Calgary to Manhattan in 30 fast (not) years
It was not a fun meeting in 1997. The three vice presidents of the company Anita MacKenzie worked at were giving her an exit interview. “They didn’t like anything I was passionate about,” she says. “They said I could not sell. And when they were done they asked me whether I had anything to say. I said, ‘no.’ Meanwhile, I was hearing the voice of my mentor, John, in my head and I switched focus and wondered what I was going to do for lunch.
“I was taught by a tough guy,” MacKenzie says, “a guy who was a lot tougher than anything else out there.” He was, unfortunately, a guy not tough enough to beat cancer, and he died, leaving MacKenzie to deal with his successors.
Therefore, it came to pass that for a lady that can’t sell, she can create an opposing viewpoint. With a client list including L’Oreal, Coty, Mark’s, Co-op, Campbells, Giorgio Armani, Biotherm, Hudson’s Bay and others, she may not “sell,” but she can attract and convince. Oh, let’s call it “sell.”
According to MacKenzie, the three amigos were not the only people to underrate her talents and her drive. As she launched C-West (the play on “see” west being deliberate) Custom Fixtures, she turned to AWMAC for help and found none. “They kept acting like they were talking down to me,” she said. “All they wanted was to pressure me to be their stenographer.” So she moved on.
Moving on was not new to MacKenzie. She and her husband ran out of luck in the Nova Scotia of the mid-’80s, and in 1985 they landed in Calgary with $50 between them and a place to stay for 30 days and then leave or pay. They took it.
MacKenzie got a job as an accountant at a cabinet shop, where she met her mentor, and her husband went to work, first as a security guard with a clip-on tie, and then as a landscaper — a profession he followed until his retirement. It was there that MacKenzie became fascinated with manufacturing and sales. And, following the fall-out after her mentor died, she asked herself, “How the hell hard can it be to sell?”
Besides being outwardly tough, MacKenzie’s mentor taught internal discipline. “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean,” he said.
That philosophy shows the minute you step into the shop. The space between work stations is broad and tidy. But along with the discipline goes the care for employee morale that goes with having “been there” as a worker. For example, every day before quitting time, each employee has a rotating job assignment, and everybody, including MacKenzie, has a turn cleaning the washrooms. According to MacKenzie, this not only saves on having specific contractors in to do the cleaning, but it breaks down the normal internal hierarchy of some senior employees assigning the dirty tasks to newcomers.
For that matter, though, there are not many newcomers. MacKenzie points proudly to her employee-retention record, and quips that once C-West’s employees hit the age of 65, they get to set their own hours.
On the business side, MacKenzie says their custom.er-service model is to shepherd a project from concept to completion. As such, they handle not only the wood part, but also upholstery, walls and fixtures, with over 50 percent of C-West’s market in the U.S., from coast to coast and from Canada to southern Texas. One example of the services MacKenzie manages is in their perfume and liquor displays. “One of the biggest problems retailers have,” she says, “is people walking off with perfume samples.”
MacKenzie’s solution was to create a lighted glass case resembling a museum trophy’s display to show off the bottle under specified lighting, which made the product beautiful and valuable in the minds of the customers. Then, MacKenzie provided a This one got the attention of OHS, since employees are not supposed to blow themselves off. But it works. The air hose is connected to a pressure plate, and people leaving the shop avoid tracking years of wood-dust build-up through the conference and display areas. You step on the plate and you blow off the bottoms of your shoes.
One example of the services MacKenzie manages is in their perfume and liquor displays. “One of the biggest problems retailers have,” she says, “is people walking off with perfume samples.” MacKenzie’s solution was to create a lighted glass case resembling a museum trophy’s display to show off the bottle under specified lighting, which made the product beautiful and valuable in the minds of the customers. Then, MacKenzie provided a mechanical “works” with a sign that says “Try me,” and a paper tab that the machine can infuse with a spray of the offered product, and the customer can pull, smell and keep with no risk of loss to the retailer.
Smell is underrated by mainstream advertisers, as it is among descriptive writers. Let’s say it this way. My wife does not like or wear perfume. However, I tried MacKenzie’s display and ended up taking my wife the paper tab, then going on Amazon and buying an ounce. From my wife’s perspective, she liked the scent. From my perspective, who could pass up a cosmetic named Juliette has a Gun?
Possibly Canada’s secondary-wood industry could benefit from a look at cosmetic marketing, vis-à-vis C-West.
Lighting is critical in MacKenzie’s business model, yet it is one of the most frustrating. According to MacKenzie, virtually all of the advanced lighting products are manufactured off-shore — especially such products as thin-tube, variable-brightness/variable-Kelvin LEDs.
According to MacKenzie, they were concerned with the quality of the lighting they were getting from their supplier. She says the supplier was prompt in replacing defective lights, but two things happened. First, since C-West offers a five-year warranty, they were getting too many call-backs on a product that was not built to last. Second, they became convinced the supplier was simply re-sending defective lights that either C-West or another customer had returned.
Back when her mentor died and the company passed into other hands, MacKenzie took it on herself to call every customer that had once worked with them and no longer did, and she asked them why?. She learned from that exercise, and she was at a show at Chicago’s McCormick Place when a former customer came up and told her, “I won’t write you a purchase order as long as you’re working for them. I will if you’re working for yourself.” So it appears the three amigos walked into a karma warp. As MacKenzie puts it, “I kicked ass.”
Once the amigos cut her loose and AWMAC put her off, she said she asked herself, “What do you mean, I can’t sell?” And she started C-West as a marketing company, but, she adds, “I am a cabinetmaker. I just have to ditch these clowns.” As a cabinetmaker, MacKenzie now works with the top-five fixture purchasers in America, and 95 percent of her output is custom. Part of the service is on-site design, and she has installers in Ontario, across Canada and in the U.S. From 1997 the shop has grown from 8,000 square feet to 15,000 square feet to, now, 33,000 square feet and she is running in the $15 million range in revenues.
MacKenzie’s advice to industry? “The more we know, the faster we grow.” However, if you can’t help but lean, “get out of the way.” MacKenzie is moving on.