• TUFX FORT Inc
  • TUFX FORT Founder as TOUGH as his Wheelbarrows

    TUFX FORT Founder as TOUGH as his Wheelbarrows

    Waterloo Region Record

    WATERLOO — A front-end loader picks up the orange wheelbarrow and drops it on the pavement from four metres in the air.

    The wheelbarrow is turned on its side and the metal blade of the loader squeezes it like an orange.

    The loader drops enough crushed stone into the tray to fill four wheelbarrows. The pebbles spill over the sides in waves, but the wheelbarrow emerges with its load intact.

    A 160-kilogram decorative stone is slid into the tray. The plucky little piece of plastic and steel holds up.

    The same stone is dropped into the wheelbarrow from two metres in the air. The giant rock fails to hit the tray dead centre and it flips over, but no damage is done to the durable device.

    The short video depicting this punishment is posted on the website of Tufx-Fort Inc., a Waterloo company that manufactures wheelbarrows for customers ranging from home gardeners to construction companies.

    The video was shot by a landscaping customer of Tufx, but chief executive officer Hans Kamphuis is happy to make use of it.

    Strength and durability are the wheelbarrow’s big selling points, he says, as well as an ergonomic design that makes it easier to lift and balance a heavy load.

    To survive against much larger competitors with deeper pockets, Kamphuis has had to be as tough and innovative as his wheelbarrows.

    At the company’s 12,500-square-foot, leased plant on Baffin Place in Waterloo, racks of wheelbarrow frames, trays and wheels rise to the ceiling, awaiting shipment to Home Hardware, TruServ, Tim-BR Mart and hundreds of other retail customers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

    Bundles of steel pipe sit at one end of the plant, ready to be shaped into the one-piece frames on Tufx’s computer-controlled bending machine.

    All this is accomplished by just four full-time employees, including Kamphuis, his wife Ineke and two workers in the plant itself.

    Though more workers are brought in during the busy spring and summer season, Tufx is a “lean and mean” operation, says Kamphuis.

    A native of Holland, he came to Canada in 1980 at the age of 30 with his wife and young son to escape Holland’s wet weather and see some of the world.

    Relatives on Ineke’s side drew him to Waterloo. Employment came easily in the form of design and drafting work for Kamphuis, a mechanical engineer.

    Three years into his new life in Canada, a chance encounter with a faulty wheelbarrow borrowed from his neighbour changed his destiny. He was appalled at how poorly designed it was compared to the wheelbarrows he had used in Holland.

    Sensing a business opportunity, he contacted the manufacturer of the wheelbarrows in Holland, a company called Fort, and began importing them to Waterloo for sale to distributors in Canada and the U.S.

    But a fluctuating exchange rate forced him to shut down the business in 1986. He went back to designing and drafting piping for pipeline, gas and auto companies.

    Kamphuis might have continued on that path if not for another call from Fort in 1998, asking if he was interested in resuming their joint venture.

    For the next seven years, Kamphuis imported wheelbarrows and sold them to retailers in Canada and the U.S. out of a warehouse in Cambridge, then a facility on Frobisher Drive in Waterloo.

    Everything went well until 2005 when he lost his Dutch supplier in a change of ownership. After a brief fling with a French supplier, Kamphuis resolved to make his own wheelbarrows in Waterloo.

    Economic necessity forced him to have the trays and wheels made in China, but the steel frames are manufactured in Waterloo.

    To maximize strength and durability, they are fashioned from one piece of steel tubing with no holes or welds. The frames are complex and “very difficult to make,” says Kamphuis.

    The company produces 16 different models, in varying sizes and weight-bearing capacities. Prices range from $59 to $229.

    Kamphuis’s main challenge now is convincing more small retailers to carry his more expensive wheelbarrows. Why should they offer the same product as large retailers, which don’t currently sell his product, he wonders

    He’s happy selling to small retailers because he doesn’t want to be too dependent on one large customer, he says.

    Looking back on the small twist of fate that set him on his current path, Kamphuis smiles and shrugs. “I love the challenges,” he says.

    “I’m always looking for different ways of doing things. I’m always looking for quality.”

    Tufx-Fort Inc.

    35 Baffin Pl., Waterloo

    www.tufx-fort.com.

    519-746-1920; 888-314-3678

    Employees: 4

    chowitt@therecord.com