Joe Sunner and his 19-year-old son Harry, came to Canada from the UK in 1994. Harry is engagingly frank about their complete ignorance about Edmonton, about Alberta, and about any business except perhaps small scale shop keeping, in which father and son had worked together since the latter was 11.
They thought they would simply continue in the business they knew – beyond that it is hard to see that they had any significant assets that would mark them out for business success. They didn't even have a lot of money and they definitely had no plan. But, in fact, they had assets that are beyond price and which make theirs a story to be digested by any aspiring entrepreneur who thinks you need seed capital, an expensive education, an MBA and deep business knowledge to build a sustainable enterprise.
Upon embarking on Canada’s soil, Joe Sunner encountered a small window manufacturer who encouraged them to join them in their business venture. With no manufacturing ability or familiarity, Joe took on the challenge alongside his son, Harry, with a go-to attitude to face the obscurity meticulously.
Within two years of amalgamation, the partner decided to part ways. Thereon, the Sunners painstakingly embraced full-on, the business wholly, surpassing bridges of challenges together.
The Sunners bought out their partner and took a good look at what they were left with. Durabuilt Windows & Doors had a small workshop, some very basic machinery, a dozen employees, a ramshackle company structure and no strategy for future growth. Having taken on the business, they secured enough private loan finance to keep the show on the road.
With everything on the line, Harry Sunner promised his father that come what may they would work as a team for as long as it took. “We were working 14 hours a day and a seven day week for much of the first 10 years,” he says, admitting that he saw too little of his own growing family as a result.
Clearly the bond between father and son was very strong, but Harry is frank about their differences too. “He is cautious and analytical whereas I am a visionary optimist. I want to fly too high and he likes to keep his feet on the ground.” Seeds of conflict? Maybe, but these differences made for a strong team. Where one was overstretching the other would pull the reins; where one was tentative the other would push forward. When a plan was advanced, Joe would insist on doing the risk assessment, while Harry would point out that growth is always attended by risk. At all events, today Joe remains CEO of the company and Harry, its President.
Despite their lack of any engineering or construction background the Sunners were quick learners. After two years Durabuilt broke even, and in the 29 years since then average growth has been 19 percent per annum. Having moved premises three times in its first decade, it now occupies a 190,000 square foot factory at Edmonton, with branch locations in Calgary, Lethbridge, Saskatoon and Winnipeg with 100’s of dealers across Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, and employs more than 400 people.
Its bespoke products go to customers in the replacement window market, which accounts for around 20 percent of turnover; new construction whether commercial or domestic (50 percent); and to dealers, agents and builders merchants.
This has not been achieved without growing pains. In fact, the manufacturing footprint has shrunk as the business has expanded – there's been a transformation, and Harry hands a lot of the credit for this to General Manager Amar Randhawa, who joined Durabuilt right at the outset of its new era, aged 17, with even less experience than the owners, but sharing their values, work ethic, pragmatism and willingness to learn.
It's about 10 years since Durabuilt set out on its lean journey, and here it really does begin to look more like a textbook manufacturer. The leadership team learned about TPS, six sigma, kanban, kaizen, CPA and ERP. They began to introduce lean practices incrementally with a series of continuous improvement iterations rather than trying to revolutionize practices overnight. Their natural instinct was to adopt what works – for example as part of the lean initiative, the plant had modified the assembly line to single-piece flow and needed to configure its ERP system to support that process. Now, instead of having batches of parts sitting around in boxes waiting for hours to be used, the parts are brought to the line as needed.
Changing the company culture was another matter. “We wanted quality, environmental practices and efficiencies but we didn't know how to drill that down into a 300 strong workforce. How do we get people on the shop floor to share our vision?” asked Sunner.
The route decided on was to acquire ISO accreditations, not at the time commonly found in the industry, starting with the international quality standard ISO 9001 and moving on to the environmental standard 14001 and OHSAS 18001 which governs health and safety practices.
In 2011 these three accreditations qualified Durabuilt to become the first and still the only window and door manufacturer in Canada to receive Integrated Management Systems (IMS) accreditation, based on systematic processes and approaches that are implemented throughout the entire lifecycle of a project.
Sunner continues: “Becoming IMS certified is a way to measure and improve the way we do business: it's about enhancing the quality of products and services, the health and safety of our employees and reducing our environmental footprint. It brought us up to a completely different level. It has driven accountability in every department. When we get audited, nobody wants to fail the audit or even get a red flag! We wanted people to feel pride in their daily work.”
Again, he points to the dedication of Amar Randhawa as the driving force behind these improvements. “Amar really took personal ownership of the lean process, not relying on others to drive it.” The transformation was done without outside consultants, he emphasizes, however it is a continuing transformation.
Currently, having been through four different ERP platforms, each of which has proved a brake on progress, Durabuilt is migrating to a new system, WTS Paradigm, specially configured for the industry.
Durabuilt has been a member of Built Green Canada for 10 years, emphasizing its commitment to the environment. The difficult task of balancing necessary investment in automation, weathering a hit from currency fluctuations and complying with ever more stringent regulations like the recently upgraded North America Fenestration Standard (NAFS) as applied under Canadian building codes, as against the need to remain price competitive and return an annual profit, keeps Harry Sunner and his father, who at a mere 70 shows no sign of wanting to retire, as busy as ever.
Entrepreneurs to the core, they see their success in context. Sunner says: “Sometimes business leaders feel that if they are doing a little better than the competition that is fine. We do not. We are not into self-congratulation – we celebrate our successes then move on to what will be better. It took us a long time to build credibility, a trusted brand and a trusted workplace, to the point where people now want to come and work at Durabuilt.”
Durabuilt's success, he concludes, is not just about the leadership and the workforce – it is about the health of the industry, of Edmonton, of Alberta and of the Canadian economy.