Rago Millwork and Supplies Ltd., a millwork and cabinet manufacturing company in Edmonton, opened in 1963.
“My father, Carmen Rago Sr., started the company 55 years ago,” explains Carmen Rago Jr., president. “As a young man coming to Canada from Italy at 15 years old, he had experience in a number of previous occupations.” While this experience included working as a tinsmith and in a flour mill, it was woodworking that he truly enjoyed.
The enterprising young man had plenty of ambition and a great work ethic, but that wasn’t enough to get his millwork company started.
“The challenge my father faced early on was the same as most companies experience at the startup of a new business – a lack of capital,” Carmen Jr. explains. “Back in the day, those challenges were real. A visit to the bank at 19 years old in the hopes of securing a loan was denied since the teen from Italy had no assets to secure against the loan.
“Through some investigation, my father came in contact with a lending agency who worked closely with a government body. This government body guaranteed the loan for my father. Suddenly he had some cash in his jeans. My father purchased a piece of land on 160 Street and 118 Avenue and built his first production shop on the west part of that land.
“After about five years of hard work and disciplined values, he had his loan paid off. That loan would prove to be the first and last loan in business.”
Carmen Sr. worked long hours and produced exceptional products. He saved his profits and bought the land adjoining his property, managing to expand his assets and operations without bank or lender assistance.
Carmen Jr. says with pride, “True craftsmanship was the key to success in those days, since the tooling and machines were very primitive in their development. In this small shop, solid wood doors, frames, windows, window sashes and furniture were the items Rago Millwork first produced.
“After a number of years in his first shop, my father had the need, desire and courage to expand his business. Through hard work, determination and the desire to succeed, Rago Millwork was poised for success. In the mid to late 70s, Rago expanded eastward into the buildings we currently occupy.”
The expanded production space also meant expanded product lines, including custom veneered panels, architectural millwork, solid wood moulding and trims.
Good old-fashioned hard work didn’t mean Carmen Sr. was against modernization. In the early 80s when CNC woodworking was in its infancy, Rago Millwork embraced it, becoming one of the first companies in Edmonton to use this technology.
In the early 90s, Rago was awarded a near $2 million contract to complete millwork on Edmonton’s City Hall. Another milestone came in 2000 when Rago expanded into America with a production facility in Phoenix, AZ.
Carmen Jr. and his brother Rick grew up watching their father run the company. As the young men entered their teens, they spent their summers working in the family business.
“From being shop help on the production floor, picking up and delivering materials, to riding shotgun to the dump to shovel out shavings and sawdust from our old Chevy farm truck, we learned the business from the bottom up, earning a whopping $4.75-$6.00/hour,” Carmen Jr. reminisces.
“As you can imagine, quite a number of our long-tenured employees have known me and my brother since we were young kids. I remember a past employee teaching me how to drive a standard transmission truck over our lunch hour in our shop yard when I was 15 years of age. Apart from being employees of Rago Millwork, there exists a friendship. When we run into these employees in our community, we always stop to talk and share a laugh. It’s a good feeling when these retired folks just find time to stop by the office to say hi. We see our work family as extended family.”
Rick would eventually relocate to Phoenix to run the American operation full time. Carmen Jr. remained in Edmonton, succeeded his father, and became the company president.
“If I were to describe Rago Millwork,” he says, “I would paraphrase something that a customer once said that always resonated well with me: ‘Rago Millwork is not the cheapest price on the block, however, the quality product and attention to detail is second to none.’”
He continues, “There are many contributing factors that play a part in our success. Our long-term relationships with our major suppliers were, and continue to be, contributors to our success and we thank them for that.
“One major factor is our employees. We were very fortunate to have experienced strong employee retention. As unheard of as this may sound, our most senior employee retired only four years ago with close to 50 years of service! Past that amazing tenure, we are proud to have experienced quite a number of core employees’ retention ranging anywhere between 10-35 years. I believe employee retention to the years I’ve described is paramount to our success, stability and ability to produce a quality millwork product. When I think back about the tenure of some our longstanding employees, it’s a proud feeling that we must be doing something right.”
More than 50 years have passed since the teen from Italy started his company with little more than a vision backed by an outstanding work ethic. Time and processes have changed and automation is now a mainstay in the manufacturing industry; but for Carmen Jr., true craftsmanship will always require a personal touch that no amount of AI could provide.
“Millwork production techniques and processes have changed so much over the years,” he admits. “The need for automation and efficiencies are major factors to future success. I feel in this industry however, that there still remains a custom element to our work that automation cannot fulfill. Hands-on craftsmanship is still a requirement of the work that we do. The relationship percentage of automation versus hands-on craftsmanship will vary from shop to shop. I feel that if we are able to continue and adjust our relationship percentage of automation versus hands-on craftsmanship as required, we will continue to succeed in years to come.”
Carmen Jr. learned many things from his father about millwork, but also about entrepreneurship.
“Owning your own business is not an easy task. It is hard work. Entrepreneurship means that your mind is still on the job on the weekends or on your days off. Entrepreneurship means that you have a personal responsibility to keep your staff employed and busy. Entrepreneurship means that when times are slow, you remain creative in house to keep your people busy, recognizing that they have families to feed and bills to pay too. Entrepreneurship means that you can share in both successes and losses.
“It also means that your staff, of say 25 people, have 25 unique personalities and needs and they need to be recognized as such. Entrepreneurship means you are accountable to a number of people at the end of the day.” He laughs, “No pressure, right?”
He has also learned that as hard as entrepreneurs have to work, finding a balance is essential.
“I understand at times there exists a need to put in extra time at work,” Carmen Jr. continues. “I think in most cases, families who do not have mom or dad at home on a Saturday because of work do understand. That understanding, however, is short lived if work is always calling late nights and every Saturday. I support and promote principled living and a healthy work/life balance over chasing the almighty dollar.”
The Rago family couldn’t be prouder to see Carmen Sr.’s dream continue to grow over the years, and to see the second generation taking the reigns and moving the company forward. Carmen Jr. and Rick thank their employees for their long years of dedicated service, and their suppliers that have always been incredibly supportive.
Carmen Jr. concludes, “I would also like to thank all of Rago Millwork’s past and current customers for their support and patronage through the years. I would like our past, current and future clients to know that we take a genuine interest in their millwork needs and we are excited to continue and to build new relationships with your group.”
As Rago Millwork is more than half a century strong, the future of the company looks just as inviting as it’s strong, foundational past.