Performing an odd job for some cottagers almost 16 years ago gave Dave Wright a huge jumpstart on a new career.
An encounter with a local handyman gave the cabinetmaker and entrepreneur an opportunity to revive the time-honoured art of manufacturing Muskoka chairs. He transformed his business from a basement woodworking side-job to an established plant, that employs up to 50 people in South River.
Along the way the award-winning company has garnered recognition from Northern Ontario Business Awards, Ontario Global Traders Awards, and it was a finalist at last year's WoodWORKS awards gala for excellence in value-added wood with its ready-to-assemble furniture kits.
He and partner Al Decloe are hoping to sell The Bear Chair Company's solid pine and cedar outdoor furniture products across Western Canada and hope to make some inroads into the mid- and western U.S. states.
A self-described tinkerer dating back to his Burlington days growing up in his dad's motorcycle shop, Wright found work in the early 1980s as an industrial arts teacher in Attawapiskat and northern Saskatchewan before moving back to Ontario.
To make ends meet he set up a small woodworking shop, making cabinets next to the general store he ran in Magnetawan.
One day in 1986 a maintenance man asked him to make eight Muskoka-styled deck chairs for a cottage owner.
Word of his work spread and friends starting showing up with wrecked deck chairs and Wright spent the entire summer fixing outdoor furniture. He copied the designs of some of the better styles and built a few prototypes that he peddled at a festival at Barrie's Molson Park.
His big break came when he made a deal with Beaver Lumber, selling 600 chairs his first year, followed by a second order that same year for 150 more.
As sales grew, he scouted around for larger space to accommodate a bigger shop, eventually settling on some industrial acreage 35 kilometres away in South River, where he bought a building vacated by a veneer mill.
It is now his warehouse and assembly operation, not far away from his main 12,000-square-foot plant in that community, which has a population of 700, and is 50 kilometres south of North Bay on Highway 11.
The company produces about 350 chair kits a day and about 60,000 units a year. Following the advice of his father Stuart, he decided to sell boxed kits simply because they sit well on a skid and are easier to ship by truck.
"If you're going to sell anything, you have to consider transportation – that's key," says Wright. "Making a product that's shippable (inexpensively) is the key to marketing it worldwide, especially coming out of this area."
Most kits are shipped directly to customers in Canada, with about 25 per cent being exported to the eastern U.S. and as far away as France, Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom through a private distributor. More recently, Bear Chair signed a contract with Costco to distribute the Bear Chair at their 60 locations right across Canada.