Irpinia Kitchens, Richmond Hill, Ont.

From Avellino with love: No substitute for passion

By Kerry Knudsen

The last time I profiled Ontario’s Irpinia Kitchens was in 1998 or 1999. While we rarely repeat profiles, I have wondered what happened with Irpinia during the U.S. crisis years of 2008/2009, since Irpinia’s market before 2000 was 90 percent exports to the U.S.

The first big change was obvious. In the ‘90s, we visited Irpinia at Jane and Hwy. 7. That location was abandoned in 2001. “It was an interesting time to move,” says Marcello Marcantonio, vice president and shareholder. “When all the world stood still after the attack on the U.S., we expanded.”

The new production facility in Richmond Hill shows the expansion in the typical, Italian expression of class and authority, without being loud or boastful. The front offices and reception are cool, high-ceilinged and dim, with plenty of glass and metal.

Back in the 65,000-square-foot shop, however, natural light dominates every corner. “It’s a matter of quality control,” says Marcantonio. “We added the skylights because you need natural light to see the natural colours.”

Finishing is critical to Irpinia’s success, both in its quality and in its environmental sensitivity to a factory in an urban environment. As in the production area, good lighting and cleanliness form the basis of Irpinia’s philosophy and protocol.

Finishing is critical to Irpinia’s success, both in its quality and in its environmental sensitivity to a factory in an urban environment. As in the production area, good lighting and cleanliness form the basis of Irpinia’s philosophy and protocol.

The distinction in colours has been a hallmark of Irpinia marketing since the beginning. Europe is very different from the U.S., Marcantonio says. In Europe, the craftsman is viewed as the boss, and if you want a European kitchen, you are told what the “cool” colours are and how it will be designed. According to Marcantonio, everything flips when you try to sell to the States. There, the customer will drill down into the tiniest details and demand they all come together perfectly. “In Europe, they dictate,” says Marcantonio. “In America, you live by the customer’s request.”

It has been Irpinia’s mission to strike a balance to attract the American customer. “We have made this our policy,” says Marcantonio. “We call it European flair with North American sensibility.”

According to Marcantonio, Irpinia is proud of its Italian heritage. In fact, he says, the name Irpinia is from a region of the Apennine Mountains around Avellino, Italy, known for its craftsmanship. Taking down an old, hand-made plane and an antique brace-and-bit, Marcantonio emphasizes of Irpinia, “Not only did you need to learn to use the tool, you had to learn to build the tool.”

Marcantonio recognizes that you cannot any longer run a business with hand tools. However, he says, in custom cabinetry you can meet production standards and still, “keep the charm. Large parts of our production department,” he says, “are still run by a man on a bench.”

Marcello Marcantonio expects his workers to know the history of their tools, even if they are no longer required to make them.

Marcello Marcantonio expects his workers to know the history of their tools, even if they are no longer required to make them.

According to Marcantonio, when the American crisis hit, it was sudden, and it was complete. With 90 percent of Irpinia’s production being sent to the States, the Irpinia team was faced with the overwhelming challenge of changing or dying as a company.

Reviewing their market segment, Irpinia recognized it was catering to the “boomer” generation – those people born between 1947 and ’66: those that have the wherewith to do with. However, looking from the U.S. to Canada, another demographic became obvious. Marcantonio is cautious about estimating numbers, but for the sake of conversation, he figures the GTA’s share of Canada’s immigrant influx was about 10,000 to 15,000 per month. That adds up to a lot of kitchens, and a quick addition of an MDF line to Irpinia’s signature solid-wood designs, adapting to high-rise/low-rise and an intense education in addressing the builder market, and Irpinia grew again, in the face of a world-wide downturn.

By today, Marcantonio says, Irpinia’s U.S. export market has rebounded a bit, representing about 20 percent of Irpinia’s production, but he sees the U.S. as stabilizing and opportunities returning. For Irpinia, this specifically means markets in Florida and New York.

The recurring theme in Marcantonio’s business view it that of passion. Irpinia’s management was consolidated in 1985, Marcantonio says, when he and his co-shareholders brought young blood, fresh ideas and new life to the company. That passion was repeated in describing the changes and recovery surrounding the 2001 attacks on the States and the U.S. financial crisis. And the passion exhibits itself again when dealing with competition.

According to Marcantonio, the overlooked aspect of competition is regulation. He has little time to focus on Canadian manufacturers as competitors. Right now, it is very busy in the industry, and nobody seems hurting for work.

While Irpinia prides itself on its old-world style of the “man on the bench,” the company makes free use of conveyors (right) and CNC machines. “Why have the workers do the walking when the conveyor can do it better,” asks Marcantonio?

While Irpinia prides itself on its old-world
style of the “man on the bench,” the
company makes free use of conveyors
(right) and CNC machines. “Why have
the workers do the walking when
the conveyor can do it better,” asks
Marcantonio?

However, Marcantonio muses that Irpinia has, so far, successfully adapted to keep in compliance with regulations coming in from every quarter. He sees bureaucrats as a fact of life that is never going to change. However, he says, “like the market, itself, the rules of compliance change. They have to. That’s what keeps them [bureaucrats] employed.”

When you add it all up, Marcantonio says, it is significant. You have to regulate dust, air, solvents, employee safety, fire, insurance, minorities, banking – everything changes. And Irpinia has responded by trying water-based finishes and even is FSC-certified and has a Green Line. As an aside, Marcantonio says of “green” production that residential customers in Canada simply will not pay the premium necessary to produce according to LEED standards: “There is a price associated with production.”

With some workers having been with Irpinia for 30 years, Marcantonio places the credit for a happy workplace and low turnover on spending a little time each day with each employee. “People need to know they are appreciated,” he says.

With some workers having been with Irpinia for 30 years, Marcantonio places the credit for a happy workplace and low turnover on spending a little time each day with each employee. “People need to know they are appreciated,” he says.

The problem, Marcantonio says, is that, while Canadian manufacturing is complying with the production costs associated with regulations, the rest of the world is marching on, oblivious. “We are just a guppy,” Marcantonio says. “We are not the big fish. Just look at the world. How many people are there? Seven billion? And Canada is what, 35 million? We are nothing, yet we are regulating ourselves out of the market and allowing China, Mexico and elsewhere to sell as much as they like here.

“Even in North America we are nothing. Look at our relationship with the States. In Europe and in Canada, our factories are owned privately. We set our standards and we set our policies to conform to our passion. You do not go to Europe to shop price.

“In America, you are dealing with public ownership. You can say it’s private, but the companies are corporations and the corporations are traded publicly. The corporation boards decide the policies for the shareholders. In that system, you lose the passion. Passion is not a transferable commodity. You cannot buy it.”

Marcantonio is not speaking casually, as his own voice gets stronger and faster. “I make sure this company has a good, solid pulse,” he says.

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