Heritage of Resilience

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PROFILE: Bloos Wood Products, Kitchener, Ont.
Bloos Wood Products, Kitchener, Ont.

If you are old enough to have had Bauer skates with a wood skate guard, that guard came from Kitchener, Ont.,-based Bloos Wood Products. Ed Bloos, the current proprietor, remembers back to being “in charge” of outputting the springs that held the halves of the guards together. He was nine, and recalls working next to his grandmother, who was cutting out guards on a bandsaw, his grandfather and his parents. It really was, Bloos says, a family business.

The Bloos family emigrated from Romania, where Ed’s grandfather was trained in cabinetmaking. Bloos muses that he has close family living in the U.S., and some living in Australia. “They didn’t know anything about where they were going,” Bloos says. “They saw place names on a list and didn’t know New York from Montreal.

Ed Bloos. In each profile, we try to catch one good shot of the proprietor, but people are stiff in front of a camera, and it’s not always easy. I was trying to get Ed to relax, but he wouldn’t, so I took the first shot. Then I said, “You look like you just lost your dog.” As you can see, Ed burst into laughter. “I did,” he said. It seems there was a divorce…. I guess you laugh lest you cry.

Once in Canada, Bloos’s grandfather focused on working in cabinet shops while the rest of the family found work where they could. Ed’s dad tried his hand working in tobacco country around Tilsonburg, but soon discovered he was critically allergic to tobacco – it causing a painful rash – and he needed to find something better.

Along came Bauer, Bloos says. Bauer needed a reliable supply of skate guards, the deal was made and in 1952, Bloos Wood Products was born.

Bloos likes to show the outside of the facility, explaining how the roofline describes the history. On the left, in aged white, is the original shop. Later, as the business expanded, additions were added, angled out from the original, once, and then once more. An office was nestled in the angle, but the door from the office into the shop is an exterior door as evidence of its coming late to the party.

The Bauer guard business died as plastics replaced the traditional skate guards in the ‘60s, but the ball was rolling and Bloos Wood Products landed another customer — this one requiring a move into sheet goods and laminates to make student desks — and then more customers as the business moved into edgebanding, boring and finishing to meet the needs of its market.

Like most family businesses, Bloos relies heavily on its employees. The core family has largely moved on, Bloos says, his father is 81 and spry, but no longer has any involvement in the day-to-day. His sister is part owner, but also is not actively involved. His two daughters each have their own careers not related to manufacturing, so Bloos carries on under the same roof he has worked under all these years.

It’s a fun shop to visit. It’s narrow and extends on right angles, so the work areas look smaller than they are, magnifying the incongruity of a high-powered beam saw next to portable dust collectors.

This is where the solution comes in. Bloos admits that, while he has certainly done his fair share of programming and maintenance, including spending a week in Germany undergoing training on a contour edgebander, “I am not a cabinetmaker. I could not do a good job of meeting my customers’ needs.”

Fifteen years ago, Bloos was able to recruit Scott Hollinger, a Conestoga College graduate, as Lean Man, and that, says Bloos, has made all the difference. Not only does Scott have all the training necessary in CNC and general production, he has also been able to recruit a few of his friends from elsewhere in the industry, as well as bring in another Conestoga grad.

That said, Bloos has had his issues with students — especially apprentices. “I got a couple from Conestoga,” he says, “and they were great guys: energetic, positive, but they just didn’t have the aptitude.”

Then he smiles wryly. “And I lost one,” he says. “He was great. Loved the industry, all kinds of enthusiasm, but he got head-hunted away by a machinery company.”

Lead man Scott Hollinger shows off a dry-erase board being made for Conestoga College. The curved profile is so professors can write to the bottom without changing the radius of their arm.

Four years ago, Amanda joined the team in the front office. Originally handling the typical customer service and admin functions, Bloos says she quickly made herself indispensable doing on-site inspections, oversight and backup for the shop. She came to Bloos Wood Products from the hospitality field, but was unhappy as a single mom not knowing how late any project might last. At first anxious only for a predictable paycheque and a position, she now muses that hospitality in the wake of Covid is a good place to have left.

Ah, Covid. What would a story be these days without Covid? Bloos says when the pandemic hit, he was up to his eyeballs in kitchens and bathrooms for a new high-rise apartment building. The province deemed that project as “essential,” and Bloos says they lost, at maximum, 24 hours of work time.

Of course, all good things come to an end, and when the project was delivered it was too late, Bloos says, to stick up your hand and ask for work cutting plexiglass for PPEs.

That’s too bad, because Bloos knows how, among many other things, to cut plexiglas on a CNC. “You have to manage chip size,” he says. You do that with tool geometry and spindle speed.

It may be crowded, but there’s a place for everything and everything in its place.

Bloos is not just talking. Along the way he was responsible for museum displays made of plexiglas for the Ken Seiling Waterloo Region Museum near his shop. So the company dropped from 13 employees to seven.

In all, however, Bloos says they will survive the current crisis. “We, ourselves, will be OK.” He is a believer in his people, his machinery and his experience. “We are not the traditional cabinet shop,” he says. “We can do all that. We had to. But we also do everything else that has to do with sheet goods and edgebanding.” According to Bloos, he commissioned a $500,000 CNC machine in 2002, “and that separated us from the competition. We got quite busy.”

Bloos has not had any history with Canadian wood-industry associations, and he does not agree with the philosophy of opening his shop to competitors. “Mostly, a cabinet is just a box,” he says, “but that’s not to say there are no secrets. We did some fixtures for a project for cruise-missile testing early on,” he says,” and we did a job for Nortel when they were still around, with some static-dissociative laminates.” But mainly, he says of associations, “I haven’t educated myself to understand the benefits.”

So Bloos has stayed in business, but that’s not to say the work has always been there. The student-desk customer was big. It allowed for most of the original expansion. However, one day a bankruptcy notice came, and Bloos was standing there, holding a piece of paper that was all that was left of $100,000 cash and $60,000 in obsolete machinery.

“Fortunately,” he says, “the machinery was paid for. I had to let everybody go, but I stayed alive with just myself and one sales guy doing cut-to-size.”

As things began to grow back, he got some projects based on his reputation. “I helped get Stack-a-Shelf get started,” he recalls.

You can still envision placements for the bandsaw, sanding and assembly for Bauer skate guards.

Of course, the past can only carry you so far, and with the company stable and his daughters not interested in the business, Bloos is looking at succession. “Scott has an interest,” he says. “The staff appreciates not having to put the same nut on the same bolt all day. The family may retain the real estate and move the day-to-day operations over to others.”

From Romania to Bauer skates to cruise-missile consoles to CNC to Covid, it has been a fascinating chapter in the history book of a small, family business, and a valued addition to what made Canada.

From time to time W.I. Media Inc., the parent company of Wood Industry magazine, is asked to comment on programs offered by Heritage Canada. Such programs often focus on expressive dance or sexual preferences in cinema. In every case, we ask back what they think the real heritage of Canada is? And then we tell them. It’s this. Manufacturing, immigrants, labour, innovation, dedication, family and community. One gets the impression the story of Bloos Wood Products will live on in the Ken Seiling Waterloo Region Museum and elsewhere, long after the expressive dance is over.