According to IBISWorld, “Canada’s richest source of business and industry information,” their 2016 market research report on millwork in Canada comes to one inescapable conclusion: “As the domestic housing market slows down, industry revenue will decline.” For many owners of the 1,634 millwork businesses registered in Canada, it’s time to reluctantly clear their throats and practice their “Bah! Humbug!” to keep at bay wanting workers during what IBISWorld says will be a slow five-year climb back to profitably. But Greg Boutilier, founder and owner of GB Millwork in Windsor Junction, Nova Scotia, doesn’t find himself begrudgingly tightening his purse strings before his employees’ eyes. In fact, when we spoke to Boutilier his team just completed what was their largest project, financially, to date.
What gives GB Millwork immunity from the growing housing bubble in Canada is all in the business strategy. “Our vision of millwork is commercial cabinetry, wall panelling, wood door frames, trim work, solid surface manufacturing – it’s an abundance of things,” Boutilier explained. “It’s basically anything wood in a commercial building.”
That’s not to say that GB Millwork isn’t a residential competitor. There is a Residential tab in the Projects menu at gbmillwork.ca that features photographs of kitchen cabinets and countertops of varying complexity and design. “We take-on residential projects – mostly kitchens. We never turn these jobs away, but it’s not our focus.”
Boutilier is a man who knows a thing or two about focus.
Before the advent of GB Millwork in 2005, Boutilier had been sweeping floors for a construction company. “I got laid off and went to work for a local millwork company and really started to enjoy the industry,” he said.
The path became clear for Boutilier.
“I attended the Atlantic Woodworking Centre of Excellence in Campbellton, New Brunswick from 2002 to 2004. I didn’t know anybody in Campbellton, but I booked a boarding house and bought a train ticket.” At the time, Boutilier recalled, there was little in the way of Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) and Computer numerical control (CNC) software training in Halifax. “Around here, there was a great cabinet-making course that focused more on hand tools and table saws but not necessarily current industry practices.”
The CNC process, according to Boutilier, has many advantages including speed, accuracy, and waste reduction.
After he gained his CAM and CNC software certification, Boutilier “came right home and went to work.”
GB Millwork started as a subcontract company for a local millwork manufacturer in Halifax County. After six years, Boutilier decided he wanted more. He wanted, as he emphasized to me, “One hundred percent.”
Since becoming an independent millwork manufacturer, GB Millwork has made a name for itself as a kind of one-stop shop. Ninety percent of Boutilier’s 13-man team’s work is done in-house at their 10,000 square feet facility. Design, construction, and fabrication all happening in house.
“My team is one that I’ve developed,” Boutilier said. “They’re all my peers and good men that I’ve worked with in the industry here in Halifax. Our turnover rate is very low; with the exception of the occasional labourer. Our skilled labourers – both our in-house guys and our guys doing installations – have almost all been with us from the start and plan to stay on board. We work very well together; we put in a lot of extra hours to accomplish what we do with these high-end projects.”
When Boutilier says high-end, he’s not being hyperbolic. GB Millwork has worked on the college campuses, hotels, and piers that make-up the historic fabric of Halifax, a city founded by the British in 1749.
But it wasn’t all ballrooms and dining halls at the beginning. Boutilier detailed an extended period of relying on the low bid tactic just to get the GB Millwork name out in the business community. His persistence led to something invaluable.
“We’ve done many jobs for the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission, the NSLC,” Boutilier explained. (One of GB Millwork’s more quirky projects for the NSLC involved working with reclaimed wood from apple boxes and ladders.) “A few years back we were bidding on a job at their Port of Wines location on Larry Uteck Boulevard and quickly came to realize that it was only open to FSC [Forest Stewardship Council]registered companies. We were the low bid and took advantage of the year-long construction of the building to obtain our FSC certification. There’s a lot to learn about the Chain of Custody – that’s what the actual tracking of the product is called.”
FSC affiliation has been a boon to Boutilier ever since.
The FSC is committed to sustainable forestry practices, “Including,” Boutilier detailed, “tracking materials from the time they’re harvested in the forest then turned into a manufactured filler-free product like hardwood and then installed in a commercial building. This responsible point-to-point system gives the end user what’s called ‘LEED Credits’ towards a green building.”
According to the Canada Green Building Council, LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, “certification provides independent, third-party verification that a building, home or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at achieving high performance in key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.”
Halifax, the capital of Canada’s Ocean Playground, was once named the nation’s “ultimate college town” by The Globe and Mail and for good reason: It’s home to six universities and dozens of colleges. Dalhousie University, with the largest campus enrollment in the city at more than 18,000 students, has been like a second home to GB Millwork and Boutilier thinks his company’s FSC certification has something to do with it.
“It’s helpful when it comes to bidding on jobs for institutions of higher learning. We’ve done a lot of work for Dalhousie University and it’s great to go home and realize you’re doing something for people who are forward thinking.”
As a member of the Architectural Woodwork Manufacturers Association of Canada (AWMAC), GB Millworks adheres not only to moral standards, but to quality control as well.
“AWMAC and the Construction Association are very important. AWMAC is actually a group of millwork companies across Canada – it sets our standards. AWS [Architectural Woodwork Standards] is the American equivalent. There’s a manual that we all follow and are tested on periodically. There are three different grades: Custom, Premium, and Standard. These are the three different grades that architects consider when they look at specs. They’re more than just plans because they detail and describe the materials as well as the work. They say a lot about a company. Being an AWMAC registered company means you are allowed to bid on certain jobs. This ensures that the end user is getting what they should be getting: A qualified millwork manufacturer, rather than a random backyard company.”
In 2014, GB Millwork won the AWMAC Atlantic Gold Award, or GIS (Guarantee and Inspection Service) Award, for their work at Howe Hall, a well-known Dalhousie University residence on Coburg Road. These peer-voted awards are not only prestigious amongst those in the architectural woodwork world, they are also hard-earned promotional tools – and companies and institutions know it.
In what can only be described as a poetic twist, GB Millwork was part of the team that renovated the Chrysler Canada Pavilion at historic Pier 21, Canada’s Ellis Island, where the AWMAC Atlantic Awards are handed out every two years.
“We’re very fortunate to be involved in so many high-end projects,” he explained.
“The HFX Sports Bar & Grill was one of my favourites. It was the kind of job that comes around once in a lifetime. To me, it’s one of the best decors in a sports bar that you’ll ever see – it’s by far the best on the Atlantic Canadian coast.”
GB Millwork has worked on many projects including the Lord Nelson, which is a redbrick landmark built in 1928 on South Park Street overlooking the Public Gardens.
With the Lord Nelson project Boutilier invested in a lot of new equipment just to take that project on. As manufacturing was done in-house for all the doors that separate the ballrooms throughout the hotel; they were manufacturing 5-panelled, 12-feet high doors that were then broken down in about 30 pieces in total. So, they needed the right equipment to handle the project and so we reached out to our machine supplier, CNC Automation, and they were more than happy to help us with our equipment needs to successfully take on this and many future projects.
“The bulk of our success can be attributed to the hard work that has built great relationships with general contractors and notable business owners in the Halifax Regional Municipality.”
By David MacDonald