They Can Do It All At Wall-to-Wall Kitchen and Bath: Interview with co-owner Rob Wall
Bob and Rob Wall have been running Wall-to-Wall Kitchen and Bath Inc. in Kelowna, British Colombia since 2012, but as a father and son team, their history and experience far predate the business. I had the opportunity to talk with Rob Wall about his experience and discuss the journey that has led his business to being one of the most and most highly rated cabinetry and millwork shops in the area.
“I’ve been woodworking since 1999, when I went to school. My dad is my business partner and half owner of the company, but at the time he was a financial planner and a hobbyist woodworker, but a very good woodworker and president of the Kamloops Woodworking Guild. I was going to school to be a professional woodworker and we kind of had this dream to always start a business. I had been working in silviculture running a chainsaw in the forest, running a brush saw, and my dad was never happy with that kind of career choice. He was supportive, but it’s not the safest career, and one day he stopped by and said, ‘check this course out, you should maybe consider this,’ and it looked great, so I decided to pursue it. I went to school at TRU University in Kamloops, and I took a two-year technical diploma course to become what was called a ‘wood processing technician.’
“I graduated from school and went to work for a company called Excel Industries in Kamloops, a wonderful company, just a magnificent experience and start to my career. Then I worked at Lortap Enterprises in Revelstoke as a project manager. Another wonderful experience for a few years up there learning project management. During that time my dad retired from financial planning and insurance, sold off their property in Kamloops, and moved to Kelowna, and we decided to pack up from Revelstoke and just dive into this business. We didn’t know one soul, no one in the industry, not one contractor, not one builder, nobody. Luckily, our family was very supportive. We started the business below my dad’s carriage house in a three-bay garage. It was a real life-changing experience.
“We are a good team because, while my dad has managed the books since we started the company in 2012, he is also a skilled woodworker. As a wedding present to me and my wife he built a four-post bed. The posts are octagonal, flaring out in the middle and then tapering off on either end. He built my son a dresser that won an award in a local furniture contest. He is more of a woodworker-furniture maker, but all those skills relate to the millwork and cabinet industry, so he has been a huge asset in getting the building and getting the business started.
“He not only guided me into the academic aspect of woodworking, but he also guided me into business ownership and being self-employed. It was kind of a pipe dream we always talked about that actually happened. It’s very surreal to go to work every day and feel like this is really happening. I mean, starting a business was way harder than I thought. I thought I’d be pretty profitable right away, doubling my salary right away. Not happening. They say five years, and we were profitable after five years, but we were only making the kind of money we should be making after ten years.”
Doing a lot with a little (space)
“When we moved to Kelowna, we met a designer named Catherine O’Neill who owned a company called Kit Biz and happened to be looking for cabinet suppliers as my dad walked into her showroom one day. That was our first client and we started building some amazing projects for Catherine and Kit Biz and she was a wonderful designer that enabled us to move into the commercial space we’re in now.
“There are three bays in our building. We rented the back half and throughout the years we were able to buy and take over the whole building. Now we have a store front, a nice spray booth, and a nice custom cabinet and millwork shop at 4500 sq ft.
“What we’ve done out of the space has been quite incredible. 2023 has been our banner year. We have 10 employees total, including myself, and we’ve usually done about 1.4 million in sales a year and we’re looking at 1.9 million for 2023. We’ve got some excellent people and they’ve really helped us this year to increase quantity while preserving quality.
“We are all custom. Our bread and butter are kitchen and bathrooms, new construction, and renovation. It’s a high-end market. There are lots of people retiring here and building their forever home. There’s lots of people putting money into those homes, and not just getting a great kit, but building their dream kitchen, dream bathroom, dream media room, entertainment center, bar, whatever it may be that might require cabinets and millwork. People do that here.
“It’s surprising, but Kelowna has a lot of competition. There are lots of woodworkers in Kelowna, lots of cabinet makers, and big production shops like Westwood, Norelco, these are huge companies doing massive amounts of projects, but there is lots of business too. And luckily for us, we’re custom, so we take on the more detailed projects that some of these big shops might not have the ability to take on. We’re an ITA certified shop, so we have journeymen and apprentices and we’ve got the skill level and equipment to take it on.
“We’ve had a 4’x 8’ C.R. Onsrud CNC router but we just bought a new one. Now we’re going to a 5’x10’. That’s a nesting machine and I highly recommend C.R. Onsrud. They’re made in America and with proper maintenance I can keep running it for another 10 years. It’s like a quality car. They’re nice and compact. Some nesting machines out there are huge, they have fences and guards around them, but these are nice and compact. We’re a small shop and that tucks in the corner nicely. The main reason we’re upgrading it is because we have started to run a lot more 10-foot sheets. We also have a new SCM K560 edgebander.
Business is always (inter)personal
“Our main core values are to exhibit honesty and integrity. fanatical attention to consistency and detail, to exhibit loyalty and commitment, and understand the value of reputation.
“In the business sense, for clients, some of the things I live by is always making sure a client knows exactly what they’re getting. For creating custom pieces, you never want to catch a client off guard by giving them something they weren’t expecting. The sales process is an important opportunity to educate that client on decisions they’re making, while always taking in the client’s ideas and trying to work with and build off them.
“Being upfront with pricing is also important. Whenever I quote a job, I quote it so that I can stick to that number instead of getting all these little micro-adjustments and having to go through the design and sales process all over again. Clients, when you give them a quote, expect a fixed-term contract. They do not understand at the end why there are extra charges and at times clients have said ‘no, this is a fixed term contract there’re no extra charges.’
“We did a project with a company where they were building a beautiful home and we were doing all the cabinets and millwork. Due to COVID, the house took significantly longer to build. They probably took around four years to build this house, 2 years longer than I was told by the contractor. We quoted it well before COVID and had to do it right in the middle of COVID and we were working with white oak, which is very popular and shot up extraordinarily in price. Unfortunately, the client was not understanding of any price increase. So, we sucked it up till we finished the house, but it was not a fun go. We now have a time clause that says once a quote is signed you have six months to a year for your millwork to arrive on site. If your builder does not have the site ready within those six months or within that year, we have the right to re-price according to material or labor changes.
“One of the hardest things about being a business owner is that I can sell, I can design, I can manage, but I also deal with those personal issues where there is a misunderstanding with a client, and you have to stick up for yourself and know when the client is right or when maybe the client has not review the contract documents closely enough. It’s a very fine line and it’s a very hard thing to do. It’s the same thing with employees when it’s not working, and you have to end that relationship. As a business owner, that’s one of the things I struggle with. I do the work, no problem. Sometimes that human conflict, yeah, that’s the hardest part for me.
“We try for 100% and we achieve 100% percent satisfaction. So, we’re working on that job until the client is 100% satisfied. We don’t walk away till that point.”
What is next for Wall-to-Wall Kitchen and Bath?
“My dad is in his mid-70’s, so he’s not so much involved with the building aspect of the business anymore but he’s still a wonderful financial planner. He still helps me with my books but over the next two years he is kind of phasing out of the business unfortunately, but it’s been a wonderful experience.
“If my dad was younger, he’d probably do it forever, but he needs to slow down. He wants to just do his own thing since the business is going right. He’s actually building a sailboat in his garage right now, so he wants to get back to his roots and build a boat, build furniture, that kind of stuff.
“My next big thing is to find a business partner because I like having a partner for when I’m on vacation. It’s nice having someone with the same vested interest as me when I’m not here. And for someone to share the highs and the lows. It’s nice to have that. You don’t feel like you’re so alone when you have to make decisions. It’s nice to have someone to talk to you about the decisions. And, you know, when you’re having a hard time, he always knew how to give me inspiration, he always had little inspirational quotes for me. When we were going through the first couple of years, it’s like, oh my God, are we getting anywhere? He gave me this this little picture of a miner tunneling away and there’s a foot of stone between this room of diamonds or gold and it shows them walking away and giving up, as they are just that close to making it.”
“Yeah, finding a partner that can buy out my dad, that’s my next step right now.”
Tyler Holt is the Editor of Wood Industry / Le monde du bois magazine. He has a master’s degree in literature and publication, and years of experience in the publishing and digital media industry. His main area of study is the effect of digital technologies on industrial and networked production.