Institutional Furniture Manufacturer is not the most glamorous of titles. Institutions bring up visions of buildings with bars and steel doors. However institutions also include hospitals, schools, universities and many other public and governmental buildings. The furniture needs of all these institutions represents a huge market. The total Canadian furniture market for Household and Institutional Furniture and Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturing in Canada was 5.3 billion dollars Canadian in 2002, the latest statistics available. This is about 1% of the total output of all manufacturing industries in Canada and probably the percentage in the USA would be comparable. So even if the institutional furniture market is only say one third of this, it is still a very significant market sector.
The Montreal Gazette on April 8th had an article on one Quebec manufacturer in the institutional furniture market. The company is making its name known on the whole North American scene. It’s Foliot Furniture of St-Jerome and it’s been growing strongly in recent years. However their website shows design ideas that are the very farthest thing imaginable from ‘institutional furniture’. The company is typical of a number of other Quebec companies that are winning strong market positions in North America by quality manufacturing.
The reason why this company attracted my attention was in the small print of the article. To flatten out the seasonal cycle of their current institutional furniture sales, the company is looking into expanding into sales of hotel furniture. In some ways it’s a small world. Some 7 weeks ago, a very similar article appeared about Frank Ralphs, a manufacturer of composite panels for the transportation industry. Just like Foliot, this company is increasingly known throughout North America. The company bears the name of its founder. Frank Ralphs over 60 years ago was the head of the Furniture Department at Eaton’s.
Eaton’s was one of the flagship stores on St-Catherine’s Street. It’s part of the history of Montreal. Timothy Eaton, an Irish imigrant to Canada, was one of the founders of the department store concept. His first was built in Toronto in 1869. Eaton’s became almost better known for its mail-order catalogue. The Eaton’s catalogue was first published in Toronto in 1884. It grew to be a 500-page institution in Canadian history, with regional catalogues and distribution centres in Western and Eastern Canada. The ‘book’ was known colloquially as the ‘Farmers’ Bible’ and sold everything from kitchen gadgets to milking machines.
The Montreal Eaton’s store took over the site of the Goodwin’s department store on St-Catherine’s Street in the mid-1910’s. Many of us remember the fine elevators that ran in the back of the store and the courteous attendants who knew how to control those museum pieces. Up to the 9th floor they would whirl you to the fine Art-deco restaurant. The assistants were said to be all middle-aged anglophone ladies who spoke no French. It was certainly untrue even back in the 1970’s. Then of course there was the flap about the apostrophe. In the movement to give Montreal a French ‘visage’, Eaton’s was English and so could not appear. So the name was changed to Eaton. How could such energy have been expended on such a small punctuation mark. Unfortunately the Eaton’s chain went bankrupt in 1999 and was acquired by Sears with many of the stores being closed. Thankfully, the Art-deco restaurant has been restored by Fournier, Gersovitz, Moss et associ?s, a Montreal architectural firm.
However, back in 1944 Eaton’s was going strong and Frank Ralphs decided to set up his own company to make panels and other furnishings for hotels and restaurants. Over the years the company expanded to supply panels for all end uses and using all types of materials and composites. More recently the company has focused particularly on the transportation industry and no longer caters to the hotel and restaurant market.
So another Quebec company may now become a force in the North American hotel market. Based on their success in the institutional furniture market, the outlook is very promising.