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Quebec awash in 'real style' Karen Mazurkewich, Financial Post Published: Monday, January 14, 2008 Allen McInnis For National PostQUEBEC FIRMS CHIP AT EUROPEAN MARKET: Wetstyle's Helene Bourgault says Quebec's dominance in the bathroom niche market can be attributed to entrepreneurship and copy-cat reflex. MONTREAL -- Quebec has become the bathroom capital of Canada. More potties, tubs, sinks and facets are produced in La Belle Province than anywhere else in the country. Move over Philippe Starck, Duravit and Villeroy & Boch and Boffi. With its hot design and low price point, the province's bathroom manufacturers are taking a bigger bite out of the hip European marketshare. Companies such as Wetstyle, MAXX, Neptune, and BainUltra have squeezed into the marketplace. So how did Quebec become the new home spa design mecca? According to Helene Bourgault, cofounder of Montreal-based Wetstyle, the company behind the uber-hip OVE tub, the Quebec niche can be attributed to entrepreneurship as well as a healthy copycat reflex. Designers have co-opted materials originally developed by the aerospace and power sports industries. But the cluster of manufacturers in the bathroom fixture sector is also because the newest entrants are spin-offs from its pioneers. Wetstyle is case in point. In 1979, Ms. Bourgault and her husband were both in the real estate business. One day, she got a call from a mechanic who wanted to sell his small business making marble countertops. "It was literally a shed in a field," she says. Her husband, Jacques Parise, was so intrigued with the vanity moulds he bought them. During the next year, he purchased more moulds from several bankrupt firms. The renovation industry was picking up, the options were few, Ms. Bourgault says. So the duo gave up real estate and started Maronyx, developing coloured bathroom vanities to appeal to a more sophisticated buyer. Their sinks were made from a thick polymer composite that was later patented as Nacryl. In 1996, the company merged with a furniture manufacturer, Creations Decor-Bois du Quebec, so the couple could explore more options. But four years later, Ms. Bourgault and Mr. Parise broke away. "We were not looking in the same direction," she says. In 2002, they started over, this time making more modern styles of bath products using a more refined composite resin dubbed "Wet-mar." Gone was the Quebec farmhouse look. The real estate agents-turned-designers looked to the Orient for inspiration. Their stylish Cube collection, which ranges from $500 for a sink to $6,000 for a tub, was a hit and they've adapted a European style of overflow system that gives their latest line a sleek look. The prototype for their next line is a translucent tub with embedded cables that can alter the colour of the tub. "There's always something in the pot cooking," says Ms. Bourgault. Meanwhile, the original company Maronyx still churns out the traditional look. Wetstyle has evolved into a niche company for the luxury market, with more than 100 distributors in the United States and 11 in Canada, bringing in modest annual sales of $4-million. But their marketing position may have protected them from a global downturn in bathroom sales. Although more Americans were remodeling their bathrooms in 2007, the construction of new bathrooms fell 21% last year from 2006 levels. The high Canadian dollar and weak housing market in the United States has affected MAAX Holdings Inc., a pioneering firm that developed an expertise in acrylic corner baths and drop-in models. The company's net sales for its second quarter ended August, 2007, decreased 14.9% to $109.9-million from net sales of $129-million. In December, it announced that it was unable to make its interest payment on senior subordinated notes. "People are always asking why Quebec is a leader in the bathroom business," says Mr. Bourgault. "I believe that to be good you have to be surrounded by people who are also good and push you to be better." The success of the pioneers inspired others to follow suit, hence the cluster manufacturing phenomenon.Valerie Parent, director of marketing for Saint-Nicolas-based BainUltra, agrees. Thirty years ago, the company invented the air-jet bath to compete against the traditional whirlpool models. Throughout the years, the company expanded its product line and now makes dozens of models and shower stalls priced as high as $10,000. "I know at BainUltra, we have inspired others," she says. One of its ex-employees started their own air-jet bath company, which was later sold to Acryline USA, she says. There are no hard feelings. "For Quebec, it's a point of pride to develop something that changed the face of the North American industry," she adds. Even Neptune was created by a former employee of Alcove Canada Bath Tubs & Whirlpools. Whatever the reason, consumers are benefitting. Jackie Allen, who is renovating a new home in the posh Rosedale district of Toronto, is putting a Wetstyle OVE tub in the center of her new ensuite bathroom. The deep, softly rounded tub will be set against a marble wall. "My architect says it will be the centrepiece of the room," she says. Her Toronto-based architect, Stuart Watson, was first turned on to the Wetstyle line of bathrooms after seeing displays at a local design show. "It was something fresh and different," he says. In the past, Mr. Watson recommended European designers, but more recently he's been promoting Wetstyle baths because they have a transitional look. They can go into both a modern or traditional home, he says. Then there is the question of price. A Starck bathtub would cost two to three times more, he adds. "This is real style for a reasonable price." DOING UP THE WC IN STYLE: Here are some of Quebec's high-end dealers in bathroom furnishings and fixtures - Bain Ultra Specializes in air jet baths and home spa units. 956, chemin Olivier, Saint-Nicolas www.bainultra.com - Wetstyle High concept, Japanese-style baths and vanities that work in both contemporary and traditional homes. All product made by a unique polymer. 276 Saint-Jacques, Suite G-02, Montreal www.wetstyle.ca - Neptune Mid-range line of bathroom tubs, showers toilets and faucets. A popular product is its folding shower door. 6835, rue Picard, Saint-Hyacinthec - MAAX Looking for a corner tub or drop-in tub, MAAX has a huge product range. 600 Cameron Road, Ste-Marie Source: Financial Post http://www.nationalpost.com/story.html?id=237326