Street of riches
By Jim Chliboyko
A new chapter for a place rich in fenestration history.
By Jim Chliboyko
When he built our home, my father took as model the only other house then standing on the brief length of Rue Deschambault, still unencumbered by any sidewalk, as virginal as a country path stretching through thickets of wild roses and, in April, resonant with the music of frogs.”
So starts the autobiographical 1957 novel Street of Riches (aka Rue Deschambault) by iconic Franco-Manitoban writer Gabrielle Roy, detailing her girlhood in the then-undeveloped Winnipeg neighbourhood of St. Boniface in the early years of the 20th century.
There’s still the music of frogs in April here but the virginal country path has been replaced, as these things usually are, by many houses and, hugging the banks of the Seine River, a series of light industrial buildings. It’s there you’ll find the brand new joint headquarters for MPD Glass and Vinyl Graphics and Voyageur Door and Window, right at the end of the Deschambault. It’s a firm that’s as French as Ms. Roy – and, well, the voyageurs – born and bred in St. Boniface, a place where the default greeting on sidewalks, especially with the older folks, is still “bonjour.”
Three men are in the well-lit and well-windowed boardroom: Michel Robin, the long-time owner, Chris Kaleta, the guy from next door that they brought on for his design skills (20 years ago) and the newly acquired production manager, Pierre St. Amant.
Chris Kaleta explains the differentiation between the two entities: “Voyageur Door and Window has always been the mother company. We created MPD sort of as a trade name to specialize in decorative glass, but we are the same company. We’ve grown at the same rate, together as a company and now, in this new space, it’s just a good opportunity for us to expand as well as utilize the space better, have better efficiencies, things of that nature”
And the company has been constantly expanding since its creation just over 25 years ago.
“We were originally just 500 square feet retail, at the Norwood (Hotel), in front, there. That’s when we took over the business,” says Michel Robin, the M in MPD. “There was a competition clause happening (with the company that Robin left) so I couldn’t make windows and doors for the first five years. So what I did is I started MPD with my brother Phil to do glasswork because that wasn’t part of it. So we did mirrors and all that kind of stuff.”
Eventually, the competition clause died out and the company could pursue its own plan, like the creation of EntryMax Doors and WindowMax Windows.
“So we started making our own windows in 2003,” says Robin. “Before that we were basically just retailing, a dealership kind of thing, for windows and doors. But we still had the fabrication for the glass, where we etched and started getting vinyl. Chris actually joined us (in 1995) when we were at 854 Marion St., and in joining us we were able to expand our vinyl graphics because that’s his specialty.”
Though Kaleta is currently more of a manager, he still puts his artistic skills to work on various projects.
“So when I came on, there was nobody doing vinyl graphics, things of that nature, so it was a natural fit when I came on board and began doing the designs for the etching as well,” says Kaleta. “Actually, I was a neighbour doing artwork for them occasionally. I was a production manager at a sign shop, literally next door to where these guys worked on Marion. And the opportunity came where we just felt it would make a good merge. It was at the time, you know, in 1995, where we we’re seeing a lot of these decorative films being used. There were no glass shops, really, pushing the product; sign shops would touch them a little bit. Now, you’re seeing them everywhere. You know, they look like simulated sandblasted glass. I mean, that was one of the areas we wanted to specialize in, on top of etching.”
It’s something that still applies to the firm today.
“There’s a lot of guys that sort of supply glass in town; there’s very few that do the customization of it, all the etching and that sort of thing,” says Kaleta. “We want to be known as the go-to guys for all that stuff. So we supply a lot of door and window companies etching and design patterns for their doors and windows and whatnot.”
Later on, Kaleta says, “One of our taglines has been ‘glass, reimagined,’ and that’s kind of our schtick.”
As the men see it, the company was an early local adopter in a number of ways.
“As far as innovation goes, we were actually one of the first companies in Winnipeg to offer painted PVC, as well as composite frames,” says Kaleta.
“We’re the ones that started pushing the composite frames, big time. We’re pretty much the first company who eliminated all-steel doors, because we were all going fibreglass,” says Robin.
Things have changed substantially for MPD from that earlier retail location in other ways. The company went from 500 to 2,500 to 5,000 to 11,000 and 22,000 square feet with moves and expansion and the swallowing up of vacated neighbouring units. And don’t forget the disastrous flood from a broken water main break back in 2008.
Robin says of the flood, nonchalantly, “So it was either close up shop or expand. So we expanded.”
But, eventually, the team felt they needed a change from the expanding Marion Street empire.
“(It was) a mismatched place, because it was, like, uneven floors, rooms everywhere, it was very inefficient,” Robin says. “We had our eyes open for a building and we saw this one and we’ve been eyeing this place for, what, a year and a half at least.”
Most of their earlier expansion occurred at their place along Marion Street, a busy, noisy industrial corridor bisected in several places by rather active railroad tracks, an area that made the news in 2012 when a factory which manufactured race car fuel exploded into a picturesque mushroom cloud (while managing to seriously injure no one).
So, what better fate for this closed-up former AGC Flat Glass complex at the end of Rue Deschambault than having a homegrown glass business come in and take its place? It’s the last property on the south side of this Street of Riches, essentially a short, leafy residential street of 75- to 100-year-old homes (including the Gabrielle Roy Museum), before it dead-ends at the greenspace of the Seine River. For a company looking to ramp up production, to give them 54,000 square feet on 2.9 acres, in a place that’s already been primed by an earlier glass company, where you can unload trucks inside (especially
during winter) and which comes with its own five-tonne crane, it doesn’t get more gift-wrapped than that.
“Ironically enough, we actually would buy from this company when they were operating and we have three employees now that previously worked here,” Kaleta says.
That’s not to say that the place didn’t need work. This visit occurred a mere three weeks after they were handed the keys. The crew had been stripping down the building, including drywall and old drop ceilings (exposing impressive woodwork that had been hidden and heavy-looking walls that hadn’t seen light in a while) and were working on getting the place modernized and building a proper showroom.
“As you can see, we’re still doing a lot of installs,” says Pierre St. Amant, who had just joined the company a few months before. “We replaced all the windows, we reinsulated the building, all new air lines, air compressor, lighting. It’s brand new LED lighting throughout the entire building. Have you seen the back yet? When you see the back, it’s pretty impressive.”
Once in back, it’s obvious they’ve already made their changes, organizing the space into a logical flow of colour-coded work areas. There’s a lot of space to work with and high, high ceilings, including a raised skylight feature that floods the centre of the floor with natural light. In other, darker areas, the lighting is rigged with motion detectors and heat sensors, to shut off when not in use.
“The employees are very happy with their situation. It’s night and day for them, literally, even when it comes to the lights,” St. Amant says of the 25 or so staff (a number which keeps on going up). “Seeing as the old place was very hard to get an efficient flow-through for your production, now with the new location, we’re trying to establish a new culture of best practices and create an environment where the workers see themselves more as craftsmen in their trade. What we want to develop here is window school, door school and a glass and installation school.”
“It’s very exciting for us,” Kaleta adds.
And the big move isn’t the only change that MPD/Voyageur has had to deal with lately. The P in MPD is Phil, Michel Robin’s brother, who just retired because of health reasons. (The D was for other brother Dan, who left the business years ago.)
Says St. Amant, “I came in right at a good transition because I come a bit from an operations background, project management, and with Chris just trying to deal with the loss of a partner there due to illness and him having to take on all that and Michel just managing the business, they needed a project manager to do the move or to help with the move.”
“Now it’s Pierre who takes over the P,” adds Robin, to much laughter.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t other challenges.
“In the windows side, a very challenging thing is, number one, the regulations have increased a lot,” Robin says. “The other challenge would be the economic downturn; you have a lot of eastern companies that are coming down west here because the economy’s still good; they’re tanking. And there coming here with their low-balling windows and stuff like this. Those are all challenging little aspects of the industry that you got to contend with. And then you got those that are offering Ponzi schemes, as far as their warranties are concerned, putting a warranty on stuff that are rated 20 years, but they put lifetime warranty. You want to be real to the customer, right? You want to give genuine warranties, but it’s also got to be manageable.”
“I guess the challenge of managing the move and developing a new culture. We’re strapped for time and staff; we’re a growing company,” adds St. Amant.
With all those the changes recently having taken place, the company can concentrate on their modest future plans, like tripling business in the next 10 years.
“We hired other people that will be starting in September. So those are other aspects: that we’re trying to grow the business and put package bids instead of little aspects of projects – trying to think a little more in that way,” says Robin. “One of the things we’re looking for is to export more outside of Winnipeg, both neighbouring provinces but also possibly the States, especially when it comes to pantry door glass. We’re looking to expand outside of Winnipeg, so now we have the means and the building to help us do that.”
Adds Kaleta, wearing his designer hat, “Right now we’ve developed a program for some of our door lights that we’ve partnered with another door manufacturer who carries the product and sells the product. So they have distribution across western Canada. It’s our hope to continue to grow that market as well.”
There are a couple of other projects the gentlemen say they aren’t at liberty to discuss quite yet, partnerships of one kind or another. But, there’s currently other things to deal with; one doesn’t get over a move in just a month’s time.
“It’s just a matter of now regrouping after this move and start focusing on those things, establishing our staff, to manage more of the business instead of working on all the little details.” says Robin. “To get stuff out of your head and put it (in) somebody else’s.”
And ten years from now, if the planets align (and the business does, in fact, triple), the partners at MPD/Voyageur will find out if Rue Deschambault really is their own Street of Riches.