Meet The Makers: B. Finlay Millwork

Posted by Drake General Store, April 22, 2015
B. Finlay Millwork

In our online culture, where everything is instant and commodity ‘nichy-ness’ is the new bottom line, the notion of craftsmanship has become more of a romantic one, reserved for those who lament the days of authenticity and hands-on design. Here at the Drake General Store though, we are romantics at heart, and always in search of people in the community who are doing their own thing and putting a little personality into what they create. This is why it was so encouraging to sit down and talk with Brennan and Kate, the faces behind local woodworking and handcrafted furniture business B.Finlay Millwork. We first came across these two after they built the podiums for Talwst’s “Nubians” installation at the Drake Lab recently, and they’ve been on our radar ever since. Going against the grain in more contexts than one, these two are a pair of young entrepreneurs with comparatively old souls, who still believe in the concept of actually touching what you make. We sat down with them to find out how business is going, what’s it like working with your sibling, and why (according to them) so much of this city’s character and success is built on the people who call it home.

Founded in 2013, B. Finlay Millwork started out like many artistic endeavours do: small jobs here and there for friends, while maintaining full-time jobs to pay the bills. Then came referrals, which eventually lead to further collaboration with local clients and other artists in the community. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Still a young business, B. Finlay Millwork is now establishing its own unique style when it comes to furniture design. While the bulk of their business currently comes from custom furniture orders, and pieces for various creative establishments in the community (Cambie Design, ,Crown Flora, Bake Shoppe), they have their sights set on creating their own personal collection soon. Without pigeonholing, their distinguishing characteristics are functionality, paired with lots of aesthetic foreplay, and an appreciation for the subtle nuances that make one wood different from another. It’s all very visceral and yes … sentimental.

And while this sibling duo might be gaining notoriety steadily, it’s not the attention-seeking condition of owning an Instagram account with an increasing follower base that propels them, although Social Media plays a part. Their motives are traditional and considered. From the design process to delivery; from building relationships with customers to the making of furniture, this business is a love affair first, and a way to make a living eventually, they hope. And so do we. Meet Brennan and Kate of B.Finlay Millwork

B.Finlay Headshots

KG: How did you two get started with B.Finlay Millwork? Give us a bit of a timeline?

Brennan: B.Finlay Millwork started as me picking up side work while I was working a full-time job. My close friend Camille (of Cambie Design) had asked if I was interested in helping her with some woodworking type projects. Camille’s referrals led to more work, which eventually led to me asking my sister to help keep me organized. Her background in marketing and management was experience that I didn’t have, but I needed. We actually founded B.Finlay Millwork in September of 2013.

KG: Describe your workspace.

Brennan: We operate out of a co-op shop space in the east end of Toronto that we share with some good friends and colleagues. It’s pretty barebones, about 2,000 square feet. We’re looking to move into our own space within the next 12 months.

KG: Okay be honest, what’s it like working with your sibling?

Kate: Brennan and I have always been close. We grew up with a single mother so we always had each other’s back, and our relationship has continued to develop with the growth of the business. We have to be so honest and transparent with each other about everything, and I actually feel like that has allowed me to be more honest and transparent in my personal life. There have definitely been some tough conversations, and we know each other so well that we know how to push each other’s buttons, but that’s also a huge benefit because we know how to communicate with each other for motivation and inspiration.

Brennan: Working with Kate is second nature to me. We grew up with a single parent who was an entrepreneur, which made my sister and I rely on each other a great deal. If you ask any of our friends (as we have a lot of mutual ones) they will tell you that we are very close. I truly believe that if it weren’t for us working together, Kate and I would be in very different places in our lives. We both attribute a large (and rapid) amount of personal growth to the business, which is a nice thing to witness in a sibling, as you grow together. Do not get me wrong though, we get on each other’s nerves every so often, but we have learned how to communicate our grievances. The business wouldn’t be around if we didn’t do that.

B. Finlay Millwork

KG: One thing I love about Toronto is that unlike a lot of larger cities it feels like a neighborhood. The relationship between local vendors and buyers is not a purely transactional one, because often we know the face behind the brand and we support one another. Would you agree? What role has the city played in your success?

Kate: Oh, absolutely. This city has played a huge role in our success. We really pride ourselves on the relationships we build through a sale. We’re also part of this great network of people who are like-minded about things. Meeting with different people in that network is inspiring. So much of this city’s personality and success is built on the people who call it home.

Brennan: We wouldn't be a company if it weren’t for the personal relationships that we’ve developed with other local makers and builders. The support networks that we have here are due to word of mouth and friendships. I feel like the “nichy-ness” of Toronto is slowly dissolving as more vendor/buyer relationships grow and adapt. We are forever grateful to all the people that we have become friends with and to the people we continue to meet. That’s why our business has been so successful, so I very much agree with your statement.

KG: You guys collaborate a lot with other local entrepreneurs and creatives. You built some of the installations for Talwst’s 'Nubians' at the Drake Lab recently. In many ways Toronto employs a “trade system” type business model when it comes to small business and creative "business"; a skill for a skill. Do you enjoy the process of collaboration?

Kate: Collaboration is key. We’ve done so many collaborations with local entrepreneurs that it’s become the backbone of our business. I think a lot of our generation thrives off of this process. The barter type transaction is how we’ve done a lot of our jobs - “we’ll build you X, if you can provide us with Y”. I don’t think it is just Toronto either, I think there’s a lot of great communities that do this globally. It’s nice and extremely interesting to see the shift in the way people of our generation are doing business.

Brennan: Personally, I just love being able to help pals out. Kate and I know a lot of remarkably talented people in this city. Quite often we find it hard to believe that we are the ones being called upon to help these talented people out.

KG: What has been one of the biggest challenges of being a small business owner?

Kate: I don’t know if there is one thing in particular that stands out as the biggest. We’ve had a difficult time struggling with our self-worth - ensuring that we are pricing products to cover our material and labour costs. And it’s hard because every job is different. One thing that drives us is the saying “under promise, over deliver”, and even sticking to that can be a challenge from time to time.

Brennan: Kate and I have had a very difficult time valuing our own time and worth. From quoting jobs to allocating adequate personal time, to scheduling work and personal life, we’ve learned some hard lessons. All of these things can take their toll on you personally, as well as the business.

KG: The Internet has changed our notion of “community”. People are connected now despite being geographically separated, and I think in many ways this has allowed artists and designers a certain level of creative autonomy. With a larger audience you can find buyers more easily. But, in many ways the Internet has been counterproductive when it comes to honouring the more intimate processes of design. Being online, are you guys open to the potential for a larger consumer base, or do you like the idea of staying small and intimate?

Kate: This is an interesting question because I think we’d love to have a larger awareness, which would lead to growth. However, so much of what we do is an intimate process. We meet with a client and work with them to create a special and unique piece that, in the end, is theirs. If we could find a balance between having a larger awareness while maintaining that smaller intimate feel, we’d be pretty happy.

Brennan: You raise a really interesting point. Kate and I really love the joy of making a “one-of-a-kind” piece for a client. Making one piece as unique as possible is where we find the joy in our work. We have plans in the future to produce products that will reach a more global/international audience, but we’re in no rush.

B. Finlay Millwork

KG: What is the most important aspect when starting any endeavour? Passion?

Kate: I think passion definitely plays a part, especially as an entrepreneur. You have to love what you do because you’re doing it 24/7. Brennan and I bring different skill sets to the business, so we balance each other out. But I think from my perspective, one of the most important things is communication - not only between the two of us, but with our clients as well.

Brennan: Passion, drive, desire and most importantly, your work ethic. If you are passionate about something, you won’t be afraid to work hard for it. That is what should drive you, your desire to create that thing that you are passionate about. I think something else that is really important is a footing in reality. Being passionate and driven is great, but not planning how to get there can be a major fault. We’re still learning.

KG: What are you guys listening to right now while you work? Do you agree on music choices?

Brennan: My sister and I have different musical tastes. For the most part we don’t step on each other’s toes when it comes to controlling the music. Kate listens to playlists on random, where I listen to full albums. When I am at the shop on my own, I often listen to podcasts (CBC, Freakonomics). I’m currently listening to some older stuff that I came across. Spinning right now: Van Morrison “Moondance”, Ariel Pink “Pom Pom”, Arkells “High Noon”, The Weather Station “All Of It Was Mine”, Timber Timbre “Medicinals”.

Kate: Brennan has always been my music guru and he gets me interested in new music. At the shop it’s always a different vibe. I usually ask him to play DJ. But he won’t argue with me when I put on Taylor Swift’s new album.

KG: Do you have a favourite kind of wood to work with? Weird question?

Kate: I’m a big fan of walnut. I love the way it smells when you work with it. A lot of our recent work has been barn board or reclaimed wood. It’s fun working with that because you can see the history in the pieces, there’s always a story. Just the other day Brennan went out to a barn with a friend and literally hand picked boards for a client.

Brennan: Not a weird question at all. That would be like asking a painter what type of paint they prefer to work with, wouldn’t it? Currently I am a big fan of working with hickory and/or walnut. Both woods are beautiful when they are finished in a clear lacquer or oil. They smell fantastic and are fairly easy on your tools.

KG: What do you enjoy most about woodworking and building furniture? Is it the tangibility of design? There must be something very satisfying about creating something with your own two hands. I imagine it feels very primal.

Kate: I’ve always felt like I was a creative person, but I struggled with putting pen to paper and actually having something to show for it. In my old jobs, my day would consist of sending 50 emails (and yes, that’s still part of it), but to be able to look at a physical piece of furniture at the end of the day and say “I built that”, there’s something really satisfying about it. You can actually see the results of your work. And the other thing that’s really amazing about what we do is the relationships with clients. There’s nothing more gratifying than receiving a phone call or an email from a client saying how thrilled they are with their piece.

Brennan: There is something about taking raw (natural) material and making it into something that can be enjoyed in someone’s home. It’s an incredibly tangible process and very gratifying. To start with a concept, design it, build it, all the way to the finishing and delivery it’s a really amazing process.

KG: Any advice for entrepreneurs just starting out?

Kate: Organize: have a plan for everything. Communicate: over communicate even, not only with yourself and your business partner, but also with the client. Confidence: if you don’t believe in you, how can anyone else? Laugh and Cry: sometimes days are tough and they suck, but there’s a huge joy and gratification in knowing that you’re doing what you love.

*Images courtesy of Courtney Lee Photography + B. Finlay Millwork

Posted in: Drake General Store