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Carver Cabinetry: Carrying on a family tradition of excellence

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Carver Cabinetry has been serving the Norwich and surrounding area for more than 20 years and as the family company – which is now almost in its third generation, more on that later - continues to grow, its general manager and co-owner William Van Lagen, is proud his sons James and Edwin are taking on more and more of the responsibilities for the day-to-day operations.
Brothers William and John Van Lagen, who took over from their father Joe, who came to Canada from Holland in 1966, own Carver Cabinetry.
“He was a licenced carpenter when he came to Canada,” William Van Lagen says. “He first went to work for a millwork shop in Woodstock and after a couple of years, when that company started to fail, decided to go into business for himself.
He was a cabinetmaker and millworker, he could do anything really, and the first job he did was build cabinets for a Christian school in Norwich, and then he branched out to do all general carpentry and the business was Joe’s Carpentry,” he says.
“Of course I grew up in his woodshop, I think I was just three or four years old when I had to go to the doctor because 
I had sawdust in my eyes,” he says with a laugh.
So clearly, a love for wood and woodworking was instilled in him early, he came by it honestly you could say. But there’s a twist. Rather than starting early and keeping with it, Van Lagen says his father actually kicked him out and made him get another job.
“So what dad did for us was that he said we could come and work for him, but the day we got done school, we had to go find work somewhere else. He wanted to teach us that we had to learn to work for a boss, not for dad,” he says. “ So I got a job framing and I did that for a year and a half, but then I came back home to work for the family business.”
Van Lagen says he got married 27 years ago, which is also when he built his first kitchen.
“Dad told me he was too busy, but there is a job, now go measure it and go do it. Figure it out.
“Well, that’s how I built my first kitchen and it was bad.
“I did just about everything wrong you could do wrong, the drawers were hitting the stove, and you couldn’t pull the pullouts because of the baseboards, everything you could think of went wrong in that kitchen, but I learned a lot.”
At that time they were still doing kitchens through Joe’s Carpentry, but it was not a regular thing, just the odd kitchen here and there as part of a larger renovation.
“But then, about 19 years ago, we started a separate cabinet company,” Van Lagen says.
“That company, Carver Cabinetry, was started by me and my brother and my dad, and to this day me and my brother John are half owners of both companies, the cabinet shop and the renovation company. So these days I take care of the cabinets part and John takes care of the renovations and the new homes.
Van Lagen says the reason they started a separate cabinet shop was that he bought a CNC machine, a Thermwood, which he still has today.
“I bought that machine because we wanted to cut skids for General Motors, but then the recession hit and that stopped that idea. So we thought about it and since we were already doing the odd kitchen, we decided to change over to cabinets, big time.
So now there were two companies and it wasn’t long and they added a third, a home-building company
“Our third company, Van Lagen Homes, is really just a division of the renovation company because people want to hire a home builder rather than a renovation company,” Van Lagen says. “We don’t do a lot of new homes, we also don’t want to compete too much with some of our customers who are builders, so we are focusing on renovations and kitchens, which keeps us plenty busy.”
Most of their work is done for individual customers, but they also work with a couple of high-end builders and have also diversified over the years to do larger commercial projects.
“We are listed with the Thames Valley school boards, and we have also done professional offices, and a Ford and Chevy dealership to name just a few,” he says.
“So that makes us quite diversified, which helps when the economy slows down and residential work slows. It also means we never have to lay off any of our employees.”

Looking to expand
Carver Cabinetry operates from a 10,000 sq. ft. facility, but they are looking to expand next 
year because they need more space for finishing 
and assembly.
In total, they employ around 50 people – half each in the cabinet shop and the renovation company.
Most of their work is in Southwestern Ontario, but Van Lagen says they will go further.
Carver Cabinetry operates a CNC, computerized edgebander, and a flatline spray line and case clamps and they are well on their way to going paperless from order intake through to production.
“We love equipment,” says Van Lagen, “and we are getting pretty close to having a job come in the front and flow right through to completion.
“Everyone in the shop has an iPad so they can see what’s going on and we have seen the impact that automation can have elsewhere, which is why we are looking to get more into that starting next year,” he says.
“I just think of our Giardina spray line and what a big breakthrough that was for us. That system is incredible. Before we bought it we had two million dollars in sales, after we bought it we went to three million dollars and we hired just one additional person. I really don’t know how you could afford not to have one of those.
“My next big goal is to get a material handling system to help us streamline production,” says Van Lagen.
“Our goal is not how much can we sell, our goal is how much can we make.”
As far as the kind of kitchens they build, Van Lagen’s son James, who looks after sales for the company, says the styles in highest demand in their area are mostly traditional.
“It is starting to get a bit more modern, cleaner with less details, but overall it is still very traditional,” James says.
Over the years they have also tried to standardize their offerings somewhat, for colours and samples they have adopted Benjamim Moore’s top 20 colours and 95 per cent of customers pick one of those. Of course they can do any colour a customer wants, but those 20 top colours are their bread and butter.
There is also a move to the more modern, narrow shaker-style doors and wood is making a comeback, not for the full kitchen, but for accents.
About 85 per cent is painted, and they make their MDF doors in-house and bring in wood doors.

What’s the Carver 
Cabinetry difference?
“I would say our personal connection with the client is very important to us, and of course the fact that we have a good product,” Van Lagen says.
“It’s literally the relationship with the client and the fact that we can do the complete project for them, from renovation to complete install, that sets us apart.
“Our hardware and our materials and paints are all top of the line and we also only use our own installers, because it doesn’t matter how good of a kitchen you build, if the installation is bad it wrecks everything. So for us that’s not worth it, we want to control the project form start to finish.
“And living in a small community, where you see your customers every day, on the street, in the store, or in church, we want to have a good product, so we use quality materials and take care manufacturing.”
Van Lagen says there is no point trying to save a few bucks and build cheap stuff that won’t last. It has to be quality, that’s what they do and what they are known for.”
We want to make sure our customers are happy and have a good product.
“And when we get a new customer – by the way we do a lot of repeat business, which says a lot - we spend some time with them to discuss their wants and needs and budget, and then we do up a sketch for them in Microvellum so they have an idea of what their kitchen will look like. Once we have the order one of our engineers will go back to the job and make sure everything will work and then we send it to the shop.”

Giving back
Carver Cabinetry also gives back to 
their community.
“That was installed in us by our dad,” 
Van Lagen says. “If you can you help the less fortunate you do it. My dad always said you help the poor.
“So when the COVID-19 lockdown hit, my kids said “dad we’ve got to do something,” and so we collected food for the food bank and we collected a lot until we realized that they were overflowing so we stopped.
“But it’s funny, we did that and we felt pretty good about ourselves and then this guy walks in with a jar of money, it was their vacation fund, they had been saving for a years, and he said take this, someone else needs this a lot more than we need a vacation. So that was very humbling.
“And this year, we have this youth centre in town that was going broke, so we got together and raised some money for them. We don’t do it for the recognition, we do it because these kids in town need help and it’s the right thing to do.
“But I can’t take credit for these things, it’s my boys James and Edwin who say, “dad, what can we do.”

Third generation
James is the lead sales person now, but he also spent a year working for someone else, because Van Lagen did the same thing his dad did.
“And Edwin is our shop foreman. He couldn’t build anything, he is all about the process and he is great. I think the biggest mistake people make in the woodworking industry is to pick their best cabinetmaker and put him as a foreman. But it’s two different things, isn’t it. Being a foreman is all about the process and Edwin has that mastered.
Van Lagen says it is a perfect fit, because both of his boys are interested in different things, so it works out perfectly, otherwise there would be war.
And while the third generation is fully involved in the company and running it, Van Lagen still makes the final decisions.
“I come in and look after finances and final approvals, but in all honesty woodworking is my passion, always has been and always will be, and while I had to become a businessman, woodworking will always be the most important thing to me.”

All in the family
“So on this side of the business it’s me and James and Edwin and on the other side, the renovation and home building, it’s my brother John and his sons Joel and Brent.
“You’d think it is difficult to run a big family business with so many people involved,” Van Lagen says, “and it can be challenging for sure because there is blood involved, but we always figure it out.
‘I am also a firm believer in associations and sharing and learning from other people.  That’s why we go to the CKCA and WMCO, because you can always learn something new.
I used to have a guy working for me, he was 70, and he told me you are never too old to learn something new. And I firmly believe that.
“And it is such a great group of people in these organizations, everybody is open and willing to share and that helps everyone. It’s a lot of fun because they are all great people so we can have some fun sharing knowledge and learning from one another.
“I always say it’s a business, but let’s have fun with it and make some money.
“I can tell you that I have probably saved in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years just by being part of these groups and going to shows and events.
“And I am always open to help someone who is just starting up. 
If they need some help, they are always welcome here, just ask.
“I’ve learned so much from other people and I want to give back where I can, so if anyone has questions or needs help, they can come to me and I will do what I can to point them in the right direction. When I was young I liked the help, so my door is always open, I believe working together in the woodworking industry is much better than working against each other.”

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