Adapting to the Canadian Workforce
Most Calgarians recall the devastating 2013 flood that ravaged our community. For our family it was a bittersweet time. After 5½ years of waiting, we were at last granted our Canadian Permanent Residency, allowing us to make the move across the world from South Africa. After selling a successful flooring business that we started in 2008, our family arrived 4 days after the horrific flood with 12 suitcases, 2 children and 2 cats - ready to begin our Canadian adventure.
During our first 6 months of living in Calgary, we learned to be Canadian: we took up ice skating, bought some cowboy boots, enjoyed the Stampede and even learned to ski. John was hired as the General Manager for Pella Windows & Doors of Alberta and he relished the opportunity to enter the Canadian workforce. Having a 25-year background in the building trade didn’t gear him up for needing to convert measurements to feet and inches (no longer meters and millimetres) and the biggest change: Canadian homes are built of wood, not bricks & mortar.
I, on the other hand, faced different challenges. Having worked alongside John for 10 years, 6 days a week, I found myself unable to enter the job market. The preschool offering for our 3-year-old was limited and did not improve once she reached Kindergarten. Coming from a country with a daily 7am-5pm relatively inexpensive preschool structure, staying at home was a massive change from the working lifestyle I had been accustomed to back in South Africa.
Within a year of taking up the GM position at Pella, John was approached by Pella Corporation out of Iowa, offering him the distribution rights for Pella products throughout Alberta. The previous local owner of the distributorship was moving away from the brand and John had been identified as a possible successor. After many interviews (so that the Americans could get a grasp of his accent, we suspect), psychometric testing and legal agreements, we purchased Pella Windows Alberta. In December 2016, the business premises was relocated to a highly visible, newer building along Barlow Trail. By this point, our daughter was entering Grade 1 so I could join John and begin our new Canadian business venture.
The Steep Business Ownership Learning Curve
Our first sticking point was glaring - none of the big banks would take us seriously. Our newly formed corporation had no Canadian business trading history and we personally did not have much of a banking track record in Canada. The facilities required to allow Pella to continue trading appeared to be out of the question with the banks. Servus Credit Union was willing to listen and identified the business potential. They went on to support us with not only a substantial facility, credit cards and an American trading bank account, but with an asset loan allowing us to construct a showroom that we are proud to invite customers to visit. To this day, we cannot speak more highly of Servus Credit Union – their team really has supported us through the years.
Further to the banking relationship challenges we faced, we were also surprised to learn how underdeveloped the banking system in North America is, compared with the likes of South Africa. Granted, the African banking system has been forced to develop far faster due to crime and fraud, it was quite a surprise to have to write cheques again. African banks are in constant communication with each other, so its not easy to obtain multiple credit card facilities as it is in Canada. Furthermore, the online banking platforms are not as developed as those we were accustomed to, though the current offering is far better now than when we first started the business in 2016.
Brand awareness became a top priority for us. We immediately set about branding all of our company trucks and vehicles. This didn’t appear to be a very popular advertising method within the Canadian business community at the time; however, it has certainly gained traction over the years. By simply getting our name out on the road, we noticed that an immediate impression was made within the community. We also found that sponsoring various local children’s sports groups has made our Pella brand impressionable and it is a great way for us to give back. This is something that we will continue to do for many years to come.
We took over all employees from the previous owner and we have a great team. Apart from the intricate Canadian federal and provincial labour laws which we constantly refer to, our biggest challenge in moving across the world is that one loses your network and contacts. There is no high school associate to ask whether he knows of anybody looking for a job. There are no suitable recommendations from old friends of candidates looking to change industries. We see this even more so with the current economic conditions we are all facing - staffing remains one of our biggest issues. The last 2 years under Covid have highlighted the problem even more, as the pool of available and employable people is just too small. We have found ourselves saying many times over that we would happily bring over “this person” or “that person” from South Africa – however we know the immigration system is slow moving and methodical, so this is not a quick option to draw from.
Business Expansion Throughout Western Canada
Pella Corporation approached John on three separate occasions with the suggestion that the British Columbia trading entity be incorporated into our business. Pella Corporation found having a Vancouver office challenging, as being American, business in general is governed by different rules. In 2018, we accepted the offer and began our BC operations in December of that year. Dealing with the provincial differences between our Alberta and British Columbia operations has been a learning curve. 3½ years later, we know that each of our locations have their own challenges, but equally, their own strengths.
Having a geographical footprint ranging from Vancouver Island to Quebec means that we have the largest Pella branch in North America. Logistics is an interesting discussion point with anybody outside of Canada. We have been asked to “overnight” windows from our Calgary office to the likes of exclusive fishing lodges in Saskatchewan. When we explain that some customer locations take 2 days to reach, our American counterparts are shocked. Our sales people also need to ensure that ordering errors are minimal as the freight involved in the reordering of product is often more expensive than the replacement product itself.
The Covid-19 Curve Ball for all Businesses – Adapting to Change is Key
The past 2 years of Covid has brought on worldwide issues for everybody. Supply and trading have been challenging and although initially, customers were angry and unforgiving of extended lead times, order delays across all sectors have become common. Society is adjusting to the “new normal” we find ourselves in. There was a point where we could certainly supply a customer with a window, albeit it would come in “ready to assemble” pieces, due to resins not being produced in China. One little screw type was not exported from China, which caused production issues with an entire line of Pella products. An entire house package would arrive from a Pella factory in America, missing 2 windows. These 2 windows would only be put into production 2 months later because aluminum supply was non-existent. Customers would order their windows in a particular color, and 2 months after ordering, overnight, the color selected would be discontinued. Businesses across society have been dealt an incredibly tough set of circumstances. It has been a massive balancing act between customer expectations, employee personal circumstances, dealing with restrictions and aggravations, and frustrations of the abrupt and often unclear government regulation changes. It has been a lot to digest…. and we have made it through to this point. Looking after our staff and their families has been of paramount importance through this uncertain phase in all of our lives. Though owning a business has indeed presented challenges, especially over the last few years, we have faced up to every one of them and appreciate the learning opportunities that have been presented.
Business Ownership is a Way of Life
Despite the many business challenges handed to us, our preference will always be being business owners, not employees. Running the show comes with a massive amount of responsibility. A main concern with owning a business is the ever-needed, seldom-achieved: downtime. Because we are charged with the livelihoods of so many employees, business - and the success thereof - is ever present on one’s mind. There is not a day that goes by that my fingers aren’t glued to my laptop after work hours, tapping out a spreadsheet or investigating something for the business. If I were an employee, would I behave differently? I can’t honestly say, since we have been business owners for 17 years and it is now part of my makeup. There is always something that needs to be done and I must confess that I have yet to master “switching off” from work.
One of the huge perks of owning a business is identifying charities that could benefit from our assistance. Being “cat” people, we quickly discovered Heaven Can Wait Animal Rescue as an organization we could get involved with and add value to. Over the years, we have been fortunate enough to be able to include allocating charitable donations to Heaven Can Wait Animal Rescue. Seeing the benefit of the building renovations we assisted with just before Covid really does the soul good. This year our aim is to get a new wellpoint drilled so that Heaven Can Wait is not reliant on water being trucked in for the multitude of four-legged residents.
Would we change any part of the experience we have had to date? Absolutely not - everything we have achieved and experienced we are proud of. We are so grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to provide our 35 staff members employment and to have had a hand in keeping a multitude of subcontractors in business in what has been 2 years of extremely difficult conditions for everybody.
Joining the Canadian workforce and becoming employers with the ability to contribute to the wonderful country that has accepted our family, is truly our proudest achievement.