Harry Sunner was just 19 years old when his family moved from England to Canada. Sunner and his father joined another business partner at Durabuilt Window Systems, but within a few short years, the Sunners became sole owners of the company. At that time the company had 12 employees and hand tooled PVC windows.
Today, Sunner is the president of Durabuilt Windows & Doors, a thriving Edmonton success story with more than 400 employees, a wide range of innovative products and multiple locations.
For Sunner, it’s been quite a journey.
“I call it re-defined,” he says when asked how he feels about the rapid growth and development of the company. “I use the term re-defined quite a bit because we shifted from the window business to the people business. When you start with 10-15 employees the culture is to work hard, and others will follow, but when you have 400+ employees, that doesn’t work! Create a vision others can embrace, communicate the goals and set the direction. If you take care of your people, they will take care of the business. That is the change in our corporate culture.”
He pauses after using the word “corporate.”
“I don’t like the word corporate because we are private. My audacious goal is to have an autonomous company but never to lose the appreciation and empathy for our employees and customers. Even though we went from 10 to 400+ employees we still hold the values and morals we started with, now leading to help people win and align ourselves to be a professional brand.
How does one support a team that size?
“It’s all about alignment,” confirms Sunner. “Whether it’s the office space they work in, training and development or a simple recognition. We are suffering a downmarket, but we continue to invest across the organization to build a better future, such as spending $600,000 for a staff lunch room. The wellbeing of our employees is a constant value we deliver. It’s taken years to inspire a winning team, so why wouldn’t we take care of them? At every level we have re-branded and done things in our offices such as events, bringing in guest speakers and rewarding people on our wins and successes. The health of our organization starts with our people.”
Durabuilt has four channels of business: new home builders, renovations, dealer distribution and contractors.
“Durabuilt is well known for innovation and constantly going to market with new products,” smiles Sunner. One of our core values is innovation; think ahead to stay ahead. We must always be agile and aligned with our clients. We continually work hard to make sure price is not the only factor as to why our customers do business with us. We go the extra mile, then always go one more. Over the past 30 years we have had our growing pains, but many customers have supported us through all stages. Our customers and employees have made Durabuilt a trusted brand, but I do say that with that with maybe a degree of ego,” laughs Sunner.
“Our primary stakeholder is the community,” Sunner continues, noting his and the team’s passion to be a positive influence in the cities in which they operate. He credits his desire to give back to the example set by his parents.
“Caring is one of our core values,” Sunner explains. “As a family my parents have always given back and have been very generous to the immediate family and community, even when we had no money. Sometimes it’s not about money, but what you can do to help. I believe one must give to grow as a brand, individual and company.”
For the past few years Durabuilt has been a major sponsor of heart pledge day at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute.
“During our recent visit we had the pleasure of touring the cardio operating room and meeting some of the doctors,” says Sunner. “Durabuilt has supported the Mazankowski Heart institute for more than 15 years and we are among the group of pioneer donors to the Guru Nanak Healing Garden, which was initiated by my father. Cardiac patients receiving world leading care in the heart of our city with some of the world’s best doctors saving lives every day makes me extremely proud.
“I have been on the CASA board for a few years and I am proud of how Durabuilt supports this great cause. Just a few ways the company gives back include jean day Fridays (where the staff wear jeans in exchange for donating to a charity), the CASA gala and our annual golf classic.” Sunner notes that a down market has no bearing on the company’s willingness to give back, as caring is such an important pillar of Durabuilt.
“Edmonton is growing and full of opportunity. If you are an immigrant coming in, or opening a business, or an entrepreneur that has been living here since the 60s, there is an opportunity for you in this city. I think the future is very bright in Edmonton. That is why being local is very big for us. We are proud to be an Edmonton-based business,” says Sunner.
In addition to finding inspiration in the energy of the city, Sunner is inspired by his circle of family and friends, and the daily successes at work.
“I am blessed to be surrounded by the amazing people in my life. I have worked with my father since the age of 10 and he is a product of the most challenging times. I have been formed by lessons seen and learned from a young age. Not many can have such a great father-son working relationship for 33 years. I do get discouraged at times but when I do, people to pick me up and encourage me to keep going. On the business front I’m motivated every day by tiny pulses of success, such as staff talking to me about new products, challenging the status quo, a new client onboarding, or new team member joining. Any tiny pulse around the whole organization is what I strive for. You get bad news sometimes too, but every time you see something going well, it lifts you up.”
He pauses to reflect.
“When I look back to when Durabuilt was just me and my dad and our small team of 10 – 15 staff, the goal was just about putting bread on the table. What we have now wasn’t a dream we were chasing. When you look back to what the business has become, you are humble enough to appreciate that you are somewhere you never expected to be. So, a few mishaps? Your skin is thick enough to withstand them.”
That doesn’t mean the challenges don’t push Sunner and his team, but they rise to the challenges and meet them with optimism.
“The economy isn’t helping us,” he divulges. “There is also the problem of alignment. If your team is not aligned things can become challenging. We strive to ensure alignment across the organization, and that is the toughest thing in a company of this size. However, we continue to learn from our mistakes.”
With nearly 30 years of business behind him, Sunner looks back on what he’s learned along the way.
“I’ve always had drive and found inspiration in people that were better or had stronger, bigger businesses. I never had an approach of jealousy, but of open, inquisitive learning. Edmonton is surrounded by many great entrepreneurs, and when you look around and network, you learn how those companies became successful.
“There was a point eight years ago when I hit a brick wall as an entrepreneur. I felt my leadership abilities were expiring. A good friend and client, Henri Rodier, gave me the wisdom to join TEC, which is a peer group of entrepreneurs working through challenges. After joining, Durabuilt’s growth accelerated, leadership went a new level and the business started to transform. I applied every piece of what I learned into myself and Durabuilt, otherwise I may have needed to resign.”
He continues, “Your team is the biggest thing and sometimes I learned that the hard way. Your surroundings are imperative of what you and your brand will become. Be vulnerable and recognize your weaknesses and enable others to be better than you.”
As his family is one of the places he draws strength, he’s learned, like so many young entrepreneurs before him, that work/life balance is a foundation for lasting personal and professional success.
“When you can’t tuck your kids into bed when they are young, you miss that,” he says. “I spent many years of the business going seven days a week and working nonstop. I handle it better now. Work/life balance is very critical at this stage in my life. My wife has stood by me like a rock, encouraging and supporting me. Now I know that shutting off from work is important. Besides, my body can’t handle seven days a week now anyways! To help maintain balance my whole family works out and carries that health consciousness into the company as well. We encourage work/life balance and support healthy choices for the entire team.”
Being bold has also helped Sunner grow the brand and meet personal challenges.
“Chances? Take them!” he exclaims. “Many people talk about taking chances but are too worried to execute on them. Be agile. Take risks but be prepared to hammer out the pain. That is the difference between an entrepreneur and a non-entrepreneur. If you think it, then believe in it, have your pride and passion and execute it. That is something I have not been afraid of. I feel things are not impossible. If I’ve done what I’ve done, what stops me from the next goal, vision or idea? What stops me from going further if I’m already this far today? Don’t just look at the long term. Look at the short term. If a year looks difficult, look at the day. If the day looks difficult, look at the hour. It’s like skiing down a black diamond hill. If you look down and you are scared, take the run 30 feet at a time. It’s much easier to finish what you want to do when you take this approach.”
The skiing analogy is pertinent to Sunner, who not only skis, but also golfs, runs, and bikes.
“I have too many interests and hobbies,” he laughs. “I’m a jack of all trades but a master of none!”
Although Durabuilt has earned many awards over the years, including Canada’s Best Managed Companies, Canada’s Safest Employers, Business in Edmonton Leaders and Top Window & Door Manufactures for five consecutive years, to name a few, for Sunner, the real reward is what he sees in the business every day.
“Our biggest reward is the people that make up our brand, seeing and developing the team to see what we can do next. Also, no award can supplant working with my father for 33 years. That’s not easy to do for many people, but it was very rewarding for me. My family, my team, my friends – those are the highlights of my life.”
Durabuilt has a long history, but for Sunner, the journey is still in its infancy – and there is no ending point.
“The biggest thing for me at this point is to try and create the next group of leaders; to have a self-driven company that is less driven by myself and more driven by the next leaders so I can continue to be a better leader to my group,” he concludes. “I’m at a point where I think inspiring, coaching and development is more of how I measure my success. I want to know how I can get the next leaders in the organization to be better than me. I’ll start by having people around that are smarter than me, and taking care of them.”
Sunner is also excited to report on new products in development that he believes will “turn the market in the next five years.”
He concludes, “We say, ‘think ahead stay ahead.’ There is further growth on the horizon as we continue striving to be the best brand in the industry.”