Home Month and Year August 2023 Providing the Next Step

Providing the Next Step

Blaine Wickerson, of Prestige Railings & Stairs Ltd., on his Company’s Journey

Blaine Wickerson, of Prestige Railings & Stairs Ltd. Photo by Riverwood Photography.

The story of Blaine Wickerson and his company, Prestige Railings & Stairs Ltd., is as unique as the custom stairs they build in countless Alberta homes. It begins with a farm boy from Crossfield who, after moving to the “big city” of Calgary, became a Chartered Professional Accountant. After two decades spent working in his profession, a dream of entrepreneurship led Wickerson to a local business broker. Among the businesses for sale at the time was a fledgling woodworking company in need of a new boss. The accountant-turned-business owner chose to give it a shot.

Twenty-three years later, Wickerson and his company sit at the top of their industry. They have grown and expanded, survived economic booms and slumps (and the housing market rollercoaster accompanying them), and a global pandemic. Through it all, they have built a well-known and respected name and reputation within the Calgary and Alberta homebuilding industry.

“We’re doing very well,” Wickerson confirms from his office at Prestige’s Calgary manufacturing facility. “We’re really busy, which is wonderful.” Of course, the last few years, he notes, prior to and during COVID, were tough. “But even during the pandemic, we never got close to the worst-case scenario we had forecast. The housing market was actually much stronger during COVID than I think anybody anticipated.”

He credits Prestige’s fortitude to the best group of builders and customers it’s ever had. “We work with a large group of top-10 homebuilders, as well as smaller builders and even the individuals building their dream home,” he says proudly. “Everybody is busy and pleased with how things are going and even the supply chain issues are working themselves out.”

Prestige specializes in residential stairs and railings, all of which it manufactures from Canadian-sourced materials at its Calgary facility. Its clients include the who’s who of the top builders in the city and province as well as some top renovators. Wickerson notes, “Renovations are also a big part of our business. We deal with a lot of renovators. We also work with individuals building custom homes or renovating their home themselves. We do the whole gamut of customer service.”

The company’s fortunes have not always been so rosy, particularly before Wickerson took over in 2000. Founded in 1989, Prestige changed ownership hands several times in its first 11 years, challenged by consistent performance and profitability. With Wickerson in charge, however, growth and consistent quality of product became the primary mindset.

“In 2002 we expanded into Edmonton and now we work with some of our bigger builders in both cities” he says. “In 2004 we acquired one of our suppliers/competitors – Royal Oak Circular Stairs, our first stab at vertical integration. Consolidating the businesses in 2006 allowed us to build the facility we’re in today.”

“We were pretty busy those first six or seven years,” he reflects. “We grew by 300 per cent during that time! Very hectic, very exciting and very educational.”

Since 2007, there have been plenty of ups and downs, including the 2008 recession, the 2015 oil price crash and the COVID pandemic.

“We managed to get through the early part of the 2008/09/10 recession because we’re always working at the latter end of the homebuilding process; we’re one of the last trades in the house and the last trades out,” he explains. “So we got through that time quite well. But eventually it catches up to everybody, including us.”

Notwithstanding speed bumps, the company has continued to move forward. Integral to that movement has been the ability to meet current home design tastes and aesthetics.

“When I first bought the company, we had two lathes where we turned wood spindles,” Wickerson recalls. “The lathes basically worked all day, every day. We were turning spindles all the time. Well today, that market is pretty much gone. You don’t see too many turned spindles anymore.” He notes they still have their wood lathes but whereas they use to employ two full-time employees to work them, they now have only one part-time.

“Today it’s more glass, stainless steel and metal. We’ve evolved with the times. And we buy a lot more glass,” he adds. “When I first started, we would buy glass a few times a year. Now we have 10 to 12 glass jobs a month.”

In 2015, Prestige bought its supplier of metal spindles. “So now we have our own powder coating booth and spindle manufacturing facility,” Wickerson says.

During the pandemic, Wickerson saw an opportunity to get into the construction grade stair business. “Whether our builder customers need construction stairs or custom stairs or both, it’s just one phone call to us. It streamlines their process a little bit. We are vertically integrated in that respect so that we can supply the customer with whatever stairs or railings they need.”

To accent and enhance its stairs and railings, Prestige also offers LED lighting. It is the North American distributor for Eyeleds, a high-end European lighting brand which can be installed into stairs. “A lot of the LED lighting in the industry comes from China,” Wickerson notes, “so ours is unique. It fits well into our stairs, can be flush mounted and walked on. You don’t really see it and yet you’ve got the accent lighting that you want.”

About 85 per cent of Prestige’s business comes from its big builder clients. “The sheer volume of railings we do for those clients, in various materials, is significant,” he explains. “For those builders we do about 20 per cent glass railings, 45 per cent metal and 35 per cent wood. The custom jobs are a real mix.”

With a growth mindset, Prestige aims to attract those builders who are poised for growth. “We look at this as a partnership,” Wickerson says. “We want to make sure that, at the end of the day, whatever happens, the homeowner is happy. So we like to deal with builders who approach us as partners. That way, it’s a much more fulfilling process for everybody.”

Depending on the job, it can take anywhere from three weeks to a few months to get a project sourced, built and installed. “All building projects are about timing, and we are typically given a window to work with, so our priority is to be ready to complete our work in that window,” Wickerson says.

This requires a professional and skilled team. Today, Prestige has over 40 employees between its Calgary and Edmonton operations, 25 of whom work in the manufacturing facility in Calgary. “The rest are administrators, salespeople and estimators,” Wickerson says. “We have salespeople assigned to each builder, so everybody knows who their point of contact is, and our people are the best in the industry at what we do. We also have over 25 subcontractors who do our field installation work.”

The company’s culture can be summed up in one line: “We want to leave things better than we found them,” Wickerson states. “We have a constant desire to help the builder be successful, make sure things are the way the customer wants it; making sure the customer gets what they want and what they’ve been promised.”

As a testament to their focus on customer satisfaction, Prestige has won 37 Consumer Choice Awards for Business Excellence in the last 20 years in Alberta: 20 consecutive years in Calgary and 17 consecutive years in Edmonton. “These awards, while looking great on our “wall of fame,” show just how committed we are to customer satisfaction; we are very proud of that recognition, but even prouder of what we left behind that earned us that recognition,” says Wickerson.

While COVID put a pause on team-building events, they are slowly resuming. “We’re still involved with the Architectural Wood Manufacturers Association, and with BILD CR,” Wickerson says. “We were one of the original sponsors of the RenoMark program when it was implemented in Calgary to enhance the professional credibility of renovators.”

Reflecting on the past 23 years, Wickerson has no regrets. “Overall it’s been a wonderful thing,” he admits. “There are always days when I ask, ‘What have I done to myself?’ But overall it’s been  a great decision. I guess if I can say that after going through the pandemic and everything else, then it was a good decision.”

With two grown daughters, Wickerson enjoys travelling with his wife and playing golf when not working. An Albertan through and through, he is proud to call Calgary home. “It’s a great place to be,” he reflects. “I’ve had opportunities to move elsewhere in my career, but there’s no place I would have moved to from Alberta. I think my business thrived in Alberta because it is a very entrepreneurial place. It has lots of business-oriented people that are level-headed and hard-working. Like all business owners and operators, you hope for a business-friendly environment and Calgary and Alberta can and do provide that.”

With Alberta’s population on track to continue to grow, creating the need for new homes to continue to be built, Prestige and Wickerson are poised for continued success. Their professionalism, commitment to quality and service will propel them up and out, one step at a time.