Sunday March 12, 2023 | VICTORIA, BC [Updated 12:30 pm March 13, 2023]
Business Feature by Mary P Brooke | Island Social Trends
It’s a family business, including the suppliers and the customers. Other small- to mid-size businesses might tell you that, but at Monk Office in Victoria it has a story line all its own.
Tucked away, up above the warehouse full of office supplies in both plain and labeled boxes on palettes and on shelves, Caitlin McKenzie has two large windows. They both look out over the warehouse. The rest of the world is out there beyond the walls of this office and this building on Viewfield Street in the industrial area of Vic West. No view of the street.
Pictures of father James McKenzie and grandfather Ron McKenzie are on the wall. It was grandfather Ron who bought Charlie Monk’s office supply store in the early 1960s (following in the footsteps of Caitlin’s great grandparents who started McKenzie Stationers in Dawson Creek long ago).
“It’s not only a family business, it’s unique to us,” says Caitlin.
And Monk is an award winner! Monk Office was awarded the 2022 top spot as Business of the Year (40+ employees), as recognized by the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce in their annual business awards.
Worked her way up:
Caitlin is the next generation of stationers in her family. But she was not handed the keys to the corporate office on a silver chain. When her father James retired in 2014 a new CEO was hired who ran the company for four years.
The now 40-year-old Caitlin had made a point of stepping aside from the family business for a few years to sow her own wild oats in business, so to speak. She wanted to make her own decisions, carve her own path. She got an education, worked as an assistant to a life insurance agent and as a cashier for Thrifty Foods, then worked with Oak Bay Marine Group which took her to the Bahamas to help run a boutique hotel there. She developed business acumen by working, says Caitlin.
That custom path brought Ms McKenzie back to Monk in 2016 to work with Monk’s school supply program. Then in 2018 she applied for the job as CEO. Even then, she did it step by step on her own, buying the company in stages from her dad, making good on the requirement to have a 10 percent down payment within six months of being hired as CEO. “I wanted to have some skin in the game,” she says.
Thinking things through, Caitlin figured she could approach ownership of the company in one of three ways: be an owner and work in the company; be an owner and work in the company; or work in the company and not be an owner. She’s now CEO (interviewed along with others who were interested in the job) and works there. Leading the direction and keeping her hands on the files.
This career woman is a comfortable package of professional and personable, philosophical and practical. Amidst the details about inventory, staffing and management she comes out with deeper stuff like “too many things can go wrong if you don’t take the steps that the business needs to run properly”.
Back around 2010 Monk Office was at a crossroads. The company was hitting that point of growth where much larger companies were challenging the bejesus out of them. Staples just down the road and ‘everywhere’, Office Depot (though now defunct), and other companies were giving Monk a run for their money.
The company realized that if they put all their eggs in one basket they’d be ‘ripe for the picking’ which would make it more difficult to grow. Monk Office sought to determine how they could bring in the information sector (such as printers and copiers) and decided to offer different ways of doing business such as lease to own.
“Supporting people and their businesses to be more successful” was the way to further success, Caitlin told Island Social Trends on that Tuesday morning. “Broadening what we offered” was the key.
There was some adjustment. They went from 150 employees down to 130, not too much of a shift. They closed some of the upisland retail stores that weren’t producing. “That helped make the business more viable,” she says. And there was analysis: what part of the business is profitable and serving a greater purpose. “Paper and pens are not profitable but serve a great purpose to a business and the community,” she purports.
That was before Caitlin was at the helm but she remembers that time from around the family kitchen table. The equivalent of soul-searching brought Monk Office out of the trenches in small but steady steps, based on a very important principle: being true to what they were and how they could serve their customers. Also learning from their own employees about the divisions they operate, so the leadership can be more supportive.
A philosophy of building and sharing:
The philosopher again: how important one pen or one paper clip can be. Those are things that people need in order to begin. One file folder can hold the start of an empire. Monk has heart, and they share it. But not loose on their sleeve. Monk is thoughtful and targeted about how they serve their customers, staff and community.
One recent example would be how they ended up donating about $10,000 worth of school supplies to schools in Ukraine a few months ago. Monk’s director of commercial sales, Ian Taylor, had been approached about the idea from someone with the Langford Supports Ukraine group that would be accompanied by the Sooke School District 62 (SD62) school board chair Ravi Parmar on a humanitarian trip to Ukraine. It felt like a genuine way to help. “Ian wanted to help and be a part of that.”
It was done quietly ahead of time (with a lot of thought as to what would pack and travel well, and what would serve the students best — notebooks and writing utensils but also things for colour creativity like paints and crayons. After-the-fact there was some high profile promo by the SD62 chair on local Victoria TV and radio (though SD62 administration clarified that the donations were not received by the school district). For Monk’s CEO it was something that made a difference in the lives of people far away, but it felt right.
By comparison, when the war in Ukraine broke out a year ago, some of the Monk Office staff wanted to fly Ukrainian flags outside the building or in stores, as a way of showing support. In her wise way, Caitlin drew the line at that… the flags will go up but when they come down what will that signal? The compassion and support for the cause in Ukraine is real, but they won’t wear it on their sleeve. What next world event will they be expected to show favour? It’s all good. When Monk is needed, they will be there.
Authentic and genuine:
“Authenticity and genuine behaviour, everything above board,” said Caitlin about how the family business attitude resonates in all they do.
‘We treat each other as we would treat anybody,” she said during the interview at a table in her office in full view of the daily action and the history of it all.
She follows her father’s advice: “Never put into writing or say what you’d not want to see on the front page of the Times Colonist.”
New services, new stores:
Another way the company of 122 employees is shifting and growing is by offering flavours of their office supply. This year Monk has launched their managed IT services, which integrates expertise, supply and support to small and larger businesses who need technological office support. It’s a small-cell operation, until they see how it goes. But it’s unique and has the Monk vibe resonating through it. All the pieces are there, it’s not just a sale or a one-off service. Synthesis and authenticity are the buzzwords for how this company chooses to operate, from the top down. With “true cost visibility and accountability”.
That includes when it comes time to expand the real estate of the family business. Last year Monk Office purchased the long-time Island Blue Print Co Ltd stores. Maybe not a surprise, the McKenzie family knew the Shemilt family and they watched each other’s journeys over the years. When the Shemilt brothers Rob and Craig wanted to retire, it seemed like a natural merging of common mindsets to see the Island Blue Art & Framing stores refolded into Monk Office & Art stores owned by Monk (the book publishing and printing side of the former Island Blue Print still operates independently).
Monk now has nine stores on Vancouver Island: on Broad Street, Oak Street and Fort Street in Victoria, in the Royal Oak Shopping Centre in Saanich, as well as at two locations in Sidney, and three upisland (Duncan, Courtenay and Port Hardy).
The flagship store for that is at Fort and Quadra Streets in downtown Victoria. That new location had a close-friends celebration and one or two special days for customers.
Somewhere in all of that the pandemic happened. While the impacts were no doubt significant for Monk as for any company, family and individual who lived through the uncertainty and nearly daily change that happened in 2020 and 2021, Monk seemed to just take it in stride, even though their CEO says it was “a time of fear and the unknown”.
The company did take advantage of some federal employment supports, like the federal wage subsidy. Some stores closed for a while and some employees worked from home while others lost their jobs (and went on CERB). Some employees did not return after the stay-at-home phase, says Caitlin. She saw the return of “team members who really did want to be there”.
The company rolled with the punches of what people needed for offices that were sporadically occupied as well as the range of home-based offices that opened up across the region. Customer comfort and success during the pandemic was Monk’s mindset. Sometimes all it took was a small desk and a good chair to set the right tone for working at home in a separate space.
Practical steps forward:
And then it’s back to details and practicality… at the various stores recently offering various office chairs for sale at different stores until the end-of-stock was sold.
It’s a story that tells well, for a company that aims to do well. Not the biggest in town, but somewhere people can feel attended to when shopping and that the service approach is genuine when it’s at a business office or home office.
Women in business:
As for being a woman in business… Caitlin believes in being strong and inspirational, but adds: “The struggles, trials and tribulations are also inspiring”. Ms McKenzie believes in being “the same person you meet here” as you are outside of the business.
“Authenticity builds trust,” says the third-generation stationer. And she believes in thinking local, for the benefit of the company and her employees.
Caitlin has a boyfriend. And she has a dog. Her brother Max works outside of the stationery business sector.
===== RELATED ARTICLES by ISLAND SOCIAL TRENDS:
Thin line between school district & Langford Ukraine mission (Feb 14, 2023)
SD62 board has not approved student exchange with Ukraine (Jan 13, 2023)
Celebrating the new Monk Office & Art (Nov 5, 2022)
Langford mayor heading to Ukraine with GlobalMedic team (June 8, 2022)
Monk Office buys Island Blue Art & Framing (Jan 15, 2022)
===== ABOUT ISLAND SOCIAL TRENDS:
Island Social Trends is a long-standing publication in the west shore of South Vancouver Island (fourth in a series that began with MapleLine Magazine 2008-2010, Sooke Voice News 2011-2013, and West Shore Voice News 2014-2020, which then emerged as Island Social Trends in mid-2020).
Island Social Trends editor is Mary P Brooke, B.Sc., Cert PR. She is a long-time journalist, delivering news through a socioeconomic lens.
IslandSocialTrends.ca covers news of the Greater Victoria area and south Vancouver Island, with insights on BC and national issues.
Ms Brooke has consistently covered progressive politics on Vancouver Island including a focus on food security for the South Vancouver Island region. She has presented detailed coverage of the SD62 School Board and its committees since 2014.