“Jobs of the Future” is a series focusing on career paths, local job opportunities, programs, and tales of success that highlight North Bay's diverse job market.
Local business Vested Interest started almost 30 years ago after Jennifer McNutt Bywater and her husband Brent were travelling across the globe.
“We spent six months in Africa and then I got a scholarship to study at the University of Malay in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and at the end of my school year we went on holidays to Bali and that’s where we saw all of these beautiful hand-made goods,” says McNutt Bywater.
“We started bringing different things back to North Bay, and were really some of North Bay’s first street vendors with that stuff, including the stuff we brought back from Africa.”
McNutt Bywater says the couple would spend their weekends travelling to summer festivals and sell their goods and opened their first 800 square foot store in Callander, across the street from where they are located now at 1407 Main Street North, Callander.
“We never really wanted to get into retail because we always wanted to travel and didn’t want to be tied down to that,” she says.
“But when we opened the store in 1993 we would only be open on Saturdays and we would have lineups to get in. Shortly after we decided to be open on Sundays as well, then we added Friday and before we knew it, we were opened seven days a week.”
To get their products they would continue to travel around the globe and work directly with artists and artisans.
“I would travel twice a year to Indonesia and Thailand and work directly with the artisans that produce our goods. It is all custom made and as we’ve grown, in order to be competitive within our market we have to be creative,” says McNutt Bywater.
“We have everything from root and teak furniture, antique furniture, home décor, garden accessory products, jewellery, women’s beauty products. So we’re very much a destination store. We are a unique business that unfortunately not everyone realizes we’ve been here almost 30 years.”
While the business became renowned for their goods and the store won several awards of recognition within North Bay and area, they faced enormous uncertainty about a decade ago when a fire destroyed everything in their wholesale warehouse.
“We moved from our location in Callander and set up on McIntyre Street while we were invited to have our wholesale warehouse on the second floor in the Lefebvres Source for Adventure building on Main Street in North Bay, but in 2012 that store burned down,” says McNutt Bywater, who adds the smoke damage was so significant they also lost everything within the store on McIntyre.
“At that time we were wholesaling to about 2,000 stores across Canada and our main warehouse was directly on top of the building that burned down and so we ended up losing everything. We had to fight with the insurance company for two years and we were hoping to rebuild on Main Street but that never happened. We decided to go back to Callander and build our flagship store with our main showroom.”
Another more recent challenge facing the business is due to the Covid-19 pandemic that shut everything down in March of 2020, it forced McNutt Bywater to have to reconsider how she could get her product.
“I wasn’t able to travel,” she says. “I have not been able to work on new designs with our artisans and it’s not something you can just do over the phone as there are language barriers and other issues that you just need to address in person.”
McNutt Bywater says she had to order her last shipment container through the WhatsApp application which she says might not have been possible had it not been for the trusted working relationship that has been built over the decades between herself and her contacts overseas.
“I have to send over the money in advance and then trust that they are going to produce the goods and then I have to trust my cargo agent to collect everything to put in our warehouse,” she says.
“But we are very much a part of these people’s lives and they are basically family and they rely very heavily on our business, so they are trusting us to help them continue earning them a livelihood.”
McNutt Bywater says they were able to overcome those challenges and they could stay open during the pandemic because they started specializing in gourmet foods about 15 years ago and therefore were deemed essential.
However, she says another challenge is being presented in the escalating costs of doing business during a pandemic that has gripped the world.
“The shipping costs have gone up 400 per cent,” says McNutt Bywater.
“A container that used to cost $7,000 US is now $32, 000 for the same container, and that’s just the base price, not including packing and customs and so I really have to ask myself, how can we do business with those kinds of costs, and the answer is that we can’t.
“The only businesses that can really afford that are the big box stores and if it comes down to it, that could be the only business left in our cities. We don’t really know what lays ahead,” she says.
“I used to think that when we burned down, that was the worst thing that’s ever happened to us and now I look back and think that, that was a cakewalk. Although it was a long time coming to get back on our feet after the fire and we really felt like we were just back to that point when Covid hit. We had to lay off 35 people. We are the largest employer in all of Callander.”
McNutt Bywater says there are options for them to continue to be sustainable.
“A lot of our gourmet foods come from Canada and the United States and we also have lots of products for the retail side of the business, however, it’s the wholesale side that is going to take a hit,” she says.
“We have a retail business only because we have a wholesale business and that’s something I’ve been telling people for a long time.”
McNutt Bywater says there have also been signs to point to being optimistic.
“Through Covid, people are definitely more conscientious of their local businesses and how important they are to the success of the community,” she says.
“People want to go to these unique and different places and have these experiences of shopping. People realize that they are not just supporting us, but also supporting those 35 people and their families in Callander.”
McNutt Bywater also adds that the support stretches farther than just the Callander area.
“There are hundreds of families that were relying on Vested Interest in Indonesia, so when people buy a product from us, they aren’t just buying a pretty thing, they are supporting a lot of people,” she says.
McNutt Bywater describes her store as a “feel-good place.” She says, “We have people who say they can just spend all day in the store. I’m told that when people come to visit our area, the first place they are taken to is our store. Our local people are proud to show off the uniqueness of the store to their friends from out of town.”