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High End

Trayler & Co finds a market niche for its high end product among the well-to-do and includes Microsoft's Bill Gates among its customers.

By Paul MacDonald

Literally millions of cubic metres of logs in booms and bundles are towed past Trayler & Co's modest woodworking shop on the banks of the Fraser River every year. But company owner Michael Trayler will draw on only a small amount of that local wood for the stock for his operation.

Trayler is just as likely to talk with a local wholesaler for a supply of some obscure hardwood or, in the case of one customer, travel to London to purchase some extremely rare ebony for the very high end furniture and millwork that his company has turned out for more than 15 years. And business is good.

Trayler & Co has grown in recent years, thanks to a fairly full order book, and high profile wealthy customers like Microsoft's Bill Gates. The company's projects have included millwork for Gates' legendary $60million, 50,000 square-foot home on the shores of Lake Washington in Seattle. Trayler has also done a number of furniture pieces and millwork for homes in the ski resort of Whistler, where a dot-com entrepreneur recently paid a cool $8 million for a house.

Clearly, Trayler & Co is into value-added in a big way, but not in the traditional sense of taking commodity lumber and running it through a machine centre. That usually involves making some cuts and perhaps adding a few hundred dollars per thousand board feet to the value of the wood, and being quite happy with that.

Value-added to Trayler can mean having one of his 15 craftsmen on staff labour over a piece of custom-designed furniture for hundreds of hours.

Company owner Michael Trayler (above) and some of the company's furniture in the works. The company currently does about 80 per cent of its business in the US and is represented by dealers in most major American cities.

"High end furniture and millwork is the only kind of work we do," explains Trayler from his 10,000squarefoot shop in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver.

"We've never deviated from that. It's a niche that we've consciously worked at and I think it's allowed us to get ahead as a company ."

But achieving that success has not been without its struggles, and some fits and starts. In his first attempt to develop business in the United States, Trayler sent photos of some of his furniture work to a Los Angeles showroom. "The reply was 'Thanks, but no thanks', " he recalls. It took him a while to get over the rejection, but he then realized the problem was in the presentation, not the product.

"I invested some money in a better presentation, and then personally went down to Los Angeles. The same person who said no before now wanted the product. He shopped it around and it turned out that five or six showrooms were interested ."

These days, the company does about 80 per cent of its business in the US, and it is represented through dealers with showrooms in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

Although he has all this representation in the US, the work for Bill Gates actually happened by accident. In the mid1980s, Trayler was approached about doing some millwork for a successful local businessman. "At that time, we had tried quoting on doing some millwork, but we found it was just too competitive and we were not making any money on the projects. The client would end up with a great job, but we did not make anything on the job ." The businessman persevered, and Trayler finally agreed to do some work for his house.

Michael Doss, who was acting as one of the owner's reps for the massive Gates house project, happened to see Trayler's work-ironically while viewing a competitor's millwork-and tracked him down.

"At the time, we were not really pursuing the millwork side of the business. But it was a great opportunity to be involved with a project like this ." Trayler met with Doss. "I explained to him that I understood the project, but we needed to confirm that they were looking for the best in terms of quality. I've had people say that before, and in the end did not go ahead with a project because it was too costly ."

The focus is on labour in added value in the Trayler & Co shop, with craftsmen working on component cutting, assembly and final finishing. One area where company owner Michael Trayler feels they have an edge is in finishing. "It's not just a couple of coats and it's done. It's a huge process, sometimes seven or eight stages ."

It came down to competing against two American millworks suppliers in the east and Trayler knew he had a chance because both of these companies had a strong focus on quality. The Gates people were getting anxious to make a decision. To try and move the decision along, Trayler had one of his craftsmen turn out a completely finished cabinet door sample. After submitting the sample, he met with the project reps. "One of the reps looked at the sample, and said to the others in the room 'This is the benchmark of quality we want in the Gates house from here on in' ." The deal was done.

Trayler feels that their finishing might have given them the edge on the Gates project and is an ongoing advantage for the company. "Finishing is a big part of our production and we spend a lot of time on it ." The company does not do offsite finishing-period. "With our finishing, it's not just a couple of coats and it's done. We may bleach the wood first, use a water stain, an oil stain and then glaze and antique it. It's a huge process, sometimes seven or eight stages ."

The low value of the Canadian dollar is another advantage, especially when quoting on American work. "It allows us to build more hours into a job when we're competing against someone from the US ."

That said, however, it is still a competitive business. "This is high-end work, and people might think we're putting a lot of money in our jeans with this business, but we're not. We're making a decent living here, and we like what we do. But we're not getting rich. Our clients may be rich, but we're not ." Key to the success of the whole operation has been the craftsmen who work at the company, complemented by a limited amount of equipment. "With our people, we're turning out great pieces that can go against anybody in North America ."

In fact, Trayler apprenticed in the 1980s under several of the craftsmen that now work in his shop. One of these craftsmen will work on a furniture piece, from start to finish.

"People like this are hard to come by. They, and we, are interested in doing good, demanding work rather than staple gun work ."

While Trayler clearly relishes taking on a one-of-a-kind job, such as a wall cabinet he recently completely for a New York couple, he acknowledges that the production flow in the shop works better with larger jobs, notably the millwork. "When it's larger, it's much easier to organize than what I call the 'ones and twoses' projects ."

The focus is on labour in added value in the Trayler shop, with the craftsman working on component cutting, assembly and final finishing. There are two pieces of major equipment, however, a Simi veneer press and a Scheer veneer saw. "We do our own veneer layups with the press. It eliminates any possible problems we might have in terms of quality control if we were to have it done outside ." He noted that the company's expertise is in high "hands-on" work and for that reason some production work is contracted out.

"It makes sense to farm out some limited work. For example, if we have a couple thousand feet of moulding to run, rather than a small amount, we will contract that out. That kind of repetitive work is not our expertise ." For that reason, they have purposely not invested in a lot of milling equipment.

Even though it would seem that there should be an ample supply of BC wood stock available, Trayler says it can be a struggle obtaining specific cuts and species. "Sometimes we end up buying beams coming out of old warehouses that are being torn down. It seems that a lot of our good material is not available here, it's exported. When we use this kind of material, it's hard to source it ." For a large job in Seattle, for example, they ended up buying wood in Washington State because they could not find the good Douglas fir they needed in BC.

In general, the potential seems to be present for doing further value-added work in British Columbia, but the mindset may be missing, Trayler says. "By and large, we are a commodity province in BC. We just sell the timber, as opposed to doing some research, designing something and starting to provide a certain type of furniture to markets. It would take a huge investment and research to get it up and running, but it's feasible ."

Trayler has done some work in local wood, such as Douglas fir and hemlock, but their projects are directed more by what the designers and customers want. "With local wood, there is the possibility of doing more work where a customer is looking for a Whistler or Aspen kind of feel to the millwork of the furniture," he says. "It's great wood, but our company can only produce so many pieces for that market. And we're driven by the customers we work with, not with the wood that is available locally ."

And while the company started out producing furniture, these days it has three main business areas: its own custom produced furniture, one of a kind furniture and an area which has really taken off, the millwork. In spite of the growth in recent years, Trayler says he has no desire to become a big company. "That's never been my goal.

I like designing new furniture and the challenge of doing custom work and that has driven our growth, rather than any desire to become a big manufacturer ."

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