June 12, 2008

Wheeler-dealer Keith knows autos, from racing to old and new

OVER CANVAS: The half-dozen or so marquee-styletents in front of Dueck's Marine Drive dealership came from a five-acre"business park" facility in deeply rural Surrey that looks more like amare-and-foal operation. It could be, too, since Tentnology® Co.proprietors Gery and Suzanne Warner house some of their horses there, including the "ponies" Gery (say Gary) and son Dylan ride in the punishing game of polo.

But the Warners develop their peak horsepower in the internationalfabric-structure market, where they expect to have sold $9-millionworth of product by year-end July 31. "It could even be $12 million,"said Gery of the products on which they reportedly own 25 patents, 10trade names and sell to 2,000 clients in 25 countries. That's up fromthe $8 million the 37-year-old, 67-employee firm reported last year."And we should be doing $20 million in two years," said Gery, whoco-founded the firm with a since-moved-on brother Kurt in their nativeManitoba. Part of that income would come from providing tents forWhistler and Vancouver components of the 2010 Winter Olympics, forwhich Tentnology® submitted a bid as one of eight pre-qualifying firmsrecently. Other bidders are based in the U.S., Europe and Asia, withthe sole other Canadian in Ontario.

The Warners are reluctant to endanger their bid by discussing it.Still, assuming they can handle the work at a fair price, it would berewarding to see local entrepreneurs demonstrate their know-how at the2010 event.

And they can handle the work. The firm – www.tentnology.com – hassupplied tents to Olympic events since Montreal in 1976, and had amajor presence at Athens in 2004. Tents up to 4,500-square-feet eachwent to World Cup soccer events, the Commonwealth Games, Pan Am Games,and Peter Gabriel's wedding to Meah Flynn in Sardinia, where Suzanne Warner danced with guest Sir Richard Branson.They covered 75,000 square feet in Saudi Arabia for another wedding,35,000 square feet for the Disney Corp., almost five hectares for anauction in Seoul, Korea, and furnished 600 yellow marquees for aScientology powwow.

Their tents have covered folk at celebrations and memorials in NewOrleans and New York, including the World Trade Center site. Mechanicalengineer Gery has designed a new 4,500-square-foot unit to be erectedand or dismantled in 60 minutes. It's a development of a type heaccompanied for use in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He got there in theunwindowed cargo hold of a huge Russian Antonov aircraft, and recalls aUkrainian chef cooking mutton soup from scratch atop an open-flamerange.

The Warners say they've been offered $5 million for the five-acreproperty they bought for $570,000 in 1990. They acquired a same-sizedlot nearby for $3 million in 2006. An inducement to relocate would bethat Surrey's Neighbourhood Concept Plan for business-park developmentrequires same-zone neighbours to unanimously agree on improvements."But it would cost us more than $5 million to move on," Gery said.

Not only that. "I like living here," Gery said in the Warners'comfortable home steps away from their mainly tented production andwarehousing facilities. Referring to Tentnology's light footprint andavoidance of any environmental degradation, he said: "If you actuallylive where you work, you have to be careful. Besides, I can look out ofthe window, and see my horses in the paddock."

Malcolm Parry, Vancouver Sun