Craftsmanship and all that goes with it is in Art Enns’s blood. “My grandfather was a cabinetmaker but I never knew him,” he says almost matter-of-factly, as his father, George, 86, finishes turning a Christmas ornament on an old General International lathe in a room off the main shop of Enns Cabinetry in St. Catharines, Ont. The room is the elder Enns’s dedicated workspace. He uses it on the days he feels like going in and turning award-winning Christmas ornaments. He has been making and selling them locally as well as in galleries all over North America since retiring from cabinetmaking 20 years ago. There’s a somber look on his face and water in his eyes as he volunteers the details.
“I lost my father when I was nine,” George Enns begins. “He disappeared one night and we spent 18 years trying to find out what happened to him.”
While Art learned all that he knows from his father, the elder Enns never had a chance to learn from his own father. In the middle of a dark Ukraine night in 1938, he was rounded up during Stalin’s infamous purges of the 1930s, and never seen again.
For years, the family held out hope. In 1956, after a quest to Moscow, George Enns finally learned his father’s fate. “He was actually dead within the first month that they took him,” he recounts, teary-eyed. “They were forced to sign a confession of a crime, they tortured them that long until they signed it. And once they’d signed it, they took them outside against a wall and shot them.”
Art just listens as his father painfully recounts the story. It’s a learned trait. “One of the fundamental things for me is that I want to listen to what people say,” says Enns. “When I go to their home, I’d be happy to spend the first half-hour just listening because…I’m more interested in what they want to have designed than what I want to design for them.”
As Enns listens to his father recount his grandfather’s fate, you can see the strong bond between father and son, and you can hear the pride in their voices when they talk about each other’s accomplishments: George about the cabinetry business Art has built over the last decade, and Art about his father’s numerous awards for his ornamental creations.
Enns has a much happier memory of being a nine-year-old than his father does. “On Saturday, my dad woke me up and off we went to the jobsite,” he says. “A lot of it was just playing. My dad’s partner had a son too, the same age as me, so we just horsed around.”
About a year later, he was helping build kitchens. “Back then all the kitchens were built in the house. Monday morning, the lumber company would show up with a dozen sheets of mahogany, and my dad would build the kitchen. By Friday it was done. Saturday meant veneering doors. You’d get a roll of mahogany veneers, a quart of contact cement and a brush, and away I’d go.”
Art Enns may have never learned the craftsmanship of cabinetry had it not been for the tragedy and hardship that his father suffered before, during and after World War II. Near the end of the war, the elder Enns — being of German descent and living in the Ukraine — was drafted into the German Wehrmacht. He lost the use of his right arm and hand when he was injured firing a field gun at the end of the war.
“I was 17 when I lost the use of my arm, and I didn’t think I would be able to do anything,” says George. After the war, he spent three years in a Soviet prison camp. Then he basically wandered the world, living in several countries. It was in Brazil where he found work with a local cabinetmaker who convinced him he, too, could master the craft, despite the injury. The senior Enns learned how to hold the tools in his lame hand. In 1957, he emigrated to Canada, and started his own cabinetry business.
And so the family tradition of cabinet making was passed on to the third generation: “He taught me … what it means to do a good job, never cutting corners and always doing it right,” says Art. “Everything I know about work and the work ethic, I learned from him early on.”
Old-fashioned craftsmanship remains at Enns Cabinetry. Enns’s son Jason leads the production shop, where he makes cabinet components by hand. The only piece of machinery he uses is a table saw. There are no CNC production machines. “I’ve said to the guys, ‘Tell me if you want a CNC machine and I’ll buy one,’ but they don’t want one,” says Enns.
Enns even does his design drawings the old-fashioned way — on paper, with pencil and a scale rule. “I think that’s the reason why it’s so intriguing, because we’re used to computers now,” says Enns. There’s no computer in his office, and there never will be. “I’m 57,” he quips.
Doing things the traditional way is part of Enns’s instilled commitment to his craft. Enns says the most important thing he learned from his father was to be uncompromising. “If it takes longer to do it right, then take longer. If you have to do it again to make it right, then do it over again,” he says.
On this philosophy he has built Enns Cabinetry from a one-man shop started in a rented 600-square-foot garage behind an office, to a family business that now employs 12 people and which breezed through the global recession of 2008-2009. “We’ve always been going up and to the right,” says Enns. “We were hiring during the recession. It just felt normal. I was oblivious to the recession. And our target, which is higher-income people, are sort-of recession-proof, too.”
Enns started the business after working for 27 years as an installer for someone else. When the company he’d been working for changed hands, so did the work environment, the installation assignments and the money. He knew it was time to make a go of it on his own.
“I basically took all the tools I owned and moved them into the garage,” Enns says.
His first customer was his sister. “She and her husband had just been married and needed a kitchen, and she said, ‘Why don’t you design my kitchen?’,” Enns recalls. Then he started approaching builders he’d worked with as an installer, and “everything grew slowly and naturally from there.”
When things started getting busier than one man could handle, Enns asked his wife Bev for help. “I told her I couldn’t be answering the phone every 10 minutes while I’m building a cabinet. She came on to help me out, and she’s been here ever since.”
They’ve been married for 35 years and working together for a decade. Being around each other 24/7 “has bonded us more,” says Enns.
With two of his sons — Jason in the production shop and Steven in the office looking after the company’s website and social media marketing, Enns Cabinetry is a true family business.
Enns is comfortable with the way the business is growing. Statistically, he’s beating the odds. When it comes to business succession, small family enterprises start to break down around the third and fourth generations.
“My dad gave me a gift of a trade and I took it to the next level,” says Enns. “Will this get translated to my kids? I’d like it to and I treat them as if it will. But they’re still in their ’20s. I think it’s still too early for them to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to keep going with it.’”
He has only one regret — having to sell the Chevrolet Beaumont he’d bought when he was 17. “It was bright red and I loved that car. But at the time, we had a baby on the way, and we needed money to pay for diapers,” Enns laughs. When asked what advice he would give to new, potential entrepreneurs, he says money can be replaced, but don’t sell your vintage car.
Some things need to pass on.