Producing a store fixture is no easy thing. Clients need something that is unique, eye-catching, sturdy, and replaceable within a year or two. The store-fixture business takes the custom wood industry to its limits, combining automation with customization and flexible manufacturing. For success, manufacturers in the sector need their own unique — almost magical — formula. At ISPA Store Fixtures in Georgetown, Ont., that formula for success starts with its husband-and-wife ownership team, Doug and Linda Soules.
“My husband is the kind of person that just appeals to people when you first meet him,” says Linda Soules. “He has an engaging, creative side that makes you want to go out there and do great things. I, on the other hand, very much work to keep him grounded, to make sure that his sometimes crazy ideas match reality.”
Doug and Linda met at a frat party while attending Western University in London, Ont. After university, Linda went into the field of human resources, while Doug, from the very start, wanted to become an entrepreneur. Linda says, “For Doug, it wasn’t about making a lot of money, or a name for himself. He just wanted to build something on his own — it didn’t matter what.”
As an example, Doug owned a grass-cutting business even though he was allergic to grass. He eventually became a general contractor, only to realize that the millwork side of the business needed some special attention, so he bought that, which was the foundation for ISPA Store Fixtures. It started with six employees in Mississauga, Ont., and required a personal touch that Linda says is right up Doug’s alley.
“He definitely has a creative side, which really helps when dealing with creative cabinetmakers and woodworkers in this business,” she says. “However, what Doug also brings to the table, and is sometimes less common in this industry, is the hardnosed business knowledge: crunching the numbers, doing administration, marketing, and so on.”
Although she was earning a good living at the time, Linda decided to quit her job in human resources and come to ISPA as a working partner. It was during these initial stages of growth that other components of ISPA’s formula for success started taking shape. According to Linda, “We started to separate custom jobs from those requiring automation. And they feed off of each other, which is crucial when making store fixtures.” The company decided to focus on store fixtures because of this combined approach, and also because Doug was very good at yet another part of ISPA’s business formula. A.J. Sparkes, the company’s sales manager, explains: “Doug is a big believer in keeping the customers you have, instead of always thinking about the next customer. Ironically, this approach has led to tremendous growth over the years. We now have about 75 employees.”
A key to success in the store-fixture business is to gain the trust and loyalty of ongoing clients. They often come with a rough idea of what they want, and then rely on the manufacturer to do everything else to implement that idea. If it’s done right, then that customer will keep coming back with big projects for years and years, and pay a premium for it, too.
One example of such a matching came during the time of the financial crisis. Soules asks, “When you think of Canada, and what pulled us through the tough economic times, what comes to mind? The answer is banking, right? So, even before the crisis, we sought out such sectors for clients, and it has paid off.” To wit, long and loyal ISPA clients include some of Canada’s major banking chains.
An adaptable and motivated workforce, from top to bottom, is crucial to making this business approach work. “I have worked at a number of places, but never before have I seen such a coordinated effort to get the job done right as I’ve seen here at ISPA,” says Sparkes. “There is no divide between management and worker. We all feel free to talk to each other, either on the shop floor, or in the offices. It doesn’t matter.”
Befitting the nature of the business, the workforce and the work environment at ISPA are unique, too. The facility has a gym, beach volleyball court, and even a cricket field — all meant to meet the recreational needs of the company’s diverse workforce, which includes experienced and apprentice cabinet makers from Canada, as well as foremen and workers from South Asia.
“We have some great guys that have been working for us for many years,” Linda Soules says. “We hire young graduates from Georgetown District High School, whose woodworking program we support. Years ago, through the government, we hired some workers from Sri Lanka. They worked out great, started recommending family and friends, and now make up a visible component of our workforce.”
Although the workforce is diverse, its commitment to success is singular and unmistakeable. “Believe it or not, if a new worker isn’t working out, we’ll hear it first from the employees. They have very little tolerance for mediocrity,” says Soules. “The communication is amazing. It has to be, or else the job doesn’t get done right, and we don’t get those crucial repeat customers.”
Such repeat customers include hundreds of locations for box-store chains, as well as a lone local grocery store. According to Sparkes, these kinds of jobs feed off one another. He says, “We take jobs such as the local store because, one, we like to maintain good business relationships with community, but, two, these kinds of smaller projects help keep our team sharp, creative and on their toes. They love doing it.”
In many ways, a store-fixture company such as ISPA embodies much of what makes Canada’s wood industry so valuable. It takes its cues from business owners that are creative, business savvy, and employee-conscious, which in turn creates an environment where high-quality products are produced for world-class clients.