Robert Antonel grew up with wood.
His father Gino was a trained cabinetmaker and when the family moved to Canada from Italy in 1953, there was never any doubt that he would put those skills to good use and continue in that field to raise his family.
As fate would have it, Gino Antonel met Tarcisio DiStefano, another Italian ex-pat in North Bay, Ont. and eventually they ended up in Toronto where they started doing residential carpentry jobs together.
And their sons Robert and Dino - who became fast friends - not only grew up together, but they also went to school together and eventually started their company - Second Generation Furnishings - together.
When his father and Tarcisio started working residential jobs together, Antonel said it literally meant they were doing everything in those days.
“From footings, to framing, they built the kitchen cabinets, they built the stairs, and hung every door and installed every window, it really was everything,” he said.
Robert Antonel and Dino DiStefano both finished college in architecture back in 1985, and then decided to find a small rental unit, buy a few machines and start their business.
“We always had a passion for woodworking,” Antonel said.
“We always mucked around at home with stuff and we were always building something, so it was natural for us to say to let’s give this a whirl and try it.”
Antonel had worked for a large office furniture manufacturer for a couple of years, got married in ’83 and by ’85 he was fed up with working for someone else and he and Dino decided to start their own company.
Asked if that was scary, Antonel said of course it was.
“You have a mortgage on your back and you have to depend on your wife’s income to keep afloat.”
The first jobs were small private jobs here and there, it was all word of mouth and then they stumbled across a small school job where they did a couple of classrooms.
That’s also when he first came across the AWMAC name and the specifications and it intrigued him.
Antonel wanted to know more about it and started looking into specs and AWMAC requirements
“That was news to me because I didn’t know there were any standards associated with the industry,” he said. “But I got interested and I started doing some homework. I wanted to know more about AWMAC, where is it and who looks after it here, and I grabbed a manual and started reading it.
Antonel said he and his partner Dino knew that they didn’t want to deal with the residential sector, “so I said if we are going to immerse ourselves in the ICI sector (industrial, commercial, institutional) we better know what the level of expectations is.”
Through a friend, they landed more contracts and it was about three years into launching the business that they did their first full school.
“That was a big deal for us, we were still a pretty small company.”
But they continued to grow and then purchased additional equipment. Having started out with just a table saw, stroke sander and a combination machine (jointer, planer, mortiser) and a small dust collector, they quickly realized they needed more.
“The first few jobs we did we didn’t have an edgebander, we were putting all solid edges on by hand. Gluing and taping and cleaning it afterwards,” Antonel remembers with a smile.
“We bought an edgebander pretty soon after that and then a CNC panel saw because of the cutting volume. Our first CNC came in ’93.”
Now they are running two ’benders, two CNCs and two saws.
Second Generation Furnishings operates from a 25,000 sq. ft shop and offices and has about 30 employees, 10 in the office and 20 in the back.
Antonel’s son Luca, who started working with them even while he was still in school, is now also involved in the business fulltime.
Once Antonel heard about AWMAC and looked into it a little bit, he knew immediately that this was what he was going to hang his hat on.
“I knew this was something we wanted to take advantage of for our business and something we could build our company on.
“Everything referenced AWMAC, so I wanted to know more about it. So I started sticking my nose into it and what is was and what it did, and I did a bit of homework and ordered the manual — I still have the original — and I started reading it,” Antonel said.
“The manual then was only about a quarter of its current size, but it gave you everything you needed.
“This is the maximum you can span with a shelf, this is what’s accepted, this is what’s not accepted, I mean European hinges weren’t even accepted back then.
“It gave you really good guidelines and if you abided by those, if anybody questioned what you were doing, that’s what you pointed to.”
Convinced of its importance and its standards, Antonel joined AWMAC as a manufacturing member in the late ‘80s and never looked back.
AWMAC is much bigger today then it was when he joined. Checking an old member book, Antonel said they only had 13 manufacturing members when he joined in ’88.
The AWMAC standard is important and Antonel said that at the end of the day, “if you want to do this type of work, you have to do it this way.”
“Once in a while I get a supplier phone me up to say he has a deal on 5/8th white melamine. I have never used a piece of 5/8th here in our lifetime, it doesn’t exist here. It’s not worth using to save $2 a sheet,” he said.
Talking to Antonel, it becomes immediately clear that he is a big supporter of AWMAC and what it stands for. He has been betting his and his company’s reputation on the AWMAC standard with great success.
Through hard work and dedication to excellence, Second Generation Furnishings has grown into a successful company doing a lot of community centres, libraries, universities and schools, but they are also doing offices and restaurants, long-term care facilities and medical offices and multi-use facilities.
And from shop drawings, engineering, project management and budgeting as well as design builds and architectural woodwork manufacturing and installation, Second Generation Furnishings “doesn’t want to be the largest custom millwork supplier in Canada, but to be the custom millwork supplier of choice.”