Stinson Studios pivots to continue its export growth across the U.S. border

Stinson Studios pivots to continue its export growth across the U.S. border

When one of Steven Spielberg’s film crews went shopping for a gift for their Oscar-winning director, they ended up choosing a custom-designed artwork made by a small woodworking studio in rural Ontario.

Spielberg is by no means the only celebrity who owns a fine Stinson Studios piece. Others have included the emperor of Japan, former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright and the Marciano family, best known for their high-end jeans. NHL star Mike Fisher and his wife, country singer Carrie Underwood, received a “Stinson” as a wedding gift.

Located near the village of Tamworth, a 35-minute drive north-west of Kingston, the small family business sells its elegant wooden salad bowls, cutting boards, lampshades and coasters—not to mention its custom-designed artworks, made mostly from maple and oak—to 300 outlets across North America. More than 220 of those outlets are in the U.S.

The business has come a long way since Don Stinson, now 62, turned from furniture making to hand-crafting wooden bowls and burls in the early 1980s. His sons, Jesse and Spike, joined him as partners about a decade ago, and the studio now employs about a dozen people.

Don Stinson first dipped his toes into the export market 37 years ago with the sale of a red maple salad bowl to a U.S. customer. His appreciation of his products’ export potential was further bolstered when the federal government gave a Stinson Studios piece to the emperor of Japan as a gift.

Since then, exports have been central to Stinson Studios’ growth. By 2008, U.S. sales made up 40 per cent of its business. But the financial crisis hit hard. By the following year, the U.S. share was down to single digits.

The slump forced the Stinsons to rethink their export strategy. “After 2008, changed who we were appealing to. We’re now selling our art pieces to a higher-end demographic.”

Stinson’s customers now include Barneys luxury department store in New York and Beverly Hills, and TableArt, an upscale Los Angeles housewares store. The price of a serving bowl ranges from $80 to $900, with the most popular styles selling for $150 to $225. The studio’s signature line of one-of-a-kind burls are priced between $180 and $8,000.

By last year, Stinson was shipping 60 per cent of its production to the U.S. Sales south of the border doubled in the first half of 2016 compared to the same period last year. The company declines to disclose revenues and profits.

Despite these successes, Jesse Stinson notes that exporting is not without headaches. One of his biggest concerns is the tightening of the U.S.-Canada border since the 9/11 terror attacks. “The amount of discretion that an individual customs official has at the border is enormous,” Stinson says. “It’s very hard to anticipate everything you need to take into account when you begin to negotiate the border in terms of paperwork and what’s permitted, and what’s not.”

Stinson Studios has sought to sharpen its competitive edge by blending craftsmanship with modern tools and machinery.

“What we’ve done for the past decade is to work with local colleges and engineering firms, trying to develop woodworking technology – in a sense, going from hand-stitching clothing to using a sewing machine, “ Jesse Stinson says. “So we’re still keeping true to the idea of hand-made crafts, but we’re making it faster, safer and easier.” The company has also benefited from federal and provincial grant programs.

The Stinsons’ experience in transforming a traditional one-man artist and craft shop into a sizeable export business has become a model for others. “We’ve become a sounding board for new people in our field,” Jesse says. “When you make enough mistakes and learn from them, if you’re smart, you share them with people you respect.”

Jesse, with a degree in history and anthropology, focuses on the analytical side of the business, while his more creative father and brother spend most of their time on design and production. “We live in the country on an old farm,” Jesse says. “I have the forest next door. I get to spend every day with my family. At the end of the day what motivates us is doing something collectively together. It’s the way I want to live.”

Get more export insights from Jesse Stinson here.

Categories Exporting

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