Tired of what he calls the “retail grind” Sean McKinstry was hoping to find an opportunity where he could find the satisfaction of “working 80 hours a week for yourself versus 40 hours a week for someone else.”
“It is one of the tradeoffs when you start or take over a business,” he says.
McKinstry is co-owner of The Engraving Shoppe on Janice Street in North Bay, along with Tyler Langlois.
The pair took over the store in 2018.
“It was a great business opportunity that both Tyler and I were presented with. It was one that we thought we could make work and grow,” he says.
“I had been in retail (at Best Buy, formerly Future Shop) for almost 10 years and I had looked at some other businesses with some other colleagues of mine and I felt that I really just wanted to get my foot into the door of something where I could lead a business.”
McKinstry says he knew that search was going to take some foot work as he says, “I didn’t want to do something that was in an office at a desk, even though I did have marketing experience I really felt drawn to sales.”
“It was a tough choice to not go and work in real estate and car sales, but at the end of the day, once I saw the day-to-day of this job, it really sparked my interest because what we do is pretty unique. We have a lot of different avenues of production and there’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes,” adds McKinstry.
McKinstry says a lot of that interest wasn’t initially in the physical work of what is done at The Engraving Shoppe.
“When we were looking at buying the business, 90% of the opportunity was wrapped up in the finances of it. It wasn’t as much of the actual job that was interesting to me, regarding the art work and design of the products.”
He says, “Owning a business was the real motivation and the side effect of artwork and graphic design was a nice piece to add on to that.”
Having said that, McKinstry says now that he has gotten a chance to master the hardware and software sides of the job, it is something he really enjoys.
“The fun artistic side of the business didn’t really start until after about a year after we bought the store,” he says.
“We retained the employees who were already working there, and they were the ones that trained me on that side of things. That is now one of the more enjoyable parts of the job.”
He says there is a learning curve to that side of the business.
“Each machine has its own set of rules and that directly translates to the design aspect and so if you don’t know how that machine works you won’t be able to execute those designs properly and so there’s some training that really has to go in to that,” says McKinstry.
“We’ve been able to hire a few people over the last couple of years. Every time we do, I tell people that the training really does take up to a year because there is the software and the hardware that you need to learn to do the job. We’ve had people come in who worked in other industries and don’t realize how intense and intricate the work can be.”
McKinstry says both he and Langlois knew that going into an already established business in North Bay would have its own set of challenges.
“You have to take into account the relationships that have been developed over the years that you have to maintain,” he says.
“Tyler and I spent the first two years trying to not ‘rock the boat’ at all and just tried to send messages to our key clients to let them know what was happening and what our goals were.”
One of those main partners is with companies in the mining industry and it’s thanks to that industry that the Engraving Shoppe was able to stay operational during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During the pandemic, an entire section of our business was completely gone. Awards and trophies and any type of events and promotional materials were no longer needed and that was a huge eye-opener,” says McKinstry.
“However, we do have a side of our business that deals with the industrial industry, and what helped us was the fact that we were technically a part of the supply chain of the mining sector. So, during that very first lockdown, we were allowed to stay open because we service the mining and construction industry. They were considered essential and by extension, so were we. We operated at about 50% of our regular capacity and that allowed us some time to really reflect on how we would approach things going forward.”
As luck would have it, a few months before the pandemic the company bought a 54-inch vinyl printer, allowing them to create billboards and window advertisements and decals.
“Those were all things that became very necessary during COVID-19,” says McKinstry.
“We bought the machine because we had been outsourcing that process of our business and decided to bring that in house and the timing of that worked out very well for us to do a bunch of signage that became necessary for businesses during the pandemic.”
McKinstry says the biggest factor that leads to the pressure of the job are the deadlines.
“We get orders from clients that can be flexible but we also get a lot of requests for events and it isn’t possible to miss an events due date. That puts a lot of pressure on us to get that done,” he says.
“Nobody wants a medal or trophy after the event has happened and the organizers are definitely not going to pay for that hardware the next day.”
McKinstry says it takes a team effort to reach those deadline goals.
“We’re open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. however, there have been many late nights Tyler and I have spent there making sure those orders got done. It’s not very labour intensive because the machines are doing most of the work but you have to monitor and make sure it’s all going to plan,” he says.
“In the last few months, we’ve purchased a second laser so that we can do twice as many orders and that also takes some pressure off the staff to meet those tight deadlines.”
This is not the first time that McKinstry and Langlois have been partners within a business.
“The big part of the decision was that Tyler and I worked together for about five years at Future Shop and we ended up in cell phone sales together and at this time it was all commission-based salary,” says McKinstry who adds that’s where a lot of trust was built up between the two.
“When you’re working on commission, there would be a lot of times where you would help a customer and spend time with them going over plans and services and devices, but then they would come back on a day when you’re not working and want to buy that item,” he says.
“It takes a very honest person to then ensure that you got compensated for the prior work. There's a lot of trust you have to put in to your coworkers and there was a lot of trust between Tyler and I, and I think that’s the most important thing when approaching something from a business stand point.”
Originally from a small town outside of Ottawa called Spencerville, McKinstry is enjoying being a part of the business community in North Bay.
“I fell in love with North Bay as soon as I got here. I’ve been coming here since I was a teenager and it always felt like North Bay was a nice getaway area, it's very homey here,” he says.
“On the other side of the coin, as far as owning a business, I think that there’s a lot of opportunity in some of the key sectors of the northern economy, including in mining. Most of the service and the headquarters of these huge operations are in North Bay and so if you can find your way into that supply chain, it is a healthy place to be.”
McKinstry says the best advice he can give is to build relationships.
“A lot of the success is still built around relationships and finding people you work well with together, so if you can build that then you are going to do very well in a smaller city like North Bay.”