An old, 1990s-vintage computer monitor sits on a desk in the corner of the administrative work area at Winnipeg, Manitoba’s Hawthorne Kitchens. Looking fat, elephantine and grey, it hearkens back to another time, sitting amid the otherwise modern array of flat-screen, high-definition monitors at other work stations.
Old as it may be, it still works, and serves its function for the sister of the wife of the owner, Ron Dyck. She is also the company’s bookkeeper. Family ties are important, and Dyck’s wife, IIlene, works as the company’s main designer, his daughter-in-law, Nicole, works in sales, and his son is in charge of marketing and web management.
The ancient monitor above is echoed in the shop, where nothing old is discarded, as long as it does the job. The newest, fastest, whiz-bang is absent. Dyck is not against newness, but he clearly does not like waste. He also forms attachments.
A favourite story among the staff involves the woodworking-rich environment of Winnipeg, where small-to-mid-sized enterprises compete for market and employees with the likes of Palliser, Loewen and Kitchen Craft. The story is that of a former foreman who left, seeking greener pastures and better pay. Within weeks, the story goes, he was calling to ask whether he could come back. Unfortunately, his position had been filled. Not to be put off, the former employee called back every month or two. Luckily for him, his replacement decided to move on after a year, and the employee got his old job back.
His is not the only similar story, and among those that tried the revolving door at Hawthorne, the universal reaction on their return is that they feel as if they have come home.
And they have. According to Dyck, Hawthorne is the oldest kitchen-cabinet facility in Winnipeg, started by his father and grandfather in 1946. As with other family business, it starts with a story. Apparently Dyck’s father, Wally Dyck, was in class in the ‘40s when the police came. He had not signed up for the military, and service was compulsory.
The police hauled him directly in front of a judge, who demanded to know his explanation for not signing up. “I’m a German, and I don’t want to fight Germans,” Dyck said.
The judge looked at the papers, and noted: “It says here you were born in Russia. Doesn’t that make you a Russian?”
According to the story, Dyck looked the judge in the eye and asked in return, “And if the papers said I was born in China, would that make me a Chinaman?”
Case closed. Dyck walked, did not have to serve in the military and finished out the war doing alternative service. That was back in the days before lawyers evolved to their present, pervasive condition. Dyck went with a proposal to his father, Isaack Dyck, and Hawthorne was borne, making wooden ladders for $5 and wooden clothes-drying racks. “The drying racks were our first entry into using solar,” Dyck quips.
It was not long before aluminum ladders made the wood-ladder business difficult, and Hawthorne took off into building cabinets for the builder market. “We were the first manufacturer in Winnipeg,” Dyck says, “to make modular cabinets for the builder market. We offered sizes in three-inch increments, and the builders loved it.”
However, Hawthorne’s competitors also loved it, copied the idea and bought into efficiencies. Hawthorne, not willing to get overextended in credit, moved back toward customization, which is now 100 percent of its market.
That’s not to say the competitors don’t like customization. A few years ago, one of Dyck’s employees was at an event and was talking to a newcomer to the Winnipeg market. The new company was buying up every kind of automation, hiring Dyck’s employees when it could get them and making a big noise in the market. The newcomer asked the employee where he worked, so the employee said he worked for Hawthorne. “That’s too bad,” the newcomer said.
“Why is that?” asked the employee.
“Because we’re going to put Hawthorne out of business in one year,” the newcomer said.
Almost one year later to the day, the new company had filed for bankruptcy. Dyck said he went to the auction, just to see what all the noise had been about. At the end of the sale, they were auctioning off a Heeseman widebelt sander. Dyck was stunned when the bidding started at only $100, and went up in $20 increments. “I decided to bid, just for kicks,” he says. “So I bid $1,600, and the other bidder said I could have it.”
Wryly, Dyck admits he can’t use the sander. He says it has a three-phase, 400v power requirement, and his shop can’t handle it, so it is sitting on his shop floor, looking for a new home. That is too bad, too, since Dyck processes a lot of solid wood. In fact, his facility is split into two equal-but-different shops, separated by a hallway. One side is solid wood; the other is panels.
Both shops show evidence of Dyck’s belief in using what works. Most of the machines are ancient by industry standards, but gleam with the patina of adjustment and care. On the other hand, when something new is warranted, as was a new air make-up system for a badly needed finishing room, Dyck made the investment. “It was not easy,” says Dyck. “We are in the middle of a residential area in north Winnipeg, and getting the permits to install a finishing area required safety requirements after safety requirements after safety requirements…. and most of them have nothing to do with safety.”
It looks like the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and you can almost hear his father chuckle. Safety is not safe and a German can’t be a Chinaman.
The rest of the work “family” is equally known for its opinions. For example, Keith Hoeppner, one of the installers, made his mark one day by dealing with a couple of interfering home owners: “You guys can back off, now,” he said to the owners, “because right now this is my kitchen.”
Hoeppner can get away with a statement like that around Hawthorne, because his work warrants it and he is secure in his job. Dyck muses how Hawthorne has now even outlasted Palliser, at least as it was formerly constituted, for whom he has a great deal of respect: “Whenever you hear the employees (at Palliser) saying ‘us,’ instead of ‘them,’ you know somebody is doing something right.”
As the old grey monitor in admin suggests, Hawthorne has been courting technology for a while. In fact, according to Dyck, Hawthorne was one of the first customers of 20-20 software, and has used it non-stop since the beginning. He admits, however, that he let his licence lapse and worked along through several new versions without upgrading, and now is in the process of trying to catch up. Virtually all of Hawthorne’s kitchens are designed in-house. According to Dyck, they never tell an owner how to design a kitchen (irrespective of what they might say once construction has begun). “Always give the customer the courtesy of asking what they want,’ he says. “They will resent you if you don’t ask.”
In addition, says Dyck, once in a great while they get a design provided to them by an outside designer. “That is easy,” says Dyck. “Then you just follow the specs.” However, he cautions, “your kitchen is only as good as the guy designing it.”
Along with the design software, he has upgraded his website. Recently, Dyck decided to go off-side a bit. He wanted a coffee table and some end tables, so he made them in the shop. They turned out so nicely that he posted them on his site. Almost immediately, people asked whether he would make a set like that for them, and now Hawthorne does custom kitchens and coffee tables. Like a family, the business grows. Somebody must be doing something right.