Shipway Stairs

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No, these workers aren’t monkeying around. They are straddling one of Shipway’s huge jigs used to curve railings to exact specifications.

Shipway Stairs started in the 1980s as a one-man operation in a small countryside barn. Today, the Burlington, Ont., manufacturer of wooden stairs and railings employs 120 people and supplies many — if not most — of the subdivisions in the sprawling Greater Toronto Area. Asked to account for the long-term success of the company, vice president Dale Shipway responds, “We just wanted to succeed. We just wanted to win.”

The small countryside barn belonged to Larry Shipway, the company’s current president. According to Dale, the younger brother, a competitive streak has run through the company since those early days. He says, “It’s hard to explain, but we just wanted to succeed. There was no other way. Even on the golf course, Larry and I just want to win. It must run in the family.”

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Dale Shipway walks the shop floor much like a first-time visitor would. He is still in awe of the company’s operations and the impact it has on
the region’s housing.

The third pillar of the company was Carm Morris, who is now enjoying retirement. According to Shipway, there was an uncanny chemistry with the trio: “You hear the horror stories of family and fri

ends working together. Not with us. For some reason, we all wanted the same thing. We were all willing to do what it takes to make the business work.”

For Shipway, one memory in particular encapsulates this harmony among friends, as well as the sacrifices made to succeed. As he describes it, “Sometimes we even had to work on a Sunday. One time, the three of us, we loaded the truck, and made our way up the mountain in Hamilton to make a delivery. It was hard work, but those were some good times, too.”

The relationship between the three friends is only one of many developed both inside and outside the company. Indeed, Shipway believes relationships, as well as loyalty, are crucial to success in his business. In particular, the company has, in essence, risen to the top by forming key partnerships with crucial builders in the region.

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Shiwpay’s shop floor is a case study in the division of labour. Each worker has a designated task performed in clockwork fashion.

Builders such as Mattamy and Losani are well known in the southern Ontario construction industry. But not so much back in the ‘80s. According to Shipway, a much smaller Mattamy was one of the brothers’ first customers as Shipway was outgrowing its countryside barn. And all these companies grew up together, so to speak, as new homes have draped the region’s landscape for the last three decades.

In fact, Shipway reduces the success of companies such as Shipway Stairs, as well as Mattamy and Losani, to a fairly simple formula for success. He says, “What works in homebuilding is providing value to the customer, excellent customer service, loyalty, and working with great people. And it’s not easy. It’s taken us 30 years to perfect the formula. It can’t be done overnight.”

As further evidence of the value of relationships, Shipway says the children of all these pioneering construction business owners are now moving in. For Shipway, Larry’s daughter, Sarah, takes care of contracts, estimating and pricing. Larry’s son, Clark, is getting on-the-job training by starting on the shop floor. Father Larry wouldn’t have it any other way.

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As much as possible, Shipway sources out the manufacturing of component parts, so that assembly and coordination end up being a large focus of operations.

He says, “It’s absolutely crucial to learn about this business from the ground up. That’s why Clark is working on the machines just like everyone else. He doesn’t get special treatment. In fact, his fellow workers welcomed him by hiding his toolbox. It’s all in fun. But it’s not always going to be fun. It’s only by working your way up that you’ll know how to handle the tough times, too.”

The tough times are something Shipway is very familiar with. While many in the housing and wood sectors cite 2008 as being hard to deal with, Shipway goes all the way back to the late ‘80s in describing a difficult business environment. According to Shipway, “There was nothing coming in. The economy was bad. Housing was terrible. Now that was a challenge.”

How did the company respond to this challenge? Shipway replies, “It was a lesson in cutting overhead. When no work was coming in, we went out and found it. We left business cards on the studs beside stair locations in houses under construction. Did it work sometimes? Yeah. From that experience we learned to always be mindful of costs and to never expect the good times to last. Complacency is not a good thing.”

These aren’t empty words, either. Recently, Dale and Larry met to discuss the state of the business. The major conclusion they drew was to keep getting better; to keep improving. Says Shipway, “Even with all the growth and successes we’ve had, it’s just not in our nature to be completely satisfied with it. If you’re not always looking to do things better, someone else can always come along and beat you to the punch.”

An example of constantly doing things better is seen in the company’s new manufacturing facility, which is twice as big as their last location. In fact, Shipway says the company has doubled in size seven times since the beginning. According to him, “This will probably be the last time we move. We expect continued growth, which is why we have expanded. But no matter what happens, we’re ready. Tough times always happen in housing, and we’re lean and efficient enough to deal with good times and bad.”

Given the company’s survival and growth through three decades of ups and downs in the housing market, continued success would be a good bet. Yet not a sure bet. Says Shipway, “If you’re not always looking to improve, you risk failure. You risk having another couple of brothers coming in and doing things better. We did it once, and succeeded. We’d like to keep it that way.”

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