Canadian manufacturer Renwil is like an iceburg. What you see at the company’s High Point, Dallas, and Las Vegas Market showrooms is only a smidgen of how much it really has to offer.
By all accounts, the late Allen Wilner was a hard-working visionary who set up a 500-sq.-ft. art studio in the corner of a warehouse in Montreal with one artist and two assistants. His goal? To have in-house artists create original works of art for interior designers and homeowners to enjoy. The framing for the artwork was also manufactured on-site.
A modest man, he preferred to reverse the order of the letters in his name rather than overtly name the business after himself. Over time, the company expanded to include mirrors, lighting, and accessories.
Growing up, his two sons – Jonathan and Ryan – admired the dedication his dad had for his work and got involved in the business on a casual basis as most children with parents who own a hands-on company are wont to do. Youngest son, Ryan, recalls many dinner table discussions between Jon and his father about the challenges and intricacies of running a company.
As university students in Montreal, Jon – impressed with the sourcing trips he took with his dad to New York City and London – studied business in-depth while Ryan studied marketing and began doing stand-up comedy, which led to a role on a popular Canadian TV show.
In their early 20s, tragedy struck when their father died. Without hesitation, both sons took up the mantle of continuing the family business. Their goal was not to merely keep the momentum going, but to nurture the enterprise and truly grow it in a way that would make their father proud.
Under the sons’ leadership, Renwil is indeed a remarkable business that has even added luxury plumbing (sculptural bathtubs and hardware) to the mix as well as a comprehensive “rug art.” While production for most of the categories is handled overseas, the company has the unique edge of having a full-time art studio filled with artisans with specialized talents at the Montreal headquarters.
Another distinction is the incredible act of producing a 600+ catalog of new items every six months. Yes, you read that correctly. Along with that “tome” of new products are individual catalogs outlining seasonal promotions (for example Fall 2016), a separate “Rug Art” brochure, a Fall 2016 Bestsellers booklet, Merchandising Program literature, and a handy-size Palette Book. All fit neatly into a gigantic three-ring binder for easy reference.
It Takes a Village
While Jon and Ryan are completely immersed in running Renwil – and each offers hands-on input regarding product design (Jon) and marketing (Ryan) – the true secret to Renwil’s success is the team they’ve put together.
Each executive team member has extensive knowledge in their respective field of expertise. Patrick St. Germain, who heads up the art studio, once worked at Renwil framing prints in his younger days after he graduated art school and had been sourcing unusual frames from the company for his art shows. Doug Karpman, VP/Sales, is a veteran of Price-Pfister, Black & Decker, and Kwik Lock. Phil Pinksy, Director of Marketing & Product Management, came from Diamond Productions Canada, and Creative Director Alem Sklar, who also earned a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, is adept at searching out trends and establishing the overall design direction.
Surrounding them are scores of digital artists who produce the images and schematics needed for the catalogs, e-tailer shops, and other sales avenues. There is also a customer service team dedicated to e-tailers as well as for brick-and-mortar customers.
The beginning of the process starts with Sklar, who travels the world – Europe, Asia, India, Thailand, Brazil, and Mexico, for example – with either Jonathan Wilner or Patrick St. Germain to scout emerging trends. “We are constantly looking at what’s hot in different categories,” Wilner explains. “It could be a texture, pattern, or even an idea [we see repeating].”
Once back on Canadian soil, trend boards are formulated and themes emerge. In one case, Wilner spotted a dog statue in India that intrigued him. He made some adjustments and re-imagined it as a sculptural base for a drink table. In another example, Wilner and Sklar designed a mirror with an antiquing process that made it distinctive. “I’m constantly tweaking the product,” Wilner notes. “I make sure a finish really complements the product and pay attention to the details like shading each lamp. The challenge is in trying to take something that looks high-end and unique within an affordable price range.”
Pinsky adds, “Jon can look at a lamp and know what will make it look ‘right.’ It’s having those little details that make big differences in the aesthetics. He doesn’t stop at ‘good enough.’”
Moving at the Speed of Fashion
Despite the expense of producing thousands of 600+ page catalogs every six months, the time and sweat equity is well worth it, according to the Wilner brothers. “Our business is constantly evolving, and we’re always looking [to produce items] that are unique and on trend,” Jonathan remarks.
Interior designers and cutting-edge home décor retailers welcome the comprehensive catalog updates since their clients are continually on the quest for something fresh and completely new. The immense catalog is in of itself uniquely presented. Instead of being arranged by category (i.e. Lighting, Rugs, Artwork, Accessories), products are grouped – and color-coded – by themes, with all of the categories depicted in ensembles. The Wilners believe this arrangement best helps clients easily envision which items go together seamlessly. This thought process is also how Renwil presents vignettes in its to-the-trade showroom across the street from the headquarters. At the showroom, interior designers can view the latest styles in person, or take their consumer clients inside for them to see the products first-hand.
The quick pace of introducing a vast number of products every six months keeps everyone in the organization on their toes — but they’re all on board with it. Renwil seeks out individuals who thrive on the fast action and quick-turnaround.
One of the newest categories for the company is what the Wilners call “rug art.” This is not simply a fancy term for decorative rugs; instead, in some cases, beautiful landscapes or abstract artwork can be duplicated as durable rugs for an unusually complementary setting.
Inside the Artist Colony
Despite all of the categories that Renwil serves, the core of the company revolves around the in-house art studio. As the executives point out, the market is flooded with reproductions of prints and paintings. Cultivating fresh looks – inspired by the trends that Sklar observes worldwide – are what keep the company top-of-mind with customers.
Given practically free reign to experiment in whatever medium or style of art they like, this cadre of artists is so diversified in technique that there is a harmonious camaraderie among them rather than acrimonious competition. Once a month, the artists present the assortment of what they’ve been working on for a more juried selection process by the executive team.
What does it take for an artist to come onboard? In evaluating artists, St. Germain looks for a diversity of skills within his group. “Someone might be strong in sculpture, or graphic art, or prints, or perhaps best with a paintbrush,” he explains, likening his role as the studio’s supervisor to a curator in a museum. St. Germain is also quick to point out that there is a difference between “fine art” and “studio art.” The latter is the process of adapting the art – which is typically subjective – for a mass audience. “We tread the line between fine art and commercial art,” he quips. “For commercial art, the subject matter is of huge importance; landscapes, abstracts, florals, and wildlife themes are among the top sellers.”
Adds Steve Rice of Rice Consulting Group, who is currently working with the company, “The art studio has diversity, but remains consistent to the overall brand.”
Karpman states, “We want to offer unbelievable value, but that can still be compared to the highest end.”
Custom Programs Are Key
Another key component in Renwil’s success is the amount of custom programs or private label that the company does. While the Renwil name is incredibly well-known in Canada, in the U.S., the manufacturer is not as well recognized under its own name. However, many of the larger home décor retailers do custom programs with Renwil.
Years ago, private label clients just contracted with a manufacturer and more or less purchased their merchandise without a lot of input. Times have changed. Most of Renwil’s major retail clients now supply their own trend boards for the manufacturer to follow. “For the independent showrooms, we act as their trend boards,” Karpman explains. That said, custom orders from small retailers are always welcome and can be accomplished far more easily than one would assume (i.e. no large minimums).
Serving multiple channels in a way that doesn’t step on any distributor toes is another defining factor. “We protect all parts of the market,” Karpman states. With the custom programs, the primary objective is to marry the images, techniques, and sizes that the retailer wants. “We always want it to be top Renwil quality; it has to look better than what the competition can do.”
Remember those 600+ catalogs that the company puts out every six months? The executive team at Renwil considers them to be just a reference point for customers. “Everything in our catalogs can be customized for our clients; the catalogs are just to start the conversation,” Karpman remarks.
And that is the true secret of Renwil: What you see in the copious catalogs are just the tip of the iceburg as to what you can order for your customers.