Steppingstones to Success with Brian Thiessen at Cabinet Effects

Brian Thiessen was only 14 and living in the township of Baden, Ontario, when he started working at a woodshop belonging to a man Brian and his parents knew from church. Thirty minutes or so of sweeping after school soon became cutting up scrap wood on weekends, building cabinets over the summer, and finally working on full pieces of raw wood furniture during his high school co-op.

Being a tactile learner who likes making things, Brian was less than excited to start at the more arts-and-design-based furniture program he was accepted to at Sherridan and instead left to snowboard in New Zealand, where he met his wife, Leti. After five consecutive “winters” back to back traveling back and forth between New Zealand and Canadian winters they were engaged, and Brian’s focus changed to furthering his career. After working his way up to lead cabinet installer at a high-end custom cabinetry shop and then working as a subcontract installer, Brian established Cabinet Effects in 2009 and will celebrate 14 years in business this November.

“One of my first experiences of designing and building was for a wall unit. A gentleman reached out wanting an entertainment unit with a budget of, let’s say, about $9,000. At the time I was thinking ‘man, $9,000 is amazing’ and I said that it shouldn’t be a problem.

“I designed it 16’ wide, 12’ tall and as I’m building this thing in my garage, I realize I can’t set it up. I should have built it in 20 pieces. I built it in 4. I had to hire movers to help me get it to my finisher. It was beautiful but it was massive and then I’m looking at this thing and my bills and I realize I’m paying more in materials than what I’m getting back. I’ve made this beautiful, finished cherry wall unit but I had no idea about the numbers. I lost my shirt on it, and it was one of the first big jobs I had. I still remember the emotions. I was proud of the work that I had done but at the same time I was just disappointed. I disappointed my wife. We had moved into a home less than a year ago, we had a baby, and I was definitely having a tough go of it, but it really taught me that you’ve got to know your numbers and you’ve got to be diligent at the start. If you’re not setting yourself up for success, it’s going to be problematic down the road.

“I took that hard, hard lesson and took a beautiful picture of this wall unit and that became our ad. Eventually that actually started gaining some traction, so people started reaching out based off of that image and I think it probably ended up paying for itself multiple times over.”

Brian explains that his path and education as a businessman has been a self-taught process of trial, error, and the wearing of many hats.

“When we hired our first team member, I then had to kind of be a boss. Before that point I was doing things on my own and my wife helped me out with the paperwork. So, I learned about trainable processes and tried to read as much as I could about leading and being a good employer, a good boss.

“You get into this industry because of the work. You’re good at something tactile, you’ve got talent, and try to monetize that talent. But to scale it, it’s not at all the skill that you need to grow a business. You need a completely different set of skills. For example, I really don’t build cabinets anymore, I really don’t install cabinets anymore. The skillsets that I have are more management-based; how do I support our team? How do I set them up to be the best that they can be? Whether that’s through tools, whether that’s through processes. Oftentimes those things really have nothing to do with why we got started in the business.

“These decisions as you’re moving along: when do you get the edge bander? When do you get the CNC? You look at the data and projections and at some point, you’re standing at the stone crossing on the river, with a series of stones, after stones, after stones. At some point you get to the edge, there’s that gap, and you have got to jump to the next one. Sometimes you land and other times you’re kind of floating, hopefully getting to the other side, and you have to keep moving until the next rock, the next gap, the next jump. One steppingstone was an opportunity to take a lease in one of six units in a building in St. Clement’s, which is our current location. So, we signed a lease there and started getting serious about manufacturing. That was eight years ago. It has definitely been a journey, but one that we’ve been very, very happy with.”

The shop today

“Year over year, we took over more manufacturing space in the building to increase our shop footprint. As other adjacent companies left, we would talk to the landlord, and he would let us blow out the walls in between the units and combine them. We did that a few times and then six years ago the landlord put an expansion on the building that we’re currently in, so we’ve got about just under 10,000 sq ft. in the building.

“Currently it’s my wife and I, we co-own Cabinet Effects. We’ve got a team of eight, so there’s 10 of us all together, plus a couple subcontract installers. We do pretty much everything in-house. We do all the finishing, panel processing, design, and installation. So we try to be a full service package. We do most of our 3d design with SketchUp and supplement with Cabinet Vision, which helps with engineering drawings and running the CNC.

“When we set on which CNC to use, it came down to Homag. It was neck-and-neck with CNC Automation for a Thermwood CNC, but because we run Cabinet Vision, we have Homag and they have a fantastic edgebander as well. Then for the dry room we went with CNC automation and a Sunspot dry room from them back when we did our expansion in December 2022.”

Following the Golden Rule

“I think everyone has a desire to be liked, and I have a conviction where I want to be somebody who can offer something to people that they can enjoy. I’m a Christian and my wife is as well, and I think that my business philosophy follows the principles that are taught in the Bible: don’t lie, do the right thing, work hard to earn your keep, and treat others the way you want to be treated.”

“It starts with, ‘if I were the customer, what would I want from these different people at these different stages?’ And working backwards from there to see how we can make our system and our product fit that.

“The goal is that a year from when their project is done the customer will be in the space and know that they got what they wanted and knew they were going to get. I’m aware of them and don’t want them to look back thinking ‘I wish someone would have told me I could have done’ this or, ‘I wish somebody would have would have done that at the start’ because the investments are too great. People don’t generally renovate their kitchens often. Those are big and expensive decisions and you’re in their personal space. Those people are living through that process. They got tradespeople, strangers, coming in and out at all hours of the day. It’s very intrusive and not only do they want someone who can help, listen to what they need, and create something visually and dynamically for them, but then who can also be there for them through and beyond the process.

“In his book Excellence Wins, Horst Schulze, co-founder of Ritz-Carlton, talks about how the concept of luxury has changed in the Hotel industry. Luxury used to be the marble floor, the mahogany trim, the coffered ceilings, and expensive artwork. Today, while quality and aesthetic still matter, what people want and are paying for is the exclusive service experience that is custom, friendly, and fast. I found encouragement in using that as at least the frame of reference. How do we do this quickly? How do we do this accurately? And, as much as somebody can enjoy renovating their kitchen, how do we make the process as enjoyable as possible, right? Blending those three is different for every customer, but if you can listen to people and ask the right questions, pretty much everyone will tell you what they want. You and your system just have to be flexible. And in the same breath, you know, we’ll recognize that not every customer needs that.”

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