In reintroducing itself to the Northern Ontario market, Vested Interest Trading has expanded and moved into new digs in downtown North Bay.
Owned by Jennifer McNutt Bywater and husband Brent Bywater, the import company has come a long way from hawking their Far East wares as street peddlers at the heritage festival to moving into a new 10,000-square-foot warehouse and studio on McIntyre Street West.
In mid-September, having just hired four new people, their staff of 16 were moving the last remnants of about 4,000 items from their former cramped retail outlet in Callander, up Highway 11 into their newly renovated space – a former paint factory known as the Cochrane Dunlop building.
Though their 4,000-square-foot Callander shop had become a destination stop for visitors from Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins, Muskoka and Toronto, Jennifer says they desperately needed the additional space and wanted more local exposure.
In Callander, their overflow merchandise was packed to the brim into two storage sheds and two large tents.
“We’ve only been open a month (in the new location), but we’ve definitely tapped into a customer base we didn’t have before.”
Long-time customers familiar with their lavish trade booths stocked with pottery, jewelry, fashions and other home-décor gift items are now being introduced to their full product line, including exotic teak root furniture.
The business is a symbol of their love of travel and the close, personal bonds they have cultivated in the Far East for the past 11 years.
All the items are handcrafted by artisan villagers living on the Indonesian islands of Bali, Java and Lombok, as well as Burma, Thailand and Nepal.
At the beginning of the year, usually during the slack retail months from January to March, the Bywaters make an annual sojourn to these countries where, they have these goods made to order by Hindu artisans who have specialized in wood carvings, ironwork and silversmithing for generations as part of their religious upbringing.
It is the Bywaters' policy to buy directly from family-run cottage industries rather than large manufacturers.
“We know the money goes directly into their pockets as a fair trade operation. They get a good wage, and we know the working conditions.”
And since there is no middle man, nor are there brokers involved, their retail prices on these goods are more reasonably priced than one will find at import stores in Toronto.
In Bali, they have developed a trusted relationship with the Rarem family, who also act as their overseas shipping agents. The Rarem family helped finance the construction of a warehouse and workshop for their extended family group to store, ship and produce their own line of furniture, fashioned from reclaimed teak roots and stumps.
“We still do business with our original group. As our business has expanded, so has theirs.
“They are a beautiful, lovely people and it’s very easy to do business with them.
“It’s a very calming, settling place. The Balinese are Hindus and they believe very strongly in karma so our working relationship is very open and honest and you really get the feeling they’re going to try their hardest to do their best for you.”
That relationship was strengthened, she says, during the Indonesian economic crisis in 1998 when inflation, rising as much as 200 per cent a day, ravaged many artisans into bankruptcy.
The Bywaters generated plenty of goodwill among the craftsmen by paying for their orders in full, and in advance, thus enabling the artisan groups to go out and buy a year’s supply worth of paint, metal and wood to continue making merchandise.
“They have never forgotten that,” says Jennifer. “And it all pays off in the end.”
Though reluctant to disclose annual sales figures, she estimates their gross sales will likely double this year.
Through the use of their sales agent, Vested Interest distributes product to about 350 stores from Labrador to the Yukon.
The popularity of their teak root furniture lead them to form a new division of Vested Interest known as Rustic Root. A partner in Vancouver has big plans to hit the log home trade show circuit on the West Coast this year.
As well, another spinoff company, Rock Solid Creations, a stone giftware business in Callander, is taking off.
Husband Brent also runs a flooring business and building supply company, which employs 35 people.
With their fingers in so many pies, Jennifer admits it would be easy to let the businesses run their lives, but she strongly believes in maintaining a personal balance.
“I want to have a family, but I want to keep my business under control.
“I’ve been holding the reins back. This business has the ability to fly to the sky, but I still want to have another baby,” says Jennifer, 38, who is the mother of a two-year-old.