When asked about his family roots, Ferd Neufeld, president of Eastwood Wood Specialties in St. Catharines, Ont., goes way back to early 20th century Prussia, a region of Germany, where his Mennonite ancestors, some of whom were woodworkers, built prosperous farms through hard work, ingenuity and faith. Yet it was all taken away as ethnic intolerance and envy forced the family into exile.
Neufeld is a no-nonsense business man who prefers to talk costing and lumber for his company, a manufacturer of solid-wood panels, posts, mouldings and hardwood flooring, dimension stock — and any other wood component they can think of — rather than talk family history. But the stories of the past are etched into memory and form part of the fabric of the man today. He says, “It’s unimaginable to have everything you worked for taken away from you — just like that.”
Finding a way is a current that runs through much of Neufeld’s reminiscences of the family’s achievements. Forced out of Europe in the period between the World Wars, they emigrated to Paraguay — of all places. Neufeld says, “People had to find new homes wherever they could. For my family, it was the middle of South America.”
He continues, “They had to start all over again. Just receiving a can of food from aid agencies was a blessing. They built prosperous colonies out of nothing.”
Neufeld’s father, Hans, was just a boy during these years, yet the lessons of hardship, sacrifice, and ambition were permanently ingrained. Looking to make achievements of his own, Hans looked to the north for yet another new life. Neufeld says, “My father came to Canada.
“He ended up here in the St. Catharines area,” Neufeld adds. “He always had a passion for wood and woodworking, so that’s what he did. In fact, back in the 1960s, he made kitchen cabinets right in the kitchens themselves. He had the table saw in there, the chop saw, a few other tools, and that’s how it was done back then.”
Another current that runs through the family’s history is an ability to augment hard work with business acumen. According to Neufeld, “My dad recognized early on, maybe earlier than a lot of people, that building kitchens like this wasn’t going to last. He saw the need and the growing trend for pre-manufactured cabinets, so that’s what he did.”
Hans Neufeld then started Elmwood Kitchens with a partner in 1973. Ferd, the son, was 13 years old at the time, and started working with dad part-time and during the summers. The business started with about a half-dozen employees. It grew, and moved to increasingly bigger facilities until Hans decided to sell his half of the company to the partner and start on his own.
Ferd Neufeld explains the unique arrangement. He says, “My father ended up specializing in cabinet doors and really liked that, so he formed Maplecraft Doors by taking up some of Elmwood’s facility and signed an agreement to supply Elmwood. It was a smart move. It allowed my dad to build his business without abandoning his former partner.”
Maplecraft continued to grow and establish itself outright So much so, that Hans, the father, was grooming Ferd, the son, to take over one day. But Ferd would have none of it as he became a young adult. He says, “I went to college for a while to take engineering. I moved to Calgary for a number of years. I just wanted to do something on my own.”
Yet the realities of life on one’s own as an adult eventually caught up to Neufeld. He says, “There were no jobs in engineering at the time. I enrolled in a program at DeVry technical school. Again, no jobs. I just got married. I wasn’t making a steady living. So my father called me and asked me to come back to St. Catharines to work with him again. I couldn’t say no.”
At Maplecraft, father and son continued to apply the family formula — hard work, smart decision making, and opportunism — until the son, Ferd, took a page out of Hans’s playbook by cutting a deal with dad.
According to Neufeld, “Much like my father made a deal to form Maplecraft by supplying Elmwood, I made a deal with Maplecraft to supply them. In 1986, I formed Eastwood Wood Specialties, and here we are.”
However, the history between 1986 and now has not been a simple one for Eastwood. Like much of the industry, there have been the ups and the downs. One of the ups was establishing a relationship with Bateseville, an American manufacturer of funeral caskets. At one point, over 40 percent of Eastwood’s business was supplying Batesville with wood components. Neufeld was well aware of the risks of having so much business tied up with one customer.
Neufeld says , “So, one day, we get a call from Batesville. They gave us three months notice that they would no longer be a customer. Can you imagine that? About 40 percent of our workforce was tied to supplying that one customer, and it evaporates — just like that.”
That Neufeld had previously capped business with Batesville had helped. Yet even that wasn’t enough. The market was down. Imports from China were on the rise. Payroll had to be met. It was a nightmare, but it was also yet another opportunity for a Neufeld to pull up his sleeves, use his smarts, and survive.
“I’m not sure what motivates a business owner to survive,” says Neufeld. “We had families to feed, employees to take care of. Failure wasn’t an option. Of course, we cut costs wherever we could. Nothing goes to waste around here anymore. I finally hired some salesmen. We went out and hustled.”
New business opportunities included hardwood-floor manufacturing, which now makes up a small percentage of Eastwood’s business. Every bit helps. The company even sells skids of firewood to any takers, as well as selling scrap wood parts to China. Neufeld says, “I really don’t know what they do with it but, hey, if you can’t beat them, join them.”
In part the result of all this cost saving, one of Neufeld’s pet issues has become the determination of the cost per worker in the wood industry. The number he has come up with for Eastwood is $41 per hour. Some of his customers dispute the figure, citing their own costs at figures that are significantly lower.
But if there is one area where Neufeld shows a passion to be right, it’s costing. He includes everything into his calculations: his own salary, cleaning staff, health benefits — you name it. He says, “If you don’t account for every single penny you spend, then you’re not accurately reflecting your company’s finances. We think we do it very accurately.”
Neufeld says that business is getting better. He ships to companies across Canada, and to other places in the world. Just like him, his son, Andrew, didn’t want anything to do with the business. Yet, just like dad, the responsibilities of the world came calling, and Andrew is now working at Eastwood and making his way from the ground up.
“We’ve got him working on the shop floor. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Let’s see what he has to offer. If he is going to establish himself in the family business, he’s going to have to earn it.”
If family history means anything, the son will learn from the father, work hard, be smart, and forge ahead through thick and thin. In other words, when it comes to the Neufelds, they will persevere; they will find a way.