In the Saturday, May 11, Edmonton Sun Hicks on Biz Column, the subject of passing the torch from one owner to another was explored through the sale of Edmonton’s Allwest Commercial Furnishings from George Smith to the like-minded Colin Eicher.

The story earned its keep, given how difficult it is these days for any company to change hands and yet retain its legacy and business culture.

This story has a happy ending. New owner Eicher is cut from the same entrepreneurial cloth as Smith, recognized the qualities and corporate culture that made Allwest so distinct and successful, and is soon to embark, with Smith staying on as his CEO and Lorne Wight as President, on a business expansion.

The secondary question I had was what made Allwest such an successful company in the first place? How did it thrive and grow in a world where, more often than not, established local stores are bought up and integrated into national chains.

How did George Smith find the cash to renovate Allwest’s showroom and offices in Edmonton’s west end, at a considerable premium, to be LEEDS Gold certified, yet still compete?

As Smith wryly comments, “they’ll say, ‘good for you’, but for a 5 cent savings, they’ll still go next door.”

The answer lies basically in a holistic way of doing business that actually shows up on the bottom line. Allwest’s President Lorne Wight, the third member of the Allwest triumvirate, eloquently explains: “There’s a larger upfront cost to end up with a LEEDS Gold certification. But off the bat, there’s savings in reduced utility costs. A LEEDS certified building is a very pleasant building to work in, with natural light and excellent air quality. It’s very much a component of staff satisfaction and retention.”

Then there’s marketing cache. Customers or potential customers can’t help but be impressed with such a beautifully designed, gracious showroom, a visible manifestation of that all-important but illusive “culture” of a company. Price points and quality being equal, the LEEDS certificate showroom is a selling point. When EPCOR picked Allwest to refresh its office furnishings on the company’s move into the EPCOR Tower, it was partly because they liked what they saw in the Allwest showroom, and the EPCOR building owner was striving towards LEEDS Gold certification as well. 

Allwest is also community minded, supporting more than its fair share of not-for-profit and charity organizations. Its beautiful glass-walled boardroom is often available for community use. 

Of course Allwest has a community focus because it’s the right thing to do. But it’s also strategic, points out Wight. “If our employees are out in the community, they represent us. Being involved is all about networking and meeting like-minded people. It can’t help but lead to business relationships. In that sense, community involvement enhances shareholder value.”

Finally, Allwest thrives because it’s as much an office materials “solutions” company as it is a furniture sales company. Wight explains: “With EPCOR, we suggested the idea of cutting down the office partitions in height, to allow more natural light into the office space, then recycling the cut-off pieces into more partition walls, then re-cladding the cut-down partitions with environmentally friendly fabric. We knew it could be done. We’d done it.”

It’s not like Allwest has discovered a secret of business unknown to others. “Look at any list of Top 50 Companies,” says Wight. “You’ll find they all stress employee engagement, customer satisfaction and financial results.”

Why then was it so difficult for Smith, in his late 70s, to find the right buyer?

Possibly because it takes more visionary leadership to build and grow a company like Allwest, compared to the normal buyer who is looking to immediately squeeze as much money out of a newly acquired operation as possible to cover his/her mortgage or satisfy shareholders.

I am still puzzled as to why such companies as Allwest are so few and far between. Doesn’t it make more sense to run a business as a partnership built on trust and hard work between owner, customer and staff? Isn’t Allwest proof that good guys can be big winners?