At first glance it’s difficult to see what a World War Two airplane and institutional furniture might have in common. Fortunately for us, two demobilized Canadian servicemen from Lockeport, NS made the connection and saw a business opportunity.
Neither Archibald King nor his cousin Balfour Swim flew the twin-engine de Havilland Mosquito bomber personally but everyone knew its reputation. The laminated wooden fuselage and wings could withstand airspeeds as high as 630 kph and carry an astounding bomb payload. These versatile little planes were so tough that many were rebuilt and flew again after a crash.
King and Swim started investigating. They discovered that laminated wood also made light, strong furniture. With the help of experts from the federal government’s Technical Information Bureau and visits to other plants, they gained enough knowledge to open their own business.
Shelburne, NS was chosen for the plant because it offered the best facility within their budget—a clothing depot with rail access on a former naval base. And that’s how The Shaw Group’s newest division, Ven-Rez Products Ltd., got started in 1947. The name was a simple, practical choice based on the two main components: Ven (veneer) – Rez (resin).
The first Ven-Rez products were a chair with moulded legs and a matching table, designed as dinette sets for restaurants and cafeterias. But customers for these products were limited and shipping was costly. The partners quickly realized they needed larger and more profitable markets close to home.
In an early newspaper story Archibald King told the reporter that when tested the Ven-Rez chair leg withstood five tons of pressure in a jig before it broke. “You could boil those legs in water and the layers would not come apart,” he said.
Whether the abuse the chairs could handle led the partners to think of educational use is not recorded. But by 1948 Nova Scotia’s Inspector of Schools had given his opinion that the company’s desks and chairs (available in three sizes) would “give satisfaction under any school circumstance.”
The company received its first school order the following year. Lockeport Rural High School ordered 447 chairs, 160 desks with chairs, 20 tables with Arborite tops and four library tables. The grand total of the bill, including tax and delivery, was $6,452.29!
Archibald King’s notes reveal a man far ahead of his time in terms of business vision. He saw the conservation benefits of using laminated rather than solid wood. He knew schools would be a growing market. And one entry shows he believed in a workplace where employees could take pride in their work under good conditions. His vision is of a free and friendly work atmosphere with pay increases as the business grows and benefits that include medical and life insurance.
Balfour Swim left the company after a few years to go into fish plants with his brothers and Arch King continued alone. The company grew and the Ven-Rez product lines expanded, though still almost exclusively based on the original moulded wood design. But by the late 1960s, Arch King knew the company was going to have to expand into metal, plastic and more laminate materials if it was to remain competitive in a changing marketplace.
In 1973, Ron and Jean Wallet were looking for a business opportunity. Ron managed a Ven-Rez competitor in Quebec at the time. The corporate owner was planning some changes that did not appeal to Ron, so he and Jean, who had headed the upholstery division, and John Hopper, the firm’s accountant, relocated to Nova Scotia and formed a partnership with Arch King.
Their expertise in the next generation of institutional furniture technology ensured the company’s survival. But it was a bumpy road at times. Norm Wallet, Ron and Jean’s son, moved to Shelburne to join the family business in sales in 1977. He recalls that Arch King had died suddenly earlier in the year and within six months John Hopper also passed away. In less than 12 months, Ron lost two partners.
Atlantic Canada was still the company’s biggest market but Norm soon started tackling the big centers in Ontario, first Ottawa and later Toronto. The reputation the company established there is still strong.
Ven-Rez earned no fewer than five provincial Export Achievement Awards between 1975 and 1994.
Over the last 15 years, the company has also expanded into the Caribbean and has been a very successful supplier to international educational development initiatives in countries as remote as Cameroon, Sudan and Malawi.
A company the size of Ven-Rez is a huge responsibility for one person and the family’s life has to revolve around the business, and that’s where The Shaw Group came into the picture. After several months of negotiations, a deal was signed on May 1, 2006, and now the story lives on!