When it comes to Alberni Valley-based manufacturing, Jan Lavertu is more than playing around with the concept.
The owner of Westcoast Home Hardware in Port Alberni has in the last couple of years also become the owner of an entrepreneurial start-up called Westcoast Games. A small manufacturing operation in Port Alberni produces board games that are wholesaled to about 100 retailers across Canada.
Lavertu gives credit to his son, Jordan, for helping him come up with the game concept. The manufacturing aspect stems from Lavertu’s role as vice-president of the McLean Mill Society. The historic site had a lot of mixed timbers going to waste.
“We thought, is there a way to use them in the store,” he recalled.
The store purchased an industrial-scale computer-numerical cutting (CNC) machine and began making furniture and signs.
Jordan, attending university at the time, told his dad that he would get together with friends over a board game in the evening to pass the time. That gave Jan the idea of manufacturing table games. Jordan went to a craft fair in Nanaimo and sold all he had: four cribbage boards.
“I think we might be onto something here,” Jan said. “We have a CNC machine. Let’s take our idea and the technology and merge them to make something substantial.”
Initially the venture turned out to be too labour-intensive and time consuming. They investigated other materials that might be more practical and came across an engineered coloured wood called Valchromat, manufactured in Portugal and South Africa.
Made from residual pine that is organically dyed, Valchromat offers uniform colour and is easier to craft. Lavertu bought his first feedstock from a Calgary businessman and began testing it. While the material isn’t cheap, the numbers work when factored into value-added manufacturing.
At the outset, the Lavertus were producing the board games at the Johnston Road hardware store but ran out of space. They relocated to the old Klitsa school facility on Tebo Avenue before outgrowing that. Now, they are relocating the plant to a former cabling station near Canal Waterfront Park. As well, they’re opening a retail showroom at the Port Alberni Visitors Centre, marketing directly to tourists. Jordan has joined the enterprise and designed one of the products, a unique football board game.
“We’d love to grow the business,” said Jan, who sees potential in the combination of wood with Valchromat. “There are many requests we’ve turned down. We are looking at customization of other products.”
Port Alberni offers distinct advantages with its affordability and ease of access to transportation and larger markets, he said.
“The long-term goal is to eventually work our way down to the U.S. market. We’re expanding all over and opportunities are always arising.”
As for the future of traditional board games in a world alight with dazzling technology?
“It’s funny,” Jan said. “Sometimes the simplest concept is the best concept. And we’ve put a little bit of a twist into it.”
Often board games are out of sight, stored in cardboard boxes in closets. Westcoast games are suitable for hanging and decorative, keeping them front of mind. In an entrepreneurial sense, they are continually selling themselves.
The Lavertus are only just getting started: “It’s like anything, we’re always looking for other opportunities.” They’re working on ideas for smaller, portable versions of the board games.
In sense, the same generation that gravitated to electronic games is open to finding alternatives that bring people together.
“When you look at millennials, they’ve become more social. It’s the sharing of ideas.”