JULY 2017



It is not uncommon to visit some of Canada’s oldest cities and find that the anchor business is new to town. As Canada turns 150, recognizing those businesses that took root in communities north of the 49 th parallel in its infancy is undoubtedly an important element of national reflection. When Chris Galer, the fourth generation of his family to operate one of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia’s oldest incorporated businesses, sat down to speak with Spotlight on Business Magazine in early June it was clear that he is proud of his slice of Canadiana. Chris and his cousin Jeff run POCO Building Supplies, a fixture of the Tri-Cities of Metro Vancouver since 1921 – or even longer, depending on how you look at, Chris explained.



By David MacDonald M y great-grandfather was the founder of the business. He was an Englishman who immigrated to Canada in the 19 th Century,” Chris explained. And like so many Europeans who eventually settled in Western Canada, Harry Galer spent time in Montreal before making the cross- continent trek to the Pacific Coast. “There’s actually a lot in our family history that’s quintes- sentially Canadian. On both the Davidson and Galer side of the family, we’re definitively waspy,” he laughed. “Family on both sides have a history of service in both world wars – and the business was kept running the entire time. Unfortu- nately, my great-uncle and my grandfather’s brother-in- law were actually killed in the Second World War.” If you are a Tri-City resident – which now includes the villages of Anmore and Belcarra and the cities of Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, and Port Moody – and a history buff, you may have noticed the bright red signage with white print above the entrance to POCO Building Supplies on Mary Hill Road gives an established date of 1921, which postdates the end of the First World War in 1918.

would often drive into New Westminster for supplies – coal and bits of lumber for the shop. He quickly found himself taking orders for people. He realized that this was a lucra- tive business opportunity and he decided to close down the shoe shop and run coal and lumber full- time by 1919 from a new shop on Shaughnessy Street nearly opposite City Hall. That’s really the origin of the company you see today.” What you see today is impressive. POCO Building Supplies is a founding member of Timber Mart, a Western Can- ada-based GPO (group purchasing organization) which has become one of Canada’s largest buying groups for independent business owners. “We have upwards of 750 member stores across Canada and we’re between the third and fifth largest lumber-buying entity in Canada. We bring significant volume to the table. We’re able to use our buying group to our advantage and buy in bulk as an inde- pendent.” Timber Mart is the largest Canadian customer of Orgill, the world’s largest vendor of hardware products in the US with access to over 75,000 products and industry-leading retail services, according to “They [Orgill] just opened a distribution centre in Idaho actually and we use them on a weekly basis to resupply on the hardware side of things and then we use a whole network of vendors through the Timber Mart distribution chain to bring in everything else.”

“That’s really the origin of the company you see today.”

“We trade on the 1921 date because that’s the date of our incorporation. My great-grandfather originally had small shop here in Port Coquitlam that opened in 1912 on what is today Kingway Avenue. He was one of only a few propri- etors in downtown Port Coquitlam who had a truck and he

But when Chris and Jeff took the reins in 2008, the path was a bit bumpy.

“We wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into,” Chris

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chuckled. “We saw a nosedive in the local market and abroad – the US market had started to tank that year and of course it went almost totally downhill in 2009. Lumber prices were the lowest they’d been in 15 or 20 years and it was pretty tough. It wasn’t until sometime in 2010 that we started to gain ground again. “My great-grandfather was the founder of the business. He was an Englishman who immigrated to Canada in the 19 th Century.” Since 2008, we’ve seen an 80 percent increase in sales as of last quarter in 2016. That 80 percent increase is due, in part, to the 65-70 percent increase in volume of the products we carry and that’s, in part, due to the two trucks, forklifts, and staff we’ve added since 2008. We knew we had the poten- tial to sell a lot more material and to move forward with a high-volume, high-margin model. We’re working harder and more efficiently.” Growing a business in a downtown core for 10 decades has its advantages and its disadvantages, Chris explained. “The city has certainly grown up around us. We are directly south of the largest railyard in Western Canada. Until the Coast Meridian Overpass opened in 2010, access to the north

side was problematic. We’ve really benefited from infra- structure upgrades like this recently. There’s also an under- pass connecting the north and south corridor, the Pitt River Bridge, the Golden Ears Bridge, and the Port Mann Bridge. I doubt there’s any building supplies business in the region that has benefited more from these upgrades. Our trucks comfortably service customers all the way up to the Whis- tler-Squamish corridor, as far south as the US border, and as far out in the valley as Chilliwack and Hope – we’ve even done deliveries into the interior. If it makes sense for us, if it fits our shipping schedule, we’ll use our trucks. Outside of that area, we’re doing more and more deliveries with either third party couriers or carriers. We’re into Alberta in places like Calgary and even as far as Ontario, which we really owe to the reach of our website. We’ve invested a lot in search engine optimization and it’s been worth it.”

a quote request, we usually have it back to them within a couple of hours – guaranteed within 24 hours. We want the website to show that we have everything here that the Big-box stores have and that we’re much more competitive- ly priced on most items. We love when a customer comes in and asks us to match a price with one of our major compet- itors; we take their list and match it all the way. “We’re not exclusive to any particular kind of customer. We get people who come in who’ve grown up under their dad’s tool belt and people who are new to home building.” is nothing short of industry-lead- ing. It is easy on the eyes and, more importantly, easy-to- use.

It’s often the case that we’re well below where the Big-box stores are.”

“Even though our website is on-top, we’re in the process right now of building a new one, which is set to roll out in either the fourth quarter this year or the first quarter next year. We’re going for a better feel, something that encour- ages retail customers to come check us out. The online side of things is down to a science for us. If a customer submits

“Our website really gives the customers a great impres- sion of the products we have on-hand and the service they can expect,” Chris continued. “While we do have a very large contractor base in the yard – mostly because of our positioning geographically – we do get a lot of walk-in

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retail traffic, particularly a lot of female walk-in traffic. We’ve really tried to ensure that our inventory reflects the walk-in traffic and the feedback we’re getting shows that our products and our friendly and informed approach are creating more loyal customers every day. Every customer who walks through the door has an equal opportunity for product research online and that just keeps us on our toes that much more. We’ll never come across as condescend- ing because we know that anyone has the potential to be an expert already.” “Since 2008, we’ve seen an 80 percent increase in sales as of last quarter in 2016. That 80 percent increase is due, in part, to the 65-70 percent increase in volume of the products we carry.” As much as POCO Building Supplies has expanded the products and services they offer to meet the demands of an ever-expanding and diversifying consumer base, Chris explained that the more things change, the more they stay the same. “We’ve long been known as a supplier for residential contractors. From an operational standpoint, custom home builders are the most sustainable customers for us. These are the people who value quality service in high-end products. Increasingly, it is niche products that have the greatest reach for customers. We’re obviously showing up on a lot of web searches now all over and we’re seeing that we make the most sense in terms of price point for many people. These are the kinds of customers that make us what we are.” “We’re not exclusive to any particular kind of customer. We get people who come in who’ve grown up under their dad’s tool belt and people who are new to home building. The range of customers obviously means very different workloads on our end, but we take everything in stride. The housing market and supply industry has really benefit- ed from the influx of immigrant communities in the Lower Mainland and this brings with it a lot of perspectives and opportunities for us,” Chris added.

For Chris, the opportunities include getting out to job sites in places like beautiful, seaside Belcarra.

“Some of the homes our customers are building along the waterfront are just incredible. The more unique a project is, the more technical difficulties it presents. Waterfront projects are a great example of this, particularly in Belcarra. Renovations and new construction on cliff faces is amazing to watch. The underpinning and putting foundations on rock faces and building upward from there is an incredible thing – impressive. The crane work alone is a sight to see.

The dispatcher usually calls me when something unique is about to take place and I love to get footage or a photo-

graph of it all. It’s awesome what these machines and what our drivers are capable of – it’s pretty neat.”

can be better served. It’s not so much them coming in with a list from their framer; it’s more ‘Can you tell me what I need to build a house?’ It’s a lot of extra work staying on top of industry changes but it’s worth it.” “Energy efficiency has really touched every category of building supplies,” he continued. “Right now I’m trying to make room out in the yard for two-by- eight precut studs and 92 and a quarter and 104 and a quarter because the new regulations put in place in the city of Vancouver require overall R22 on exterior walls, which means they need bigger studs to accommodate the higher amount of insolation. On a daily basis we’re adapting our inventory to reflect what is demanded by our customer base. We let that drive what’s in our inventory, the customer’s needs. Exterior envelope engineers or designers for newly coded homes are often building to improved industry standards, such as Passive House or even LEED, and we’re invested in maintaining our capability in supplying these builders of the future.” As much as one of his feet is firmly planted in the past alongside the footprints of his great- grandfather and every Davidson and Galer who ever worked a day at POCO Building Supplies, Chris is always ready to move forward. “Our core trading area remains the Tri-Cities – that’s where we actively solicit most of our business. We’re trying to move that circle outwards and we certainly follow any of our existing customers like contractors anywhere they work. And if new business comes looking for us, if someone needs something, a product, that we specialize in, we’re willing to follow that business wherever it may take us.”

But it is not always so hands-on at POCO Building Supplies. Chris explained that their list of online regulars is growing by the day. “We’re happy to do business through email alone and, quite frankly, it’s worked well for us over the years. I can recall several major projects like deck packages being sold to cus- tomers whowe never see or speak to – it’s basically just quoted and shipped. These are customers who typically access online resources and know exactly what they need. It’s that kind of flexibility that doing business in the Lower Mainland gives you. If a customer wants a quote on something you don’t have on-hand, you can usually get it in your hands within 24 hours. It doesn’t matter who the vendor is, we’ll get it. The Big-box stores just aren’t set up this way. Special orders come with so much processing for them that it becomes inconvenient and often unnecessarily expensive for the customer. People love to take advantage of how fast we can get a special order in their hands – they appreciate the value there.” More and more, Chris explained, special orders consist of energy efficient products and materials that meet the Earthquake Safety and BC Building Code standards. “Everything is systems-based now. Everything is more tech- nical, more carefully estimated. The introduction of reg- ulations regarding seismic engineering has also changed how we build residentially. The complex systems, the liner hangers, the engineered wood products that go into building a home now are essential to understand for us so that the designers and contractors who are our customers



“He was one of only a few proprietors in downtown Port Coquitlam who had a truck and he would often drive into New Westminster for supplies – coal and bits of lumber for the shop. He quickly found himself taking orders for people.”



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as spotlighted in the JULY 2017 issue of SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS MAGAZINE

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