Prosperity, according to plan
While recessions are hard on companies, they are really hard on people. Therefore, when Quaker Oats in Trenton, Ont., closed its doors in 1994, people found themselves cut loose with a severance and no plan. According to Stirling, Ont.-based Paul Holden, owner of Kitchens by Paul Holden, some of those ran through their severance pay quickly and now are in difficulty.
Holden followed his instinct. He had bought a small shop, what he now calls a “hobby farm” near Stirling in 1988, but had added a sizeable workshop to satisfy an idea he had in working with wood. By 1994, as he worked the farm and contemplated the future, he also considered the time he had spent in his shop making toys and curio cabinets. One day, he says, somebody asked for kitchen cabinets. As he looked at the finished boxes, he thought to himself, “kitchen cabinets could pay the rent.” And, with much concern and two kids under 10, he told his wife, Susan, he was launching off as a cabinet maker. Selling toy cars, he knew, would not make a business. “Like the five-and-dimes,” Holden says, “you have to sell a lot of chocolate bars to pay the overhead.”
Unsure how to “get out the word,” Holden passed out flyers about his new enterprise, told everybody that would stand still and even bought the outside back cover of the local newspaper and added two salesmen. Things started to pick up, as Holden got jobs with several small, local builders, and he started using some local radio advertising.
The turning point, Holden says, was when a local builder decided he wanted to be the largest local builder and approached Holden about supplying his cabinetwork. “And now,” Holden smiles, “he is the largest builder.”
During those early days, Holden would wake up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning and go out to the shop, which was located in two units of a local industrial park. By 1997, Holden says, “I had seven of them.” In 1998, Holden finally bought his current location.
“At that time,” Holden says, “I had a good-paying job, but the company could not be sold.” Once again taking the bull by the horns, Holden decided to revamp his sales staff and start selling for himself. That saved two salaries, and, having achieved the recognition to keep a full order book, he dropped his advertising, as well. He also upgraded and automated to, he says, “separate myself a little bit from the little guys around here that are biting at my ankles.”
Also, Holden admits, he was lucky to catch the wave of a new trend toward retirement homes. According to Holden, this was during the introduction of European-style cabinetry to Canada, and many of the retirees targeting south-eastern Ontario were world-wise and wanted frameless cabinets. At that time, Holden made a mental limit on his market area, and decided to maintain a 50-mile (one-hour) delivery radius around his base.
By 1994, Holden’s was a three-man shop. Determined to make the company salable, he continued to expand and upgrade, as necessary, and today he has 15 employees, including Susan and Brad, their son.
Brad worked in the shop from the age of 14. However, in 2001 he made the decision to enter the three-year management-stream program at the Woodworking Centre of Ontario at Kitchener’s Conestoga College. He completed the program in 2004, and then came “the talk.”
According to Holden, he had a settled staff that was resistant to change. They wanted to do Metabox drawers and nothing else, he said. However, he had been held back by the staff’s balking and was anxious to move forward. Holden says he told Brad that he wanted Brad to implement some of what he had learned, but he was concerned that if Brad made it clear the move was happening, the top staff would leave. Holden wanted an assurance from his son that if the top supervisors left, Brad could hold up the company.
Brad said he could, he made the announcement of the upcoming changes, the supervisors left and there he stood — a couple years of experience, a couple years of training and his family’s entire investment resting on his claim of competence.
Seven years later, the company has more work than it can handle, and Holden and Sue can leave in January for a cruise without feeling they need to call in, or worrying that something might happen to the business. And, from the sound of things, the cruises are neither short nor budget. “Each time we go,” says Holden, “Sue gets a diamond. She likes them, she likes to dress up for me, and she has been part of everything, every day.”