Ontario candlemakers measure success in more than dollars and scents

 

NIAGARA FALLS, Ont.

Whenever John Klassen and Ted Loewen go into a restaurant, people take notice. It isn’t the way they dress or walk. It’s the way they smell.

Klassen, 45, and Loewen, 35, are brothers-in-law and co-owners of Newville Candle Company in Niagara Falls, Ont. Wherever they go they leave a trail of people sniffing the air, wondering where that scent of apples, cinnamon, pumpkin, lavender, cappuccino or grassy meadow-or any of the dozens of other fragrances they manufacture-is coming from.

“They always know when we’re around,” says Klassen with a laugh. “At places we frequent regularly, they don’t even have to see us to know that ‘the candle guys are here’.”

For Klassen and Loewen, that sweet smell of candles is also the sweet smell of success. When they bought the then l0-year-old company in 1998, its sales were flat; in just three years, sales grew from $1.9 million to over $7 million. At the same time, the workforce has jumped from 38 to over 200 employees (at peak production) in five locations in the Niagara area. Annual production now runs from seven to 10 million Newville candles for customers such as Avon, Martha Stewart, Estee Lauder, Canadian Tire and CVS drugstores, as well as for other labels and their own specialty gift line called Trillium.

These figures are the traditional markers of success, but they aren’t the only ones for the two co-owners. About a year after buying the company, an employee told Klassen that she really liked working at Newville because “nobody yells at me here.”

“When I heard that, I said ‘Yes!’” Klassen recalls. “That’s one of the important reasons why we went into business: to create a place where people like to come to work.”

Other employees echo that sentiment.

“There’s a real sense of pitching in and working together,” says customer service manager Lesley Lepard. “I think that’s because everyone feels well treated. The door to their offices is always open. You don’t feel like a number.”

For Ann Gossen, who manages one of Newville’s plants, it’s a matter of trust. “We feel trusted to do our jobs,” she says, adding “there’s a lot of grace here, a willingness to go the extra mile. That makes this a good place to work.”

“When my mother was sick, John and Ted gave me as many days off as I needed to look after her,” says human resources manager Yvonne Friesen. II And when they asked me how she was doing, I knew they were sincere about it; they really wanted to know.”

For Travis Landry, who does special projects and maintenance, two incidents really stick out in his mind. The first was when he backed the forklift into a loading bay door. “John didn’t yell at me,” he says, “and he didn’t fire me or take it out of my paycheque. ‘It’s just a door,’ he said. He was more concerned about my safety.”

The other incident was the time a new wall needed to be built in the plant. “Ted worked right alongside me, helping me build the wall,” he says. “In all of my jobs, I’ve never had my boss get into my work with me.”

It adds up to respect, he says. “I don’t feel disrespected here for how I dress or how I cut my hair,” Landry says. “I want to stay here forever.”

They all point to the flexible work hours as a sign of care for employees – an important consideration when 85% of the workers are women, many of whom have to see kids off to school in the morning or be home when they come back.

“John and Ted are really concerned for the well-being of people who work here,” says Lepard.

For all four, it’s clear that the goodwill at Newville starts at the top. “John and Ted set the tone,” says Gossen.

Klassen and Loewen say that tone grows out of their belief that how they run their business should reflect their faith in God.

“I believe that the most important thing to God is people,” says Klassen, who directs marketing for Newville. “If people don’t matter to us, then we’re in big trouble. It’s not about candles, buildings, money or all the trappings of life – it’s about caring for one another.”

For Loewen, who takes care of the financial side of things, it’s the sense that “this is where God wants me to be. I’m not called to be a missionary or pastor like my dad. I’m called to business, and that means doing the best job I can and creating an environment where people can express themselves, grow in responsibility and be creative.”

Both agree that making candles is not the most important thing. “We had no burning desire to make candles,” says Loewen. Making candles is simply the vehicle that allows us to work together, and to make it possible for others to find work, too.”

Providing employment for all those people gives them a tremendous feeling of satisfaction, but it’s also a big burden, Klassen says.

“Every day when I drive in to work and see all those cars in the parking lot I think, What if I screw up? What if I can’t make the big sales to keep us going? If I screw up, they lose their jobs.”

So far, that doesn’t seem to be a problem. Orders keep coming in for more and more candles, including an opportunity to supply torch candles to the 125 major US cities that will participate in the 2002 Winter Olympics torch relay. And then there are exciting plans to open a plant in Guatemala, partly to be able to take advantage of new free trade opportunities in the Americas, but also to provide employment for people in the developing world.

There are also opportunities to support various charities, such as Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) and Canadian Mennonite University, in addition to local causes and groups. In this regard, they give a lot of credit to close friend and Newville board member Art DeFehr, president of Winnipeg’s Palliser Furniture.

“From early on, before we knew what the financial picture would look like, Art asked us when we were going to plan for our giving,” Loewen says. “He told us that the easiest thing to do would be to put it off until it was more convenient, or until we had a better idea of how the company was doing.

“But he said that for many, that day never comes – it’s never convenient enough or the financial picture is never clear enough. We took his advice and made our plans for giving early.”

For Travis Landry, there’s something else that impresses him about Newville Candle Company. “They don’t seem money-hungry here,” he says. “Sure they have to make a profit to stay in business, but this place is about more than just that. It’s not just about money.”

For Klassen and Loewen, that is the sweet smell of success.

—John Longhurst, MEDA

 

 

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