Cartier Kitchens: Built by Ingenuity 

Matthew Bradford

Frank Converso

Every woodworking business has a recipe for success. And for the team at Cartier Kitchens, its ongoing growth is owed to a mix of old-school talent, market savviness, and knack for adaptation. Cartier’s true journey began back in 2005 when the small-scale company was purchased by Frank Converso, an Italian immigrant and woodworking veteran who came to Canada in search of a new venture.

“It’s one of those old-school Canadian success stories,” says Leo Converso, Director of Sales with the company, who joined his dad at the company soon after. “Frank came over here from Italy with very little money in his pocket, found this very small kitchen company that was making about two kitchens a week, and built it up into a company that’s now doing 20,000 kitchens a year.”

They’ve done well for themselves, this year landing at number 225 on FDMC’s recently released top 300 woodworking firms on the rise across North America list for 2021. They were among 37 other Canadian companies.

Changing with the times

To say Cartier has evolved under the Converso family’s leadership would be an understatement. In the 18 years since the company changed hands, the team has undergone numerous transformations and expansions to keep pace with market trends. 

Joe Capone

“During the first few years under Frank, the market for kitchens was primarily low-rise buildings,” recounts Joe Capone, Vice President of Sales and Marketing and a longtime member of the team. “Back then, we were mostly doing traditional doors and kitchens with a lot of millwork for detached homes because there weren’t many townhomes or high-rises yet. At the same time, we were also supplying larger dealers along the US’s east coast.”

Then came the financial crisis of 2008, an industry-wide upheaval that would see Cartier pivot towards providing kitchens and doors for high-rise developments. 

“Things started to change more drastically in 2008,” says Capone. “A lot of the builders who were doing mostly low-rise started dabbling in high-rise developments. And since they were our partners, we also started gaining experience in high-rises as well.”

In the years that followed, the Cartier team collaborated with prominent interior designers (e.g., Bryon Patton, 2×4 Design, etc.) to speed on emerging trends. It soon became apparent that appetites shifted demands for new, more sophisticated, and custom kitchen designs.

Leo Converso

“We saw that clients were beginning to move away from traditional painted shaker doors into a wide variety of wood grain, textured, melamine models,” says Converso. “That lasted for a long time and changed the way we did things. We were used to painting doors by hand in our spray booths and showing up to our customers with profiled maple and oak doors, but all of a sudden, they were asking, ‘What else you got?’”

A technological revolution

By the mid-2010s, it was clear to the Cartier team that it was time to shift strategies. This meant focusing efforts on products that matched emerging trends in high-rise kitchens (e.g., melamine doors, book- and grain-matched doors, etc.). It also meant bringing in the technology crews needed to bring more customized solutions to market.

“That’s when a lot of the automation took over,” says Capone. “Prior to that, we were doing a lot of manual labor – hand spraying, tempering, assembling – but as we started working more on high-rises, we knew we needed to bring in new tools.” 

It was an evolution that made sense. With high-rise developers moving towards more complicated styles, Cartier knew it needed more sophisticated tools to meet the demand. This led to constructing a CNC-based workshop next door to Cartier’s original location that gave its workers the means to produce bespoke products faster.

“CNC production allowed us to introduce more custom features to the box,” says Capone. “For example, our uppers were always 12-inches deep, but now we have a lot of builders that now are asking for 13, 14, or even 15-inches deep. That’s not a problem on the CNC; it’s simply a matter of changing the programming for that unit.”

Bringing a new warehouse and technology into the fold was no small investment, says Capone, but it would quickly pay off: “The building next door has saved us because its those custom products for mid- and high-level buildings that are driving the market now.”

Cartier isn’t done upgrading. The company is integrating a new CNC technology to bring greater accuracy and automation to its manufacturing process. 

Building a reputation

Making an impression in the Canadian wood industry is no easy feat. Of course, it helps to have a solid reputation.

“Sure, we use social media – we’re on Linkedin and Facebook – but the biggest marketing tool we’ve relied on is getting out there, doing a good job, and having our clients pass along our name,” says Capone. He adds that this emphasis on loyalty and doing right by all its partners has also been key to attracting and retaining a skilled workforce. “We have just over a hundred employees right now who are all constantly learning and training through real, on-the-job experience.”

“We’ve built sound relationships with many of them and their families,” Converso continues. “That’s what keeps them here and working hard for us.”

Undoubtedly, building and maintaining strong relationships is central to Cartier’s longevity. As it turns out, having a solid reputation in the construction community also played its part in making it through the pandemic.

“The relationships we nurtured over the years paid off these last two years,” notes Capone. “With material shortages and price hikes going on everywhere, a lot of suppliers are looking to those trusted relationships first before they dealt with anybody else because they only have so much product to go around. They’re saying to us, ‘You guys have been good to us, here’s my list. You’re the horse we’re going to race with.”

“And this is why we’ve been okay,” adds Converso. “Our head is above the water because we’ve got suppliers we’ve known for years that come to us first before anybody else. Without those relationships, we would have sunk long ago.”

It’s been a journey of industry shifts, market challenges, and technological revolutions for the team at Cartier Kitchens. True, adapting hasn’t always been easy, but it’s ongoing investments in their people, tech, and partners that keep its business cooking. 

Matt Bradford is a writer, editor, and longtime contributor at MediaEdge, publishers of Wood Industry e-digest and magazine. He has spent years reporting on the wood and construction industries and values the opportunity to provide insights into the secondary wood manufacturing community’s successes, challenges, and opportunities.

Matt Bradford is a writer, editor, and longtime contributor at MediaEdge, publishers of Wood Industry e-digest and magazine. He has spent years reporting on the wood and construction industries and values the opportunity to provide insights into the secondary wood manufacturing community’s successes, challenges, and opportunities.

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