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First Nations Flair

A Calgary company is taking wood and adding First Nations design and manufacturing skills to produce furniture with flair.

By Tony Kryzanowski


A First Nations-owned furniture manufacturing company in Calgary believes it has found a way to compete successfully against the aggressive marketing practices of big box stores as well as high-end furniture manufacturers by tapping into the uniqueness of Canadian native art.

At the same time, it is offering some of Canada's underemployed First Nations people the opportunity to apply their innate craftsmanship by training as cabinetmakers under the tutelage of master craftsmen.

CreeAtive Custom Woodworking marketing manager Riley Wight (above, right) and master cabinet maker Mike Elliott. The company has invested in some of the most advanced cabinet making equipment available, primarily from suppliers in Italy.

The past decade has witnessed a significant increase in native involvement in Canada's forest industry, with aboriginal harvesting contractors and sawmill operators. Now, bands are taking steps to become more involved in the value-added arena, as witnessed by this furniture manufacturing endeavor.

CreeAtive Custom Woodworking is a new venture launched by well-known aboriginal entrepreneur David Tuccaro. Named as one of the Financial Post's "Top 40 Business People Under 40" in 1998, Tuccaro was also recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for his leadership as a prominent native businessman.

This former band manager of the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort Chipewyan owns Neegan Development Corporation in Fort McMurray. With over 100 employees, the company provides heavy equipment services to companies involved in oil sands development.

"Dave has designed his companies as a door of opportunity for aboriginal people," says CreeAtive Custom Working marketing manager Riley Wight. "They need opportunities. Dave's mission was to set up this company and have aboriginals come through, learn a trade, and earn better money ."

However, Tuccaro's business experience has taught him that it is important to pay close attention to the bottom line.

"We want to do a number of things with this company," he says. "We want to make quality products with a distinctive look and unique flair. We want to raise the profile of aboriginal design and craftsmanship. We want to expand aboriginal business within the province and beyond. And, of course, we want a growing, successful company ."

About 80 per cent of the employees in Tuccaro-owned businesses are aboriginal. Non-aboriginal employees are generally hired as trainers. CreeAtive Custom Woodworking master cabinet maker Mike Elliott brings a vast amount of experience to the company, with a number of his furniture pieces prominent in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies.

CreeAtive Custom Woodworking has invested heavily in some of the most advanced cabinet making equipment available, primarily from suppliers in Italy. These include a guillotine to slice veneer and veneer stitching equipment. The company owns a heat press to glue veneer onto particleboard, one of the initial steps in the manufacturing process. The veneers they use most frequently are oak, cherry, walnut and maple.

Their machining equipment includes cut off saws, an edge bander and an automatic sander. When they receive a large order, they design a jig and cut a number of components from the master pattern. Machined components are then assembled by hand and painted.

Elliott says the range of machining and assembly will vary depending on furniture orders. An order for a single item such as a boardroom table may require a high degree of custom manufacturing, whereas filling larger orders may take on the appearance of an assembly line.

"One of the critical things that we do are inlays," adds Wight. The company's use of inlaid native art for decorative design helps it stand out from others in the large crowd of furniture manufacturers.

CreeAtive Custom Woodworking has developed a working relationship with a company that can create a picture or logo by taking different types of wood veneer, applying them to a surface as an inlay and staining the wood.

"The unfinished inlay may look brown, but once it is stained, it actually comes out as a color," says Wight. "Another material that we use is glass. We acquire native art and incorporate that artwork into our furniture according to the client's wishes. Dave Tuccaro has access to some of the most famous artists in the world ."

CreeAtive Custom Woodworking has identified a number of markets with an obvious preference for native art, including government departments serving the native community and administrative offices and businesses located in First Nations communities.

Many Canadian companies with a large number of First Nations employees have a sense of responsibility to support First Nations business and culture because of the benefits they derive from the local workforce. Purchasing furniture that incorporates native art is a highly visible and practical way to lend their support to the promotion of aboriginal culture.

In addition to a strong emphasis on a safe working environment, Tuccaro's strict policy regarding alcohol and drug testing, developed initially at Neegan Development Corporation, is also part of his Calgary custom woodworking business.

"We have a very stringent drug and alcohol testing program," says Wight. "Everybody said that it would fail miserably but it hasn't. Out of all 100 Neegan employees, only one has ever failed. Even our president, vice president, and secretary treasurer have to take the test. If you fail, you can't work here ."

Riley says filling vacancies with such a stringent drug and alcohol testing policy in place has been a challenge, but the company will not lower its standards. The point of this policy is to provide a safe working environment.

At present CreeAtive Custom Woodworking has access to a number of government programs that subsidize wages to encourage employment among aboriginal people. However, the company has developed a detailed business plan that is not dependent on government assistance.

The company is depending on wage subsidies during its initial start up phase because the overall plan is to enroll aboriginal employees in cabinet making apprenticeship programs offered through the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT).

Rather than simply acquire on-the-job training, employees will learn a valuable trade with better wage earning potential. Another challenge for CreeAtive Custom Woodworking is its ability to offer a competitive wage and attract employees in a bustling business environment. There are a number of reasons why locating in Calgary made sense.

The city has the second highest number of head offices in Canada, next to Toronto. Its thriving hotels are large purchasers of furniture, but they are notoriously cost conscious. As a local supplier, CreeAtive Custom Woodworking has a built-in competitive advantage on furniture pricing.

The company is also investigating markets outside Calgary. Because Calgary has such an active economy, many goods are shipped into the city, with trucks leaving empty on the backhaul. As a local furniture manufacturer, they can fill those trucks on the return trip with their own merchandise and expand their market into other Canadian cities.

Canada's lower dollar also provides the company with a price advantage when shipping to the United States.

The company has a website, but selling aggressively on the Internet is something they have priorized for later in their business plan.

The home office market is one of the fastest growing segments of the furniture manufacturing industry. The challenge from a design perspective is that home office customers often have limited available space and a fixed budget. However, Wight says tapping into this market is like making an investment. Because home businesses are the business world's nursery, there is the potential for higher volume furniture sales in future as home businesses grow and move into more spacious surroundings.

Box stores direct a great deal of their marketing energy towards the home office market. CreeAtive Custom Woodworking has opened discussions with BC's Kootenay School of Design to help find its own niche in that market.

"They have won a lot of awards for their unique furniture," says Wight. "They are designing their unique furniture for the home office. It's not like your Sears, Staples or Home Depot home office furniture. What this would give us is a step up on our competition, and it also offers us a certain stability to our production ."

CreeAtive Custom Woodworking hopes to achieve a breakeven point as a business in two years. Right now, they are carefully selecting staff and Wight believes having their president as a role model to young aboriginal people helps tremendously in that selection process.

"Dave has made it his passion to show the aboriginal community that they can do it," says Wight. "These people have aspirations, but they need to be able to get jobs ."

 


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