Fifty-five years ago, Ross Glen, founder and chairman of RGO, set out to make a living selling office furniture in Calgary. It was 1966 and the young city was full of promise; oil companies were setting up shop in droves, the population was growing rapidly and Calgary’s modest downtown – three years from gaining the Husky (Calgary) Tower – was on its way to becoming the forest of skyscrapers that it is today.
The young Ross, a first-generation Calgarian, had no indication that some half-century later his company, now a leading and diversified total office interior solutions provider in Western Canada, would include four members from the next two generations of his family: daughter Cathy Orr, who took over as president and CEO five years ago, son-in-law Dave Orr, VP Office Environments, and granddaughters Cassandra Will in furniture sales and Sarah Orr, the most recent addition to RGO’s Technologies.
He would in 1966, as he is now, be supremely proud.
“We started this thing and it’s turned out pretty good,” Ross says matter-of-factly, with the benefit of five decades of hindsight. “Diversification has allowed the business to progress very well and having the family members is really good. We’ve got great product lines and suppliers. There’s nothing I’d do differently.”
Diversification has been the key strategy since early days: from office furniture, partnering with Steelcase, one of the world’s largest furniture manufacturers today, Ross expanded into office technology (mostly typewriters and Dictaphones) then into flooring and window coverings. Over time, one of RGO’s significant differentiators – its large service offerings – developed to include asset management, moves and storage; RGO services all the products it sell.
Beyond the downtown office sector too, RGO has expanded its client roster into the education, health care, senior living and non-profit sectors. Today, the ONE RGO brand encompasses all of these products, services and sectors.
“Our ONE RGO strategy means we’re well-positioned to meet our clients’ many and different needs,” Cathy explains. “We can provide their furniture, flooring, window coverings and technology. And even if we can’t get all the scopes in an opportunity, we are at the table, sharing our story, and will gain some integration because of that.”
For her part, Cathy started in the small drapery division (the precursor to window coverings) in 1983, after graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Home Economics from the University of Alberta. Though she initially had dreams of an interior design career, the job at her dad’s company suited her perfectly, combining elements of design and business in one role. “I was entry level, I knew nothing,” she recalls. “I learned everything the hard way because there was nobody in RGO with any expertise in commercial window coverings. I just happened to get surrounded by some really good people.”
Being in window coverings meant that Cathy didn’t have a lot of daytoday interface with Ross during her first 30 years at the company. Nor did she work directly with her husband when he joined in 1993.
Originally from Toronto, Dave met Cathy in the 1980s and eventually made his way out west by 1989. The couple were married in 1991 and after completing an MBA at the Haskayne School of Business, Dave joined RGO. “It was in the accounting and finance area, which was in my background,” he recalls. “I stayed in that role for a few years and then moved into more core business roles on the furniture side. Supervising our facilities and design / project management team, sales team support.”
Though they didn’t see much of each other during those working days, their support for each other was invaluable. “I just love having him here,” Cathy says earnestly. “I would never be where I am in my career today without him. It’s a partnership because we understand what each other needs. It’s one of the benefits of a family business, because you really are teaming together.”
A perfect match for one another, the couple had previously completed a succession plan assessment with an industrial psychologist as part of an exercise for Steelcase. “They tested both Dave and I and we were exactly a compliment to each other,” she marvels, “which was pretty cool when you think back on it!”
In 2015, Cassandra (Ross’ granddaughter from daughter Debbie Will) graduated from St. Francis Xavier University with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing. She had interned with the family business the two previous summers, in 2014 at the Steelcase Worklife Centre and in 2013 at RGO, each experience cementing her interest in the business.
“I also really valued the opportunity to work in the business while my grandfather is here,” she says, “not a lot of people get the opportunity to do that. It’s really special to me.”
“Grandpa was very, very keen for Cassandra to come and work with us,” Cathy confirms of her niece who started in social media and marketing, and later became involved in a few sales projects on the side. “That’s when I decided that I was really passionate about sales,” Cassandra explains, “and was fortunate enough to be able to transition to that. I really love my sales role. I’m always learning and meeting new people.”
It’s an interest she shares with her grandfather: “My grandpa has always had a passion for sales and he’s always calling me into his office to introduce me to someone. I really like that aspect of the job.”
Customer service and relationships have indeed been emphasized by Ross from the start. “Even before it was fashionable,” Dave notes. “It’s been a core value at RGO for 55 years. To focus on the customer and provide them with solutions that are beneficial. To understand them, work with them and meet their needs. And to create and build good business relationships.”
In her sales role, Cassandra has worked in several sectors, including senior living, commercial, education and non-profit. “The really interesting thing about my job is it’s always different,” she says. “I’m always learning, especially with all the different sectors. I really enjoy the diversity of the job.”
In 2016, during RGO’s 50th anniversary year, Cathy assumed leadership of the business from her father. “As much as I was in the business on a lot of levels, there’s still a huge, steep learning curve, because we are very diverse,” she admits. “And I’m still learning all the time.”
Soon after taking the helm, Alberta’s economy took a pretty serious dive, making Cathy’s job all the more difficult. This was compounded by the COVID pandemic and lockdown. “There’s been a lot of challenges in the last few years,” she admits, “but I have a great team around me.”
Last year, that team expanded to include Cathy and Dave’s daughter Sarah, who graduated in April with a Bachelor of Business Administration from Mount Royal University. “RGO was always a part of my life, my parents were there all the time,” she says. “I was always running around when I was little with my mom to different job sites, helping her measure, write down notes for her, picking out fabrics. The window covering side was a huge part of my life.”
Like her cousin, Sarah spent a couple summers working at RGO, in customer first impressions and then window coverings. However when it came to hiring her for a full-time position, Cathy had a dilemma: the COVID-19 pandemic had just hit and she had just had to put employees on furlough.
“It wouldn’t have been appropriate to hire Sarah then in our other areas,” Cathy says. “So while she hadn’t intended to come into technology there was a maternity leave that needed to be filled, so she stepped up and took the opportunity.”
It has turned out very well. Sarah has worked in supply sales, managed print sales services, and marketing. She has also worked on larger projects and is developing relationships with technology partners. “I love it,” she says happily. “It’s been really fun.”
Cathy is impressed with both girls: “We all have had to earn our way, and I’m really proud of both Cassandra and Sarah and the fact that they’re pulling their weight, learning and growing in their respective areas. It’s fundamental to this family business, because you have to work twice as hard to earn your spot sometimes.”
“That’s the way I think,” Ross concurs. “It’s really good.”
Both girls are relishing being able to work together, and with their grandfather. “One thing we both love is whenever we see our grandpa in the hall near the end of the day he always asks ‘So what did you sell today? Did you sell anything?’” Sarah recounts. “It’s a highlight for me.”
“It’s the name of the game,” Ross points out. Indeed, sales are in Ross’ family’s blood. His own father, William Glen, was in sales most of his career, was a mentor to Cathy and an original investor in RGO.
While Alberta’s economic and COVID-related woes have seen RGO pivot – into different sectors and towards a greater emphasis on leveraging technology and work-from-home options – Ross, Cathy and Dave are all confident in the business’ foundation to see them through these challenging times.
In fact, Dave sees reason for optimism: “The research points to the fact that going forward we’ll probably have a form of hybrid workplace. Not necessarily all in the office, but certainly not all at home. And likely a majority of the time in the office.”
For RGO, this means opportunities to provide safe products which create a compelling reason to come to the office, to interact and work with people. It also means the family business will continue the tradition of giving back, a tradition spearheaded by Ross for many years.
“Calgary has been a great place for RGO,” Cathy explains. “It’s provided a lot of opportunity and we’ve been happy to give back to the community, not only through projects but also by providing support to organizations. We plan to continue that into the future.”
With three generations in the family business, RGO aims to build upon its past, thrive in the present and grasp every opportunity the future has to offer. The only question is: how many more generations will eventually join?