Brent Rourke’s fascination with wood began at a young age. After high school, he immediately enrolled in woodworking courses at NBCC in Saint John. It was that experience that led to his love of shaker boxes, an item that would go on to become a signature product for his business, Brent Rourke Designs. Brent’s shaker boxes are now frequently purchased as gifts for major events; one even made it to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Now in his 19th year in operation, Brent Rourke is a great example of the entrepreneurial spirit in the province of New Brunswick. Opportunities NB (ONB) spoke to Brent to learn about the success he’s seen in exporting, and how one of his products found its way across the pond to the Queen of England.
ONB: Let’s start with how your operation began. Was it straight out of community college?
Rourke: I had been working for the government and my wife and I ran into daycare issues; it was agreed that I would be the one to leave my job. I decided to stay home and start a woodworking business in the basement. In the 19 years since it’s really snowballed.
Initially our sole product was the signature shaker boxes. That market really matured so we branched out into other products as part of a wholesale line. Nine years ago we came to Bloomfield and bought and renovated the barn that now serves as a beautiful showroom for our retail business.
We have more space here so we’ve added custom woodworking into the mix. So we have three sides to the business: retail via the Barn, wholesale, and custom-made products which include furniture, full kitchen designs, and cabinetry.
ONB: You’ve seen success on the export front with your wholesale line. Where are your customers beyond New Brunswick?
Rourke: We have a hundred or so active accounts across North America, but Japan is our biggest beyond this continent. We have a big account there that we export to regularly. We’ve also recently shipped to an account in South Korea, and have done wholesale business in Taiwan.
ONB: The shaker boxes are still very much your signature product. How did Queen Elizabeth II end up with one?
Rourke: That goes back to 2004 and the 400th anniversary of Saint Croix Island being settled by French merchant Pierre Dugua. Herménégilde Chiasson had become the Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick the year prior. The establishment of Saint Croix Island was a significant event for Mr. Chiasson, and he was invited to England to commemorate the occasion with an audience with Her Majesty. He hoped to bring her something with real meaning, something historic; he decided he would bring her a stone from Saint Croix Island. He knew he couldn’t just give her a rock though, he needed a unique package for it. He wanted to present it to her in something beautiful so he purchased one of our signature shaker boxes.
ONB: That’s amazing! New Brunswick craftsmanship presented directly to Her Majesty.
Rourke: It is pretty neat. It’s certainly something worth touting on our website.
ONB: What would you say have been the biggest challenges in getting the business to the point where you’re exporting to Japan?
Rourke: We make high-end products, so keeping that quality level high and hiring good skilled people is always a challenge. On the wholesale side, it’s all very processed-based as far as handcrafting and manufacturing. We’ve eliminated much of the skill required there as we could. It’s on the custom side where it’s still challenging to see real growth, but we keep chipping away. We’re fortunate to have three streams of business. If we were only doing wholesale we may not still be in business. Likewise, if we were only doing retail or only doing the custom stuff we would likely not survive. It’s the mix of all three that keeps us running.
ONB: We’re curious about your advice for other exporters. How did you go about finding clients in places like Japan?
Rourke: The Japanese client found us, actually. That’s the thing about having a good website, it’s the great equalizer. Everybody is on the same playing field online; it’s just a matter of getting your site front and centre. Shaker boxes are our signature product and we’re well known for them now. As a world leader in those items export clients now find us simply from Google searches.
ONB: It’s surprising how many small businesses still don’t have a strong online presence.
Rourke: It really is. I think a good website is vital. Another thing is LinkedIn; why go to the trouble of having a profile if you’re not even going to use a picture? I won’t connect with anyone that does not have a profile image, they’re not serious. Your website and social media make finding clients across the world so simple. We do all our research and product comparisons online now. If you want to get into a large market—or get more exposure in your local market—you have to be online. Even locals expect a decent website for them to peruse. We keep the site updated, I have my LinkedIn profile, and the Barn has an active Facebook page.
ONB: What do you consider advantages of New Brunswick?
Rourke: I think quality of life is the main thing for us. If you come here you’ll see we live in a pretty picturesque little spot right along the Kennebecasis River. We’re fortunate enough to have a beautiful home here that’s a quick walk to work. So for us, the advantages of New Brunswick really lie in the work-life balance it offers. I’m not sure what else you’d need here.
ONB: Let’s wrap with your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Rourke: The secret is tenacity; you’ve got to have that clear vision and be working towards it at all times. Hard work is the only real key to entrepreneurial success. If you were to graph a small business’ success, it’s often not a straight line moving up and to the right. It goes up and down, and that can be scary. Being in business for yourself is not for the faint of heart.
Images via Brent Rourke Designs.