27 July, 1985
By William Miller
Times-Colonist business writer
Like many in Victoria, Dave Conway lost his job as a carpenter during the recession. But unlike many, Dave and his wife Gill, turned the setback to their advantage and today they own and operate Conway Joinery -a growing furniture business that employs six and is slated to top $200,000 in sales this year. "I had absolutely no luck in my job search and finally reached the conclusion there was no point in even looking," Conway recalled in an interview." But I still had my tools and had always been interested in making furniture, so it seemed like a good time to try my hand at it." Conway had worked on lathes and turned out spindles in his native Liverpool so using mainly handyman tools he began making tables chairs and desks from a basement facility at 2811 Douglas St. Gill worked as a chamber maid to help with cash flow.
The Company registered sales of $28,000 in the first year and was beginning to expand when the Conway's suffered a second reversal retail accounts such as Traders and Monastery Furniture also fell victim to the recession, leaving the firm without major outlets for it's products. The Conway's responded by going retail, and sales rose to $111,000 last year. "We've really turned the corner since then, Conway said, "The potential is immense we were only in retail half the year. Our sales should at least double this year." One of Conway Joinery's first major orders was from the Blethering Place Tea Room and Restaurant in Oak Bay, which purchased 16 Oak pedestal tables, Adrienne's Tea Garden in Cordova Bay also has Conway Joinery tables, the Harbour Towers bought 60 chairs and the firm has made items to order for the Ingraham Hotel and the Tally Ho.
In addition, the company recently filled it's "first export order" by placing seven tables and 14 chairs in a hotel on Orcas Island, Wash. Along with furniture builders, the six-member staff includes a salesman seeking contracts with government, hotels and restaurants. Gill does the bookkeeping and the two Conway children, seven year old Christopher and Michael 6, help with staining the wood and earn $1 a piece for week-end cleanup duties. Capitalists, "observed Conway. Although the retail sector is growing fastest, Conway still conducts business wholesale through a supplier in Vancouver. The company specializes in tables, chairs, roll-top desks and other pieces in the traditional style. It works primarily with oak imported from the eastern U.S. and builds everything "from scratch". The company has built some items from mahogany. There isn't a stick of particle board in the Conway Joinery workshop. Although the company does use veneer on the sides and bottoms of some pieces, fronts and tops are solid oak or some rare wood such as mahogany, usually with a hand rubbed oil and wax finish.
Conway quotes four to six weeks delivery on special order items, and dispatches furniture in a company-owned van. One specialty is ornate "arrow-back" chairs - Conway designed a steam-bender to fashion the chair-backs and still has a pile of broken sticks accumulated in the testing phase. We build everything one at a time, there is no assembly-line work here, he said. Although proud of the the furniture produced at Conway Joinery, Conway was quick to mention competitive pricing as a key factor in the firm's success. He and Gill comparison shop frequently to keep informed of prices at other stores. It's amazing how people compare prices, said "Gill. Not many people in Victoria are really concerned that the furniture is made here and you can't really blame them. Price's have to be competitive.
A catalogue lists 30 basic items and several pieces occupy space on the company's showroom floor, but the majority of sales come from special order. Conway will sit down with a customer and do a sketch of what they want, then design and build a prototype . A frequent request is for furniture to match what's already in the home. The company gets a lot of repeat business - many of the customers live in Oak Bay and a number of others are armed forces personnel residing in Victoria. Along with sales growth came an increase in overhead costs. Not only did Conway find it necessary to boost staff, he also had to expand from the basement into space at the ground level and monthly rent increased to $950 from $200. The handyman tools that got the business started were insufficient for meeting rigorous production schedules, so capital equipment purchases became necessary. The Conways looked first to the government for financial help and then to various lending institutions but all doors were blocked. They decided to go it alone.
Today, the company has $40,000 invested in equipment and clear title to everything except three new planing, shaving and jointing machines bought on a rent-to-purchase plan from Acklands Ltd. "Every-time we made a little profit, we used it to buy equipment," Conway said. "It was difficult at first but we were much better off in the long run," added Gill. We prefer to put our cash back into the business instead of paying interest