A local custom woodwork manufacturer is among four other businesses and organizations being recognized by the Winkler Chamber of Commerce.
Elias Woodwork will be receiving the Business Excellence Award at the P.W. Enns Business Awards Gala.
“It’s great to be recognized,” president and operations manager Ralph Fehr. “I’m super proud to be part of the Winkler industrial arm of the Chamber. I don’t think there’s too many places on the planet where the entrepreneurial spirit and risk-taking is more alive and well than it is right here.”
Fehr’s brother John and a friend purchased the company from its original owner in the early 1980s. Fehr bought out his brother’s friend and became part of the company in 1983, which is when Elias Woodwork started building on their current site in Winkler.
36 years later, Fehr said the company is still growing in small increments most years. “We’ve had a few recessions but never has it really set us back,” he said. “We’ve never had mass layoffs or anything like that, always managed to build on the previous year in some way or another.”
The company employs around 350 people between their three locations, including All Tech Designs.
Fehr said the hardest year for Elias Woodwork was in 2008 during the recession. The company was servicing the new home market in America, which Fehr said was their biggest market. “It just collapsed completely,” he said. “We worked diligently and super hard to both work harder on the Canadian side of the border to help us move sales there and also added to our sales work.”
During that time, Elias Woodwork adapted to become more of a renovation market supplier than just focusing on new homes. Fehr said the company had great support from Access Credit Union.
At that time, the company was also getting into their facility just outside of Morden.
“Our credit union banker said one day… ‘Never waste a good recession,’” Fehr said. “That recession was the biggest blessing we had along the way in some weird sort of sense.”
Part of what Fehr attributes to the company’s success is having motivational incentives in place for the leadership team, which consists of about 30 staff members.
“Every supervisor can motivate about 20 people if he does his job well,” Fehr said. “From this office I can’t motivate three or four hundred people, so I have to give them some ownership. We’ve worked hard at that.”
“Our greatest connection to the local economy is our employees,” he added. “When employees like the place they work, that’s one thing we really appreciate and work hard for.”
Fehr said many of the sales team were ‘grown’ in the company. “We didn’t hire people that graduated from some sales and marketing college, we learnt that together on our own,” he said.
Fehr likened his treatment of staff to parenting. “The best parenting advice you can give anyone is to find reasons to praise your children,” he said. “If you catch them doing something right, mention it. They need the recognition that this is acceptable and positive behaviour. They’ll do that that much better the next time.”
“Everybody kind of knows when they’ve screwed up,” he added. “It doesn’t need to be mentioned a whole lot, so that’s the theory we go by. I think it’s really working well.”
Fehr said one of his proudest achievements in recent years has been putting together a succession plan. “Getting a whole group of people that are at least a half a generation behind me to buy into the business and be part of management and ownership,” he said. “I never have to doubt those guys’ decisions. They all have the same interests at heart that I do, and their concerns are the same.”
Fehr said Elias Woodwork has also worked hard to know about and manage their costs. “It speaks to knowing precisely what your waste factors are in every product and process,” he said. “It’s knowing what it is that your customer wants.”
The P.W. Enns Business Awards Gala takes place April 4 at Winkler Bergthaler Mennonite Church. Four local businesses and one not-for-profit will be receiving awards.