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Triangle Kitchen's 'flexible workforce' a success story

Stephan Kleiser
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Roger and Pete Fournier of Triangle Kitchen Ltd.

Triangle Kitchen Ltd. has built its reputation as a leader in manufacturing and wholesale distribution of quality cabinetry products & accessories for more than 40 years.
Located in Moncton the company has over the past few years refocused its efforts to re-shore all of its operations “back home” and those efforts, according to President Pierre (Pete) Fournier, are bearing fruit as they are back on a path to strong growth.
Triangle Kitchen Ltd. is part of the Triangle Group and up until a few years ago that meant production facilities in Canada as well as in China.
At one time they had three factories and 300 employees, now they are back to one production facility and 100 employees in Canada.
Fournier’s father, Roger, the chairman, and at age 74 “my father is young at heart, he still loves the business, and still loves working.” However,  Pete Fournier is looking after most of the day-to-day 
stuff now.
Fournier grew up in and with the family business and worked in the shop throughout his youth, “everything from packaging to finishing. My father had me work at almost every position on the shop floor before I joined the front office, that and school was such a great way for me to learn”
And while Triangle Kitchen was also his go-to summer job, Fournier says he was always looking for other opportunities.
“I was an entrepreneur from a fairly young age and I had my first business, my first real business, when I was 18 years old,” he says with a laugh.
“I took all the wood strips from the molder and other off cuts and I put them in a jig. I had a chainsaw and I cut them into bundles and I sold them to the gas stations for campfire kindling. That was one small business I did, but I also bought a machine to paint lines in parking lots and we would resurface driveways and parking lots and then paint the lines.
“It was a great business, but only if it was sunny.
After school in B.C. he came back home to work in the family business. And that’s when things got interesting.

Joint Venture in China
“We were going to build a second factory in Moncton in 2002, and we were all ready to start construction, we had the land and the plans, but just when we were about to push go, we saw that the conditions weren’t right anymore,” he says.
“The Euro was climbing and our dollar was tanking and that’s when we decided to hold off to wait and see what would happen.”
A few months later, the New Brunswick government approached them with one of their contacts to see if they wanted to be part of a joint venture in China.
“My parents had just spent five weeks in China and so we decided to see what’s going on over there and whether we wanted to invest there.”
So they did and formed a joint venture, which turned out to be a major challenge. Long story short, they bought out their partner and set up their own operation, which was not without challenges either.
At that point, Fournier was spending between nine and 10 months of the year in China, literally building their operations from scratch. But he persisted and grew the operation.
“We were doing mainly stuff for the North American market, mostly multi-unit stuff. Up to 220 cabinets a day mostly for condos, hotels and large projects,” Fournier says.
“We were building Canadian cabinets in China and we marketed them as such. And about half of our production was making components for our second Moncton factory. We were shipping packs, gables and doors.
Everything made in China was stored and then picked here for production.
They also shipped directly to big jobs in North America.
In total, Triangle Group operated in China for 11 years, from 2003 to 2014.

Things Keep Changing
In 2011, things started to change, again.
“Salaries in China were increasing dramatically and at the same time the U.S. dollar was going down and ours was going up. And oil was peaking so shipping was really expensive and the savings gap was getting smaller and smaller and smaller.”
Fournier says the writing was on the wall and it was getting to the point where the savings gap was shrinking and clients were less willing to deal with the real challenges that come from communicating and shipping goods from the other side of the world.
At the same time, they also realized they needed to refocus on the parent company.
“So, we decided to close down our operations abroad and focus on our Canadian operation.”
And a good thing too, because Fournier says it was getting to be a bit too much at this point.
“I was doing about 130 flights a year, my son was born and I wanted to spend more time at home. I think we figured it out one time, I spent almost four months of my life in an airplane between Canada and China, on these 28-hours round trips. It was too much, I was tired of airports, tired of hotels and tired of eating 
in restaurants.

Flexible Workforce
So Triangle re-shored its business in Canada and put plans in place to change and improve their operations here.
Fournier says they sold off their overseas assets and refocused all their efforts at home.
The company got smaller but it also got better. More efficient and LEAN and they transformed their workforce.
When we went to China, our mission was not to cut jobs in Moncton, and we didn’t, he says. And when we re-shored Triangle we also knew we had to make changes here to become more efficient, but we wanted to do it without affecting our employees negatively.
They did an employee survey, which they used as a springboard to entice change. In essence they said here is what you said you want, and here is how we can achieve it.
“Most people call it cross-training, but we call it flexible workforce. The survey showed us that people wanted an opportunity to advance and make more money.
“So we said OK, but the company also needs something in return. And that something is a more flexible workforce. We did that by grandfathering everyone’s wages, so nobody would lose out, and then we implemented the flexible workforce plan.”
In essence, the plan offers more money and opportunities for workers who are cross-trained on different machines and/or for jobs, and in return the company benefits from having a flexible workforce.
“As an example, if a machine only operates 30 per cent of the time, we don’t need someone working just that machine. So in essence it comes down to cross training.
Someone can be that machine’s operator, but if they are not needed there, they go to another location or job in the plant and help out. Also, if one machine operator is off or sick, someone else who is also trained on that machine can fill in.
“We didn’t even have to sell it. We just said if you want to earn more money you need to be more flexible.”
However, it was not as simple as it sounds and more importantly, Fournier says it’s a process that takes time and patience.
It took over a year to get this done, it was a lot of hard work, they even developed a detailed document laying out exactly how everything should work, but in the end it was well worth the effort. In fact, Fournier believes they couldn’t go back to the old ways even if they wanted to, because their employees have really bought into the new way of doing things.
“It took some time, but employees have embraced it and I don’t think we could go back now.”
The document (Triangle’s Flexible Workforce Manual) goes into great detail and covers everything from the goal and flexible matrix requirements for employer and employees to workstation knowledge requirements a salary grid and much, much more.
“We needed a change of culture. I believe if you change the culture you change the game. It takes time and patience and perseverance and having barbecues on Friday afternoon does not do it.
“Barbecues are fun, but that’s not the kind of culture I am talking about. I’m talking about the culture on the plant floor, quality, ship on time, and complete every time, those kinds of buzzwords.”
He says the program has allowed everyone to advance, make more money and become more flexible and really be more fulfilled with his or her job because there are also more opportunities now.
He said they have people who never dreamt of working in finishing and all of a sudden they said, hey, I would like to try that.
“It turned everything on its head.
“Our production manager used to be a lead hand. One day he said he would like to be a production manager. But people said he would never be able to do it because he’s too shy and soft-spoken.
“But you know what, he is our best production manager ever. Turns out he is not shy and soft-spoken, he’s just cool, calm and collected and that’s exactly what you need in that role.
“It opened our eyes and our employees’ eyes to new things. And as I said, we guaranteed everyone’s wages, so we didn’t penalize anyone by doing this.
“It meant some short-term pain for us as a company, but we’ve ended up in a much better situation.
“It’s a long process, you have to standardize procedures and the key is to do it slowly and have it driven by your workforce. If you do that, people will want to improve and ask to be trained on different machines and tasks. You need the buy in. Very rarely did we have to solicit people to train for a new job, usually it was completely employee driven.”
Fournier says they saw the first big results in 2012, when they were about to launch their usual hiring fair for the busy season. It was then that their lead hand told them that they could manage with the existing staff.
“So that increase in productivity and ownership was something we didn’t expect. The point I want to make is that it’s one thing to run LEAN, but if no one comes over and jumps in to help with the bottleneck, then what good is it to identify problem areas.
Asked to describe what Triangle Group does, Fournier says: “We are a wholesale manufacturer and distributor – we don’t sell to the public – and we process wood. We manufacture different products, through several brands of cabinetry, from entry level to high-end custom and our products are sold through our dealer network.
“We have about 100 dealers (and that number is growing) across Atlantic Canada, the United States and the Caribbean.”
Triangle also launched its new M line, a brand that is inspired by the more modern European look with handleless slab doors and inspired by Italian design.
Fournier says he got the inspiration for the new brand at a visit to EuroCucina in Milan Italy.
“I was inspired by the beautiful modern designs I saw at EuroCucina when I was there for the first time. And we had also heard that IKEA was coming to Halifax.
Knowing IKEA and that they are the biggest kitchen seller in Canada, we worried a bit. But offence is the best defence, so we decided to launch the M line by Triangle.
“M means Moncton, it means modern, it means Milan, and my wife’s and son’s names also start with M, so it was perfect.”
Fournier says five-piece doors are easy to find, but not everyone can manufacture high gloss lacquer doors, but they can so they can compete.
He says Triangle can do high gloss to match any paint chip as well as custom colours, sizes and different hardware.
“So if you want something high end, we can do it.”
The M brand is not a stand-alone line, yet, but it is available through their dealer network as part of the Triangle catalogue in conjunction with other Triangle products.
Fournier is excited about what Triangle has accomplished, but the quest for improvements never stops. Innovation, superior craftsmanship and a commitment to client satisfaction are key to their success, but they are also looking to further improve their operations via technology and continued market research.
And that quest continues this month at interzum and LIGNA where Fournier will be looking at the latest trends in design, technology and machine innovation.
“If I learned one thing over the years, it’s that you can never stand still, you have to keep up with the latest and greatest if you want to maintain your competitive edge.”

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