once you cross that bridge, your chances of getting the job are high and your margins are big.”
The recurring theme in Kraemer’s successes is the idea of trust. Trust leads to becoming a preferred vendor, and trust leads to long-term relationships. In the case of Home Hardware, for instance, Kraemer says there is no substitute for relationships. “Home Hardware’s focus on service is second to none,” says Kraemer. “They don’t tolerate shoddy service.”
In fact, trust was the basis of Kraemer Woodcraft from the first day. “The purchase of Kraemer Woodcraft was a handshake deal,” he says. “The sale was on Friday and my grandfather started on Monday.”
Kraemer Woodcraft’s adherence to tradition followed its employment practices, as well. “We only have about 15 employees,” Kraemer says. “Most are long-term employees we have had since the ‘70s. Of those, all are from the community. We try to hire the people we know.”
That is not to say everything traditional has come up roses. “According to my dad,” says Kraemer, “the element of the business he hated the worst was personnel.”
But can tradition, alone, carry the day? According to Kraemer, “My father, Ivan, left the old-order Mennonites in the ‘60s. He was not fond of horses, he often said, and he did not want to spend the rest of his life looking at the back end of one.”
So… sometimes you have to look on down the road. Although Kraemer tries to hire based on community, ability to work and commitment, and not on training or education, he still has found that, lacking other characteristics to bicker over, the younger employees tend to find problems with the older.
Economically, the company has done well, although it has not all been easy. “The recent recession did not have any effect on us at all,” says Kraemer. “However, in the recession of 1981, my father almost lost his house. Then came the recession of the early ‘90s. Around here, we call it the lost decade, as we were trying to find our way. We made some changes that helped.”
And so change replaced rigid adherence to tradition, even in St. Jacobs. “For one thing,” says Kraemer, our niche had been small chain stores and independents. However, independents are a dying breed. Most independents today are older entrepreneurs that are not willing to spend money on their own businesses.” This is the change that led to joining the Grand Valley Construction Association.
Kraemer is philosophical about change. The contract with Home Hardware get reviewed every time there is a change in major shareholders, and joint owner Lloyd Bauman is looking toward retirement. Kraemer even resorted to Kijiji, the latest thing in Canadian on-line classified ads, for his last two employees.
Most probably, like the back end of a horse, once you have seen enough of one tradition it is reasonable to take a look at a few options, then keep what works and get ready for the next cycle of change.