Building a 'Made in Canada' Furniture Business
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In times when many Canadian furniture companies are looking to find new opportunities to sell and market their existing products and when others are thinking about closing their doors, selling their businesses or starting something outside furniture manufacturing, Ruff Swan is blooming and booming.

Walking in Hall 5 of the International Centre during The Canadian Home Furnishings Market (TCHFM) in January, I noticed an ocean of solid wood furniture with no “cookie cutter” input from CNC machines. These were unique designs by Michel McMullen for Ruff Sawn. Touching the surface of these wonderful pieces of furniture reveals the origin of raw wood. Yet, the finishes are the perfect choice even for a baby's room: no splints, easy to maintain and original look.

What's more, all of the furniture pieces featured in the accompanying slide show are 'Made in Canada" and earned heavy visitor traffic during the show. I must admit, at first it was hard to believe that there are no imported parts or hardware used by Ruff Sawn. I could not wait to get my turn to interview Michael McMullen about his family's great body of work.  

Q: Tell us the story of your business and when this idea starts? Seeing such a highly successful furniture firm based near Toronto, using local craftsmen seems unlikely. 

A: Our history began in 1993 when my father opened a retail store featuring locally handcrafted Mennonite furniture. He opened it with the hopes of having a family business. My older brother Paul and I became employed while still at home and continued after high school.

From 1993-2000 our business flourished and was very successful. The consumer started demanding more refined product and that's when we opened our own furniture finishing business in 2000 to support our retail business. That's when I began my career in furniture finishing and design.

We've always believed a quality product starts in wood and ends with a beautiful hand-crafted finish. Stains are hand wipe and corrected by hand. It definitely makes our product stand out from mass produced furniture.

The next six years were a challenge due to the imported products in the market place.

Q: How did you meet the challenge of off-shore competition?

A: We could not compete on price but we soon realized they could not compete when it came to options and quality. We also have the ability to adapt our products quickly to a changing marketplace.

We started marketing rustic furniture in 2006 and saw a great demand for this product. We began exporting the product to the United States in 2008 and  established a small network of dealers across America.

In order to grow we needed to innovate when it came to our styles. Over the next four years we developed products that we felt followed the trends of today's home furnishings.

Q: How did you learn about furniture design? Where do you find design ideas?

A: I do not have a degree in design but have a love of solid wood furniture and would consider myself a student of design. I look for inspiration everywhere across the globe from  American,  Brazilian, French, German and Chinese producers.

I also attend woodworking shows, design shows and furniture trade shows. I love the creativity of seeing how others adapt shapes and materials and I'm often amazed by their imagination.

Our retail customer base also has a strong input into our designs.

Q: Who do you trust to produce your designs?

A: I travel to our local producers and adapt locally produced furniture to have the element of design people want, but with the quality our domestic producers have been known for.

I use nearly 20 different Amish and Mennonite local shops to produce the Ruff Sawn product line. This gives us very flexible manufacturing. With many of our suppliers being related, their close family bonds and community allow them to work together to produce larger orders even though some may have smaller shops. For the most part each shop specializes in different products.

We pick from a basket of producers who make chairs, tables, case goods, occasional tables, metal works and do wood finishing. This gives us a real variety of medians to work with when designing furniture. In addition, we are even able to create and produce our own decorative hardware pulls or knobs on the pieces.

Our products come in many different finishes that make the product adaptable by our customers. Each shop is different and unique in how they approach crafting the product. This makes our Canadian Made furniture true signature pieces. We also put a signature of the builder on the back of each piece to enhance the hand-crafted appeal. It attests that each piece is an original not a copy.

The majority of our products feature natural mill marks that give our products a popular appeal. It also is great for families who want durable surfaces that can be used with no worry about wear and tear  due to its rustic nature.

All of our lumber is cut by local mills and is responsibly harvested. Presently we are using a solvent based coating with water based option.

Q: What’s on the horizon for you and your company?

A: Our future goal is to keep growing our brand awareness where necessary but still work with our retailers who prefer to market under private label.

We have been approached to develop a line of furniture we can market under the brand of a lifestyle magazine and television show. This interests me along with improving our lead times and putting many of our processes under one roof.

I'm bullish on the future of Canadian-made furniture. I hope to see mainstream retailers transition back into domestic products to strengthen their business. Also I have an interest to ship our products globally.

Dana Fromunda is founder of Fromunda Woodworking, a consulting company for the wood and furniture Industries. She has worked with many primary and secondary wood companies on a variety of areas including design, engineering, testing and certifying, marketing and manufacturing She graduated from a European University and has a Master of Science in Wood Processing Engineering from the University of Toronto.

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