Building cabinets is building a brand
Passion resonates in Daniel Toto’s voice, and in his steel-grey eyes. The passion, you discover, is for the family business and making it a bit more successful every day. With each word and gesture, it is clear he is part of the “special breed,” of business families described by KPMG and the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise in a 2012 joint study, Family ties: Canadian Business in the Family Way. “Their mix of pride, loyalty and entrepreneurial spirit is at the heart of their business success,” the study’s authors said.
That about describes the way Toto sees the legacy of QTK Fine Cabinetry. The Vaughan, Ont., shop is marking its middle-age milestone of success; it has hit the big four-oh. Daniel’s father, Tony, started the company as Quality Tops and Kitchens in April 1974. In early September, the company will officially celebrate its 40th, and a big bash for employees, customers and suppliers is planned. “My father didn’t want to do anything in April,” laughs Toto. “He wanted to wait until the outside landscaping was lush and green.”
At 29, Toto is overseeing daily operations as general manager. His brother, Giovanni, is vice-president. Their mother, Mary, is still fully active as company controller.
Their father, however, has taken a step back from the business. “He’s letting us run things because he believes in us,” says Toto, “but he is always there when we have questions.
“For my brother and I, the dream is to build a brand. A reputable brand that’s synonymous with quality and unique designs, and one that is at the forefront of our industry,” Toto says.
Brand and its inherent elements and importance, are often a subject of discussion among savvy, senior corporate marketing professionals in online business groups and forums, but it is unusual — and refreshing — to hear a Generation Y general manager of a 50-employee manufacturing company talk so passionately and understandingly about brand.
“We are trying to build the company, trying to build a brand,” Toto says. “But that’s all contingent on making customers happy. We need to make quality products and unique designs, and we need to make sure the customer is happy with everything.”
Toto has a keen understanding that brand is everything you do and how you do it to create a satisfying, holistic experience for customers, and that clearly shows on the shop floor at QTK. It also shows in every precision-machined cabinetry component, in the use of expandable plastic dowels that prevent door-hinge screws from loosening in panels and in the way “a lot of blankets” are used to protect kitchen assemblies loaded onto trucks.
It also shows in QTK’s environmental consciousness. “We recycle everything,” Toto stresses. “From scrap wood to cardboard. We were being environmental before it was cool.” Toto also talks proudly about how even raw-materials sourcing is a large part of the company’s brand. All the lumber for cabinets comes only from premium North American mills, for example.
But it’s when he’s talking about his Schelling panel saw — where the manufacture of every QTK kitchen starts — that Toto’s voice and eyes really light up with pride. “On the back of this saw there is a labeller that I invented,” he beams.
With Toto’s labeller, the saw automatically generates and attaches a bar-coded label to every panel that is cut. When every part is custom-cut to meet each different component design, the labels become crucial to machining, organizing and identifying the individual wood components of every job. The labeller is what makes all the custom work possible, Toto stresses.
When he came up with the idea for the labeller, Toto didn’t want to patent it, he says. He wanted to partner with a panel-saw manufacturer, so he took the idea to three CNC equipment manufacturers. Schelling was the only one interested. There is a big reward element in the project. From Toto’s perspective, his inventiveness created an innovation that is critical for QTK’s manufacturing process.
But for Toto, just being part of the family business every day is über rewarding. “It is really rewarding to be able to work with the people who are really important in your life,” Toto says. “There are a lot of people who might only get to see their parents or siblings maybe once a year. We’re lucky. We get along, we have complementary skills, and we get to work with our parents.”
Sometimes when a business is family run, there’s a dilemma with succession because offspring have no desire to be part of the company. Toto, however, “can’t imagine doing anything else.” He and his brother have been immersed in QTK since their pre-teen years. Toto always knew he would always want to be part of the family business. “We saw the amount of work my dad put into the company, the reward and the passion he had for what he did. We came here every day after school, and every Saturday. And we were in here every summer,” Toto recalls.
But they didn’t just hang out at the factory. They learned the art of cabinetry craftsmanship. “I guess the Ministry of Labour wouldn’t like it, but I was building counters when I was 12,” Toto laughs. By the time they were teens, he and Giovanni could skillfully operate all the CNC machinery on the shop floor, and Toto officially joined the family business when he was 22, after graduating from Wilfred Laurier University with a bachelor’s in business administration (BBA).
“This company is my life,” he says. “Every soccer or hockey team I’ve played on wears QTK jerseys. All my friends know that this is my passion and I spend a lot of time here.”
The family business and soccer. Those are his two passions. When Wood Industry visited, Toto was glued to the FIFA World Cup. “I’m lucky enough to have a television in my office so I’ve pretty much watched every game,” he laughs. “Even when I’m working, the game is on.”
With a BBA, running the business side of things efficiently is second nature. Toto manages the necessary wood inventory for projects, for example, with just-in-time raw-materials delivery. “We get a delivery every day or two,” he says. “There’s no need to waste operating capital on inventory that I don’t need to have sitting around.”
Toto’s core strength is business, but his heart is in engineering. “Realistically, I probably spend more time on engineering than I do on the business side,” he says. “It’s something I’m pretty good at, and it’s truly challenging
“The challenge for us is making a unique product for every customer,” he says. “We get so many requests for specific things that customers want. We have to fuse the skilled labour, the machinery and the installation to make sure it’s what the customer wants. Nine times out of 10, it’s something we’ve never done before.”
It is also challenging because for Toto, “custom” means something very specific — creating unique kitchens based on how they’re used. Every approach is different. For culinary aficionados, Toto and the engineering staff create elegant, functional designs tailored to specific needs. For customers who do more pure entertaining than cooking, they concentrate more on an elegant overall appearance because the kitchen is a gathering place.
According to Toto, it is personally rewarding every time he gets an email or a call from an ecstatic customer who is cooking or entertaining in a new dream kitchen, and he gets a lot of them. “It makes coming into the office every day for really long hours, worth it,” he says.
Toto is usually in the office by 8:30 a.m., and he works until eight or nine at night. “Around here I’m known as the afternoon shift,” he laughs. That’s because Giovanni, the earlier riser, is often in by 6:00 a.m., working until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. — and that’s leaving early, “because he has a couple of kids.”
The hours Toto so passionately devotes to the business will probably change a bit in the fall. In October, he too, will be a father.
When he actually stops to think about the fact that the company his father started is marking 40 years in business, Toto says he feels overwhelmed and humbled at the same time. “It’s overwhelming because I’ve only been alive for 29 years. We have employees that have been working here since long before I was born,” he laughs.
And it’s humbling because it makes Toto remember that, while he knows a lot, there is still a lot more knowledge and experience he can absorb from long-time staff.
One thing he has quickly learned: don’t plan small. The family underestimated just how fast QTK would grow after moving from two buildings into one, 45,000-square-foot site in 2010. At that time, QTK had 30 employees including four office staff. Now they have a staff of 50 including 12 people in the office. “We have no more office space and we’ve only been here four years, so that may have been a little short-sighted,” Toto quips.
Not to be stopped, the brothers found a way to expand the engineering department by knocking out a wall. You could say Toto’s breaking down barriers to success.
Does he feel successful? “Success is measured differently for everybody,” Toto says. “The company is successful. Everybody is healthy and that’s of paramount importance because when you’re healthy, you can accomplish anything. As long as my brother and I are getting along, and my parents are happy and healthy, then I’d say we’re successful.”
But he’s not resting on his laurels. On his brand-building mission, he’s determined that QTK be an industry example to follow. “That’s what makes you strive to get better every day,” Toto says.