Beautifying the outer aesthetics of a home, commercial edifice or a historically restored or renovated building in order to bring out the structure’s unique masonry and concrete characteristics is a crucial responsibility that must be placed in the capable hands of qualified experts to ensure optimal results and expectations of the owner.
Nawkaw Corporation is widely recognized as the world’s premier staining experts of masonry and concrete structures with decades of experience within the industry as it celebrates its 30th anniversary this July.
Masonry is regarded as a highly durable form of construction. The most common materials of masonry construction are brick, building stone such as marble, granite, travertine, and limestone, cast stone, concrete block, glass block, and adobe clay.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with company founder and CEO Russell Gray and Director of Licensing Clayton Gray, about the company’s tremendous success not only in North America but on an ever-increasing global scale.
The origins of the family’s involvement in this line of business dates back to the 1960s with Russell Gray’s father who at the time was working for a company called Canada Brick in Mississauga, Ontario.
“As a young guy in my teens in 1972, I got a summer job staining brick and then it all started. When I finished school, in the late 1970s Canada Brick offered me the opportunity to be in charge of staining bricks,” begins Gray.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s Russell Gray had become known in the Greater Toronto Area by the other brick manufacturers for his ability to solve colour problems for brick manufacturers.
“In the mid 1980s other brick manufacturers were asking me to help with their colour problems and that’s really where the opportunity began to materialize,” recalls Russell.
By 1984 Gray acted upon his entrepreneurial ambitions and decided to open his own company, which was a precursor to Nawkaw’s July, 1989 incorporation and it has grown organically since then. When the company opened its doors 30 years ago Nawkaw’s clients were 100% residential projects. Now the company applies its expertise in countless residential, commercial, industrial and historical markets. Gray estimates the current clientele would now be about a 50/50 split between residential and commercial (including industrial, institutional, historical, brick and concrete) and perhaps even leaning a bit more towards the commercial side at this stage.
Nawkaw’s international head office is located in Athens, Georgia although the original Mississauga location remains a vital component of the company’s success in Canada. There is an office in Montreal, a satellite office in Vancouver to serve western Canada. There are seven offices in the US, five in Australia and one office each in New Zealand, Tasmania and Norway, which rounds out the current international presence.
“We also sell our products in as many as 50 other countries. We aren’t doing the application but we are selling the product,” notes Gray.
The significance in the name Nawkaw is that it’s Clayton Gray’s brother’s middle name and it is the word in Anishinaabemowin for goose; the spelling was changed for aesthetic purposes.
Colour continuity has been a notorious stumbling block that has plagued the construction industry in the manufacturing of concrete, brick and block products. Merely the slightest variation in appearance can depend on a number of manufacturing aspects such as the temperature of the kiln, the ambient outdoor temperature, the moisture content in the sand, and a number of other intrinsic factors. It has is virtually impossible to achieve absolute consistency time and time again. Each and every company in the world deals with these issues on a regular basis. The process of effectively and efficiently staining was developed through a tremendous amount of innovation by Nawkaw, which is why the company is regarded as preeminent solutions provider within the construction industry.
“Brick is just like wallpaper in that you get different runs,” explains Gray. “If you make the brick in January and you make that same brick again in February it’ll be very close to the same but it won’t be exact. So, if you get two runs of brick on the same building you can tell the difference just as you could tell if you put up two runs of wallpaper. The pattern is the same and the colour is very close but you can recognize that it is not exactly the same.”
A significant networking opportunity arose when Gray was an exhibitor at a trade show in Chicago. The head of the Masonry Advisory Council, Chuck Ostrander, came to his booth and marveled at his demonstration. Ostrander was so impressed by what he had seen that he asked if Gray would be able to provide his solution to the equivalent drawbacks facing the Windy City.
In what seems like a very modest declaration, Gray says the successful growth of Nawkaw’s business has been as much planned as happenstance and points to the example of entering the Australian marketplace. He was again at a conference, this time at a university in the United States, and a production manager from a brick manufacturer in Australia was also in attendance and duly impressed by what Gray’s products had to offer. That was the catalyst for Nawkaw’s expansion ‘Down Under.’
“He saw what we did and approached me about solving the very same problems they had. The problem is so apparent worldwide, and this is such an excellent solution that it’s caught on with companies on a global scale,” states Gray.
A natural extension of growth for Nawkaw has resulted in numerous opportunities relating to renovation and restoration. People with historical buildings soon began to approach Gray to inquire if he could provide a solution for correcting the colour of any repairs made. When projects involve the renovation non-historical buildings, Nawkaw is able to the provide colour matching services to bring addition into line with the existing building or conversely change the colour of the original building to the new addition.
“Getting two runs in a new building is one problem. Another problem is what you do when you put an addition on to an older building? You sure can’t buy brick or block that matches exactly,” he explains.
As experts who provide an unsurpassed solution for exterior finishing on masonry and concrete, the experts at Nawkaw spend an appreciable amount of time collaborating with architects and builders to map out efficiencies and best practices. When architects and general contractors require colour to be applied to masonry and concrete, Nawkaw has become their go-to solution.
Stains are the preferred choice because they penetrate and bond to the substrate, while remaining aspiratory, allowing moisture vapors to escape. Paints coat the surface, trapping moisture beneath the surface. The obvious fundamental benefit of choosing stain is that it penetrates the substrate without changing the texture building material, which of course cannot be said for paint. Being able to see the natural textures of brick, block or patterned concrete is a clear benefit of staining, particularly when an architect, designer, or owner has spent the time to find the building material that will give them the finish they want on their building.
“We spend a lot of energy and money every year on educational programs with the American architectural community. We’re a Passport Provider of continuing education with the American Institute of Architects (AIA). We provide a lot of opportunities for people to receive continuing education credits though out ‘lunch and learns’ with architectural and design firms to help make them aware of what our products are and how they work,” says Gray.
The product at the heart of Nawkaw’s business is known as NawTone®, to which there are a number of variations based on the specific type of surface to which the product will be applied and the type of finish desired. The original NawTone® was developed in the late 1980s with the help of a retired research chemist for specifically for brick applications. It has set the standard for excellence in the industry and remains one of the company’s cornerstone products to this day.
“We have NawTone®-K, which is a mineral-silicate based technology and it’s designed to work on concrete. We also have the NawTone®-K Opaque product, which is closer to paint in that it provides completely opaque finish. Those are the three main products,” says Gray.
The company stands by its products in offering 25-year warranties on the products and services they install. However, warranties may vary on occasion depending on the specifics of a certain project. Each of the NawTone® products are extremely resilient and can be applied in extreme climate weather conditions.
“The lowest we can work is -5oC and the highest is 46oC,” reveals Clayton Gray.
“NawTone® products last substantially longer than 25 years. We have projects older than that where the finish looks as good today as it did when it was installed. The mineral, silicate-based stains last even longer, but we still go with the 25-year warranty because that’s realistic,” continues Clayton Gray.
Clients can rest assured they will receive the absolute best final product for their project. Nawkaw stain technicians are the very best at what they do, bringing years of expertise and know-how to a wide variety of applications for residential and commercial projects. The end result is a fabulous looking exterior and a long-term solution for colouring masonry and concrete that won’t peel or fade. Gray emphasizes that the work performed by Nawkaw is possible not only due to the quality of their products but also, in large part, only possible because of the company’s ‘know-how’. “We have seen many instances where a qualified painter was shown the intent of a project but would not be able to execute it properly due to a lacking of understanding of how masonry and concrete staining products ought to be used.”
“A nuanced understanding of what we do is vitally important. If you don’t have the skills in your head and your hands, you can’t do it. In my opinion masonry staining is an unrecognized trade, although many of the tools and skills necessary are similar to those needed by a traditional painter there are a number of differences.” he says.
“It takes a number of years before we turn a job over to any one of our crew chiefs,” adds Clayton Gray. “We have several levels of education and training that a person has to go through before we are confident in their ability to go out and execute a job on their own. About three years would be the quickest someone would go from being a new hire to going out on their own.”
Looking to the future
No matter how large and successful the company becomes, both Russell and Clayton Gray adhere to the cardinal rule of never resting on one’s laurels and never losing sight of the need to continue to self-promote and provide outstanding client service to remain on top.
“It’s a never-ending effort. The day you stop trying to improve your products and add new products is the day you put the first nail in your coffin. We have four chemists that work within our company that are constantly working on product development. In the last three years we’ve introduced four new products and we’re currently developing other products that we hope to introduce in the next three to four years,” says Gray.
“We do trade shows, lunch and learns with architects, designers, manufacturers, and general contractors and are members of various associations including the Canadian Precast Prestressed Concrete Institute and the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business,” adds Clayton Gray. “We are currently looking to franchising as the next pathway for expansion and hope to find interested parties in Canada, the US, and beyond.”
Both Russell and Clayton Gray attribute a great deal of the company’s success through ongoing participation with various industry associations. A premier event in this country is The Buildings Show, hosted each year by Construct Canada.
“We’ve been attending that show for close to 30 years now and because of this commitment we were invited to showcase our products in their innovation area alongside many other fantastic industry products that were on display this past December,” says Clayton Gray. Clayton went on to say, “ we are extremely proud of our products for a number of reasons, at Nawkaw we have always tried to be a sustainable company and that is evident in the fact that Nawkaw’s products contain low to no volatile organic compounds, are nontoxic, and nonflammable. While people may think that staining’s only application is the exterior of buildings because of these qualities Nawkaw’s stains are ideal for use indoors. This is one of the areas we are trying to educate people on the most and as we continue to grow the hope is that we will find more interior work”.
Since its inception in 1989 Nawkaw has experienced substantial growth and cultivated an industry-wide reputation for excellence. The plans are to keep pursuing more innovative technologies while developing an expanding business network on an international scale but without losing sight of the things that got them to where they are today.
In projecting his hopes for Nawkaw over the next several years, Gray believes the company is situated in an excellent position.
“I’m so happy that Clayton and my other son Cole have joined the company. Cole is a chemist. My wife, Kasia, is also part of the company and she has PhD in Chemistry and Molecular Biology. We’re seeing the opportunity for growth in products. Thanks to the strong team, at all levels, we now have a wonderful opportunity to expand our brand not only throughout North America but the world.”
It is quite apparent that Russell Gray’s passion, determination and commitment to the business have been passed on to his son Clayton, who summarizes Nawkaw’s efforts with this apropos statement: “We provide artistic works of craftsmanship.”