Written by Janet Davies
Joe Carroll moved to Toronto but he’s come home again. He grew up in Prince Edward County, went away to study design and cabinet making in Toronto, built a client base there and then came home. “Most of my clients are still from Toronto, but a lot of them live here now,” he laughs.
“I was six years in Toronto,” he says. “And it really made me appreciate The County. I was fortunate enough to come back and start my own business. I’m a family man now. I have two kids Molly is eight and Niall is three. My wife Victoria is a teacher at Queen Elizabeth public school, which is two minutes down the road. Does she like it here? She’s from Waupoos, so, yes she does. We didn’t meet in high school if that’s what you’re thinking,” he laughs. “I was in university and she had just finished, but we actually met at The Hayloft in Cherry Valley. Not the new Hayloft, the old one, that classic matchmaking place!”
Joe studied furniture making at George Brown college and went on to OCAD for a Bachelor of Design. “Industrial Design, better known as Product Design,” he says. “It’s dubbed industrial design because it’s design for mass production. You have to know your plastics, your metals, your woods, how things are produced and how things can be mass produced.” It was about producing commercial product, but everything the students made was to their own design. “We were being creative,” he says. “But we were also taught things like human behavior, human needs – how to identify needs and then design to fill those needs. It’s good training. When I do kitchens, or a piece of furniture, the first thing I do is sit down to talk about the client’s functional needs and I design around that.”
Joe was just out of high school when he left The County. “It was that time when all your friends are going somewhere so you don’t want to be here anymore. In reality, I found I just kept coming back,” he says. “Why fight the obvious. I didn’t really enjoy Toronto to be honest. I thought it must be great if you’re a millionaire but I wasn’t. It sounds funny but I didn’t find there was much to do – or maybe I just didn’t want to do the things that were there to do. But going to Toronto served its purpose, I went to school, worked my butt off and achieved what I wanted. Here in The County, I do the things I like. I’m a wind surfer and people come from all over to windsurf here. I’m a biker and a hiker. It’s all here. We’ve got a boat, my wife’s family has some waterfront they’ve owned for about 100 years, which is great because we sure couldn’t afford it ourselves! But, hey, it’s an island with 800 km of shoreline, you’ve got to have a boat, right?!
“I have only ever worked for myself. I paid my way through school by building things. I got hired by two stores to make furniture for them, so I would come home on the weekend and make things and take them back to the city. It wasn’t big stores, these were small shops on Queen West, one was Morba, which I think is still there, sort of 50’s retro things. The other was Pavillion, more contemporary.
“I didn’t start my business from scratch here, it was more continuing something I’d started in the city. I moved home and worked in my parents’ garage to feed my clients in the city, and the furniture stores. I tried to cut that down and build up work in The County, but back then it was easier said than done. Like I said, today most of my clients are still from Toronto, but now they live here or have a place here. The big difference is I don’t have to go to Toronto to deliver,” he laughs. “No. That’s not true. It’s also different now because back then I was not designing, not fitting needs, just making furniture to order for the stores. ‘Give me seven mirrors at seven-feet tall.’ Now if someone wants a mirror I’d say ‘Let’s measure the space, how tall are you, what do you need to see in it, where’s the best location?’ I’m much more involved. There is a lot more creativity. Design is a big part of it for me. That’s why I went to OCAD, because I felt I hadn’t done enough.”
Now Joe has enough customers in The County to keep himself and a fulltime employee busy. “Paul Lowman moved from Oshawa when his wife got a job here. He plays in the band Cuff the Duke. He went to Humber College for cabinet making and he’s pretty happy being able to work fulltime at woodworking. He came to me at exactly the right time when I was overwhelmed. Usually I’d keep booking jobs ahead until people say ‘Well I’m not going to wait that long.’ Six months seemed to be the magic number. Then Paul came along and I could bring the wait time down and keep people happy and not have to say “no” to anything. So now I’m working to make sure we both stay busy!
“I want to give a credit to PELA CFDC who really helped me build my business. I got a Technology Development grant through them so I could buy more tools, hire someone and increase my work. Katy Gould was great to work with. I haven’t used any other agencies yet, although I might well be going to Career Edge for more at some point. There is also a woodworking community here that we can reach out for help or to borrow tools. There’s Kyle Lane, and some guys with workshops up on the Heights, like Brian Kuipers. Emerson Pringle from Waupoos is coming by today to use some of my equipment. And there are enough opportunities here for us all. I don’t feel we are taking work away from each other.
The Inside Scoop
“You know what is really smart? Having contacts with contractors. They seem to be the first ones in the door and clients will ask them ‘Who does kitchens? Who does built-ins?’ I don’t advertise because everything is word of mouth. In fact I haven’t been asked for a business card lately! Obviously it’s good to have online presence, but 95% of my clients are boomers, only about 5% are my age. Now that 5% want to check out websites, but the boomers don’t necessarily. If a trusted contractor says ‘Go with Joe’, great, we’re done. They ask me over, we talk and they suss me out that way. Then they might ask to see my website. It seems strange to our generation who instantly look online. Word of mouth is a strong element for my business. It works the other way, too.
“It’s funny. County time can be like Island time, some trades don’t have that sense of urgency. Sometimes it’s like whoever actually calls the customer back gets the job. I don’t know why that is, maybe some are just too busy? I don’t know. I give timelines, I’ve never missed a deadline, my clients get exactly what I lay out in the contract. I say ‘I don’t get paid until you’re happy.’ I take a deposit for materials. I do proper contracts. I would rather take a hit on materials than leave a client unhappy.
“Being clear on expectations is really important. A lot of my work is upfront, it’s the sitting down and designing everything, doing drawings so everything is in three-dimensional and we can walk through it. There’s a lot of talking, back and forth, I explain things and the way I go about designing. A lot of what I do is teach people how the process works and how designing takes place. They learn and get comfortable with it then it’s easy when the contract gets signed. Giving good customer service is why word of mouth works for me. We’re all busy, but it’s so important to communicate. Time management and communication. Pick up the phone, tell the client where you are at in the process.
JOE’S PRODUCTS AND SKILLS
“I do mainly cabinetry these days. I love making furniture but people don’t have the same appreciation for furniture. What can I do? Anything’s possible. I was taught not to design around my limitations. I don’t just design around my own ability because I can always find somebody else to do what I can’t. Design what is wanted, and it can be done. I don’t let my limitations stop me from designing great stuff. I know other talented people, like metalworkers, who can help me achieve it. Here in The County you don’t have to go far to get professional work done. There are a lot of artisans and craftspeople here.
“Most of my clients are Boomers. They’re buying a second home or they’ve sold and are moving here and want to fix up a house to their own ideas and taste. I am doing more custom fireplace surrounds and built ins. I do kitchens. My personal focus is design, but I make money on building boxes. People like physical things and they like to pay for physical things. The design part is still free, despite the fact that my schooling was based on that and a lot of my time is spent on it.
“Contractors and I work well together. Electrical and plumbing have to go in, there are timelines to meet, so there is friendship and partnership there. But it’s me who sits down with the client to design the kitchen. Because it is theirs – nobody else’s.
“I don’t want to get too big.”
“I am happy. I don’t want to get too big. I talk to a lot of people who have grown bigger and are stuck in paperwork and managing staff and are missing doing their craft. There is the risk of losing touch with the end product. People ask me when we’re sitting down talking about design, whether I actually build the cabinets, too. ‘You do it yourself?’ H laughs. ‘I say, yes. I’ve got somebody else now, but I’m still out there creating.’ I know the government tends to focus on helping small businesses to grow, but sometimes people don’t want to grow big. That funding could go to somebody just trying to get started.
“Take a look at my Facebook page to see some of my designs. I did the new Picton Golf Club bar. I do art shows, too, with my furniture. I do so many functional things that it was fun for me to get out of that space and design and build something really funky looking that was still functional. Most of my designs are for private, residential clients. I try to keep away from commercial projects. People don’t walk into the golf club and say ‘Ooh! Who did the bar!’ They say ‘Can I have a beer,’ ” he laughs. “I don’t find it leads to anything except maybe more commercial work. Also the person who commissions commercial work is often not the end user, and the end users don’t necessarily love it and respect it because they weren’t involved in the design process. A homeowner who took the time to design something with me is going to really appreciate it.
“So here I am back in The County. It’s important to me to raise my family here. My wife is a County girl through and through and she doesn’t see herself living anywhere else. I took a year off work to build our house – our family home. We were able to get our custom finishes and cabinetry. I could do just about everything except the electrical and plumbing. I did all the flooring, the kitchens, everything you see. I built the chairs. I made the spindles. We finished it in September 2016. It was well worth it. I don’t see myself living anywhere else either.
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