– Story by Tess van Straaten
Derrick Paas and Eric Gummer are the first to admit that they’re unlikely entrepreneurs.
“We weren’t business guys,” says Gummer, co-owner of Saanichton-based Thomas Philips Woodworking. “We didn’t go to school for that so it was definitely the biggest learning curve.”
And yet, the skilled tradesmen have managed to build a successful custom cabinetry and millwork company that’s grown from just the two of them to 11 people in five years, and won several CARE Awards for craftsmanship along the way.
“Let’s launch a business in a recession,” jokes 44-year-old Paas. “It sounds crazy but we both had lots of contacts in the industry so I think it was an easy transition for us.”
But it wasn’t without its challenges. Both men were unemployed when they decided to start the business back in the spring of 2012 and they worked out of their garages to keep costs down.
“We started with really small jobs and we used Eric’s garage for cutting all the pieces apart. Then we assembled them in my garage and rented another space to spray them,” Paas explains.
“It was quite the ordeal and not at all practical,” adds 32-year-old Gummer, laughing at the memory. “But it got us started and we started to get busier, so it gave us the confidence to take the plunge.”
Without any major contracts lined up, the pair signed a three-year lease. It was a big risk but Paas and Gummer are passionate about their craft and they knew they could make it work.
“Our first three months of rent were free so we had those months to find work and that gave us a cushion,” explains Gummer. “I was living in a $600 basement suite and didn’t have a mortgage and kids like Derrick does, so the risk and stress for him was probably a lot higher than it was for me.”
But the gamble paid off and they landed their first big job as Thomas Philips Woodworking, which is derived from their middle names, in about three weeks. That first job even won them their first CARE Award — a foreshadowing of the success to come — and they haven’t looked back.
“I’m still a little shocked at how successful we’ve been,” says Gummer. “But we’re not complacent — every time we get a job we want to do the best we can.”
|Eric Gummer and partner Derrick Paas of Thomas Philips Woodworking. Don Denton photography|
They also attribute a lot of their success to Gummer’s dad, Gordon. The retired Victoria Police officer helps with the books and has been an integral part of the business behind the scenes, especially when it comes to office management and leadership advice.
“Gordon has been so great and he keeps us organized and in line so we can do the work and get the clients,” says Paas. “We tried to double his wage, but double of nothing is still zero so we finally got him to take a trip to Hawaii.”
But the “volunteer dad” says he’s just happy to help. He credits the passion and hard work of his son and Paas, who still put in long days and work through weekends, with the business’s success.
“I think they have done remarkably well and they’ve succeeded because they have such a good reputation within the Greater Victoria community,” Gordon Gummer says. “They are both so passionate about their work and they bend over backwards to help their clients.”
As the company’s grown, the duo has also put a lot of time and resources into employees — something that’s especially important in an industry plagued by a shortage of skilled labour.
“Getting good, skilled staff that fit within our company is definitely the biggest challenge,” says Paas. “We’ve put a lot of effort and money into our employees, including a full benefits package, and we picked the top (tier) because that’s what they wanted. We have such good employees and that makes all the difference.”
It’s one of the reasons Paas and Gummer take such pride in their employees’ success. For them, one of the most rewarding things about being business owners is watching their staff succeed.
“A few years ago our apprentice, who was just out of high school, won a CARE Award and I think we were more proud of that than the projects we won for,” says Gummer. “And one of our guys just got into the housing market, so it’s nice to know he could afford to buy a house.”
And even though business is booming, they don’t plan to let the company get too big, as doing so would mean giving up some of the customer care and quality control.
“I think what’s made us successful so far is our customer service and attention to detail,” Gummer says. “We don’t want to lose that. Word of mouth is massively important in Victoria.”