– Words by Lauren Kramer Photography by Darren Hull
For those who start a successful family business, the succession plan can be a quandary. Many business owners hope the next generation will keep their dream alive when they’re ready to hand over the reins.
For Nick Grasa, the founder of Westwood Fine Cabinetry in Kelowna, there was no question that his two daughters would forge their own path forward. So, when his daughter Angie Norman graduated high school and began studying science at the University of British Columbia, he happily supported her decision. At the time, Angie’s dream was to become a doctor.
But the family business had always been part of her life.
“I’d grown up going to work with my dad on Saturdays and working reception in my summer holidays,” she recalls. “When I graduated from UBC and wanted to travel in Europe, my dad gave me a job so I could earn money for the trip. That’s when I really became interested in the business.”
But back then, it was unusual for a young woman to be on the job site, and Angie learned quickly how to do sales calls and achieve a level of competence that would earn her the respect of her industry peers. She loved the warmth of working with wood and excelled at forging relationships with customers in the community.
“Dad sent me out on my own and I’d have to come back and draw a kitchen, do layouts, get accurate measurements and ensure my drawings were ready so they could be produced in the plant,” she says. “But he was always there to answer questions, give me gentle guidance and help any way he could.”
Kitchens, like the heart of the house, are at the heart of this family, and Angie says she has always been surrounded by beautiful kitchens.
Nick Grasa was a cabinetmaker who left Croatia (Yugoslavia, at the time) for Canada, and spent his first few years working in Alberta. The family vacationed in the Okanagan, a region that reminded Nick so much of his homeland that he relocated here, opening his cabinetry shop in 1972. Over the years, he purchased land for a new factory and showroom, expanding as the business grew.
When he succumbed to cancer in 1991, it was a huge blow for the family.
“He was a pillar in the community and was still very involved in the business up until that time,” Angie recalls.
Between 1991 and 2020 different leadership teams took the helm of Westwood Fine Cabinetry, while Angie remained an active director, keeping her office close to the front door so she could feel the pulse of the business and its day-to-day activity. Once her own children were grown, she returned to university to further her studies. Her executive MBA through the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School meant a commute to Ontario every three weeks for two years—but the experience was exceptional.
“It gave me a broader understanding of leading an organization, especially finance and organizational thinking,” she says.
By 2020, Angie felt more than equipped to step into her late father’s shoes as Westwood’s president and lead the company into the future. Now at the helm, Angie has brought about a renewed hunger for growth and innovation within the company, and Westwood is poised to evolve and grow over the next decade.
“There was a lot of cleanup to do after previous management teams,” she says. “I had to shift the work culture to a management team that is truly engaged in the business and invested in running it day to day.”
Today Westwood has a staff of 160, an 80,000-square-foot showroom and a shop that services business-to-business and business-to-consumer customers in BC, Alberta and the western US.
“Under my leadership, there has been a shift in the mindset of the team towards a more innovative and forward-thinking approach,” Angie says. “I saw the danger of becoming complacent after 50 years in business, and I’ve worked tirelessly to push my team forward, identifying gaps in the market and areas where we can improve. I worked with the leadership team to strike a balance between automation and the human touch in the plant, and I’ve aimed to create an environment where people are excited and thriving, rather than just surviving under a heavy workload.”
As she looks to Westwood’s future, Angie and her management team are thinking about Westwood’s relevance in the industry and how to poise the company best for growth and success in the years to come.
“The future will be focused on customization, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all formula,” she says: “A kitchen that’s more relevant and bespoke to the individual.”
To move the form, function and design of cabinetry into the future, Angie explains, Westwood aims to leverage emerging technologies and materials, while maintaining a focus on customer needs and preferences, as well as market trends.
“The integration of smart technologies, such as voice-activated controls, will start to play a large part in making cabinetry more efficient and convenient,” she says. “And the use of sustainable materials and eco-friendly manufacturing processes can contribute to more environmentally responsible cabinetry.”
Angie knows her father would be proud of everything Westwood has accomplished, including the awards the company recently garnered at the Canadian Home Builders’ Association’s Housing Awards of Excellence.
Winning Supplier of the Year had a profound impact on the team, Angie notes: “It was a validation of our commitment to quality and excellence, and recognition of the hard work and dedication of every team member. The award boosted morale, motivation and team spirit, and created a sense of pride and accomplishment.”
Angie adds: “Westwood has always stood for honesty, transparency, trust, integrity and quality. Those sound like buzz words, but those are the cornerstones of the business.
“My dad was very progressive and ahead of his time, and he wanted me to follow my dream. In the end it turned out that my dream was the same as my dad’s. I love what I do and am proud to be a female business leader in this community.”