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Women Leaders in Business: Supporting local artisans has sustained Callander import company

Jennifer McNutt Bywater has promoted Fair Trade and sustainable practices in her specialty gift store for 30 years

Many small businesses across Canada have felt the severe impact of pandemic measures that locked out customers. Despite government support, they continue to struggle with keeping their doors open amidst unclear recovery plans.

Callander-based Vested Interest Trading, a specialty gift store located just south of North Bay, has been in operation for 30 years and its owners have found navigating the last two years very frustrating. 

“It’s been hard, I am not going to lie,” admits co-owner Jennifer McNutt Bywater.

McNutt Bywater and her husband Brent Bywater started their fair trade business selling goods made by artisans they connected with on their travels to the islands of Indonesia. 

“We had travelled widely, visiting 55 countries before we started Vested Interest. It was a passion,” she said.

In the beginning, before even imagining a full-time business, they sold the treasures as street vendors. Ethically, this was important to them, it was the "why" they were in business. 

Over the years, they built relationships with Indonesian artisans and their families. Jennifer and Brent even brought along their own children, now 21 and 15, as soon as they could travel. 

With the pandemic, it has been heartbreaking for McNutt Bywater to be restricted from travelling to support these artisans who have relied on their partnership for their livelihood. Indonesia, like many countries around the world, was closed to tourists during the height of the pandemic. 

But the Bywaters have not given up on their overseas artisan connections despite supply chain issues and shipping costs going up 400 per cent. She has managed to import smaller items that do not require the expense of large containers; however, it limits the number of artisans they typically work with.

They had also built up a wholesale business serving over 2,000 stores across Canada with specialty gluten-free, vegan, keto, non-GMO (genetically modified organism), and kosher food items. Their business was 20 per cent retail and 80 per cent wholesale. Two summers prior to the pandemic, they sold the wholesale division. 

“We did sell the wholesale food division of our business prior to COVID-19 and still retail all our food. This allows us to expand our retail food business and offer so many more, different and exciting new food products,” McNutt Bywater explained.

When COVID hit, offering gourmet food placed Vested Interest in the essential services category. They turned their attention to local customers.

“I am trying to be creative (and) have always had to think outside the box with this business,” McNutt Bywater said, in manoeuvring the unique circumstances of the pandemic. 

In seeking out solutions to ‘pivot’ their business, they received an Ontario government Digital Main Street grant that allowed them to improve their website with an e-commerce offering. 

“We took our wholesale website and flipped it,” she explained. “We had to quickly photograph every item in 15 categories.” 

Pleased with their new online presence, she's optimistic about the future of the business. They have also been able to bring back staff to work in the retail store.

Over the years, business challenges have not been new to the Bywaters.

After finding initial success selling goods as street vendors they opened a storefront in Callander and later on McIntyre Street in downtown North Bay.

In 2012, a destructive fire gutted the store and they lost everything. With the support of the community, they rebuilt but decided to move back to Callander in 2020.

The pandemic has forced many businesses to confront change, and the Bywaters transformed their passion for fair trade products by supporting local and Canadian artisans.

In supporting the theme of "shop local" initiatives, Vested Interest Trading promotes small business and entrepreneurs.

The store now sells handcrafted charcuterie boards, 100 per cent natural soy wax candles, maple syrup, organic honey, smoke-roasted coffee by North Bay's Beans Deep, books by local authors, reclaimed Northern Ontario forest products, eco-friendly products, and a gift basket service.

“We needed to get outside of our existing customer base and promote ourselves as a local business,” McNutt Bywater said.

It's been a huge learning curve, McNutt Bywater said, but their increased effort to market themselves on social media has connected them with a brand, new local customer base that wasn't aware of their 30-year-old business.