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Decision Makers

I was a 'hippy, and I didn't want a desk job'

Founder of Vancouver-based art-supply chain decided on incremental, steady growth for Opus

David van Berckel returned to Vancouver from travelling the world in the 1970s and bought a small framing business.

The series: We look at decision makers among Canada's mid-sized companies who took successful action in a competitive global digital economy.

If growth is the mantra of retailing, can a retailer also abide by Small Is Beautiful?

The book by economist E.F. Schumacher, published at a time of turbulence and change, as the world was hurtling into the 1973-1974 oil shock, championed people over profit, sustainability over resource depletion, "enoughness" over the whole concept of bigger being better. For many, these concerns are echoing just as loudly today.

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More from the series: How a Canadian tech firm with clients like MLSE landed in Europe

Also read: Intelex's ultimate mission: Help stop global warming

The book was a touchstone, a rethinking of business on a more human scale, and it affected David van Berckel heavily.

He wanted to grow what became Opus Art Supplies, now a mid-sized chain based in Vancouver, with that community-centred, grassroots ethos. Small Is Beautiful still holds sway for Mr. van Berckel, he says, four and a half decades later – even as he has grown Opus.

As a young man in the early 1970s, Mr. van Berckel had been reconsidering his itinerant career in civil engineering. He had worked with the non-profit development organization CUSO International for a spell. "I was in Borneo for two years, and then I bummed around the world for a couple of years. I decided I was going to come back to Vancouver. I basically was a returning hippy, and I didn't want a desk job," he says.

The business side of the arts interested him, but in Vancouver at the time, art galleries were mostly making ends meet from picture framing. So, Mr. van Berckel bought a small framing business from someone who wanted out.

The timing was good. Metal picture frames were just coming into vogue. Other picture framing businesses started springing up. And Mr. van Berckel got into wholesale, supplying metal frames to those stores. "It was fortunate that it was booming. Picture framers were opening up all over the place. I was able to surf that wave," he says.

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As Opus Art Supplies grew, it has branched into seven stores around B.C., as well as an online retailer, and has also expanded to high-end digital photo printing.

"And so, that's how I got started. I had a little retail shop selling framing, and also distributing this line of metal moldings." After Emily Carr University of Art and Design (then the Emily Carr College of Art) moved in across the street from the Opus store on Granville Island in 1980, the company expanded heavily into art supplies (with the frame wholesale business moving to another site nearby).

Over the decades, the business continued to grow "incrementally," as Mr. van Berckel describes it.

It has branched into seven stores around B.C. Its mail-order business has made the necessary switch to online, also handling both online retail and direct sales to schools and other businesses. (Together, online and direct sales bring in roughly the equivalent of an Opus store in annual sales.) And now Opus has gone further digital, expanded from art supplies to high-end digital photo printing, another pivot by the company as it looks for new growth and a larger customer base.

Even with Emily Carr University having moved out of Granville Island last year, taking with it the students who used to cross the street for pencils, pens and paper, Opus nevertheless expects little change in overall sales at the flagship store. Amateur artists, rather than students, are its bread and butter.

But is all of this emphasis on steady growth at cross purposes with the philosophy of Small Is Beautiful? The short answer, Mr. van Berckel suggests, is that in retail, growth isn't an option.

Because costs are always rising, stasis isn't really possible, he says. The alternative to growth is simply decline. "In order for a business to stay healthy, it has to grow. It's very difficult to tread water because costs keep growing. So you really have to focus on growth," Mr. van Berckel says.

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For a retailer with a distinct culture, growth has to feel authentic to the brand and to "the culture that has driven the company, in this case, for decades," says Mark Startup, vice-president at the Retail Council of Canada's Vancouver office.

Nevertheless, he adds, "I would be hard pressed to believe that any retailer, in their strategy, isn't seeking growth."

Mark Startup, vice-president at the Retail Council of Canada’s Vancouver office: For a retailer with a distinct culture, growth has to feel authentic to the brand.

For Opus, maintaining a certain culture meant hiring staff from local arts communities, and each store has a budget to give back to community arts programs. The company has also given about $20,000 a year to Emily Carr in bursaries for students in need, Mr. van Berckel notes.

Much of it, though, may come down to a certain grassroots feel that the business had from the start. "Back in the day, we'd have customers coming in, and it happened several times, asking us what the rebate was [for members]. They thought we were a co-op. They asked us about dividends," says Scott Cronshaw, vice-president at Opus.

Even though this meant explaining to customers that Opus wasn't a small co-op, "I'm proud that they think we don't have any other stores. It means we're not looking like a chain, we're not acting like a chain," Mr. Cronshaw says.

In commenting on Small Is Beautiful, British organic food pioneer Peter Segger told the Observer newspaper that the major influence of Mr. Schumacher is that in adopting the ethos, "you could start on whatever scale you chose."

Arguably, then, the ethos is adaptable. This helps, since Opus's market is changing.

The customer base for art supplies is limited. Competition doesn't really come from other art supply stores. Competition comes from all other forms of leisure activities.

"I always look at it like a pyramid," Mr. van Berckel said. At the top are the relatively small number of professional artists. Then there are the slightly larger number of serious amateurs, those who could sell their work if they wanted to. But then there are the vast number of leisure artists, by far the bulk of Opus's customers.

With leisure artists, "there is no shortage of money. They are quite well off. It's a leisure pursuit of the intelligentsia, and there's money there. And so, we're competing for their time," he said.

Picture-framing and art supplies isn't growing. "I wouldn't say it is a sunset industry, because I think [customers] will always be there. But there's almost no growth in the industry," Mr. van Berckel says. And so with the prospect of a stagnating, dwindling customer base, Opus added high-quality digital printing, looking to cater to the same kind of market in Vancouver that, say, Toronto Image Works has in Toronto. And helping to feed this is Opus's database of regular customers, which the company has used to let them know about the new digital printing business.

It has also enabled Mr. van Berckel to consider the future of Opus. "I've been approached, obviously. People are interested in buying [the business]. But it's just money. They're not interested in the business, they just want money," Mr. van Berckel says.

He is leaning toward an alternative that has always been in keeping with its culture. “I’ll probably do a co-op because B.C. is well know for co-ops,” he says, Mountain Equipment Co-op being one of the most apparent, with its headquarters in Vancouver.

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