Tariq Syed- A Story of Resilience
Have you ever walked into a room and marvelled at the exquisite wood paneling in front of you? Perhaps it was a restaurant — maybe even a library. Chances are, if you were in Canada, one of those exquisite works of art might have been from Woodlogix Interiors.
Woodlogix Interiors is a Canadian family-owned business based in Mississauga, Ontario. This phenomenal company has been creating wooden artwork with employees that have over 20 years of experience. A leading ‘manufacturer of high end architectural millwork,’ their journey was fraught with trials and tribulations. However, despite these tests, Mr. Tariq Syed and his sons Omar and Farhan Syed, have kept their inspiring vision alive and strived to keep their business running to the highest of standards and ethics.
Tell us about your journey — your story of how Woodlogix came into fruition.
Tariq Syed: “My journey started in 1973 when I left Karachi, Pakistan for Toronto, Canada. I had no family and no connections — just my suitcase and the address of a neighbour’s brother. My first job was as a dishwasher, though it didn’t last long (only 2 days), I had a vision. I knew I wanted to run my own business. During those early years, six other people and I rented a basement apartment for $175 a month and registered at Humber College.”
One day at Humber, Mr. Syed came across people creating ‘beautiful things’ from wood and knew that’s what he wanted to do. Eventually, he approached the teacher offering the course and spoke with him about enrolling. The professor told him, “come tomorrow and I will teach you.” Unfortunately, he could not attend due to his work schedule. Mr. Syed fondly remembers the professor replying, “No problem. Come the day after!”
It took Mr. Syed two years to finish his studies as he simultaneously studied and worked at various jobs. After the completion of his coursework he made the decision to gain as much experience and learn as much as possible about the business before venturing out on his own. Throughout it all, he kept his faith strong and his vision of entrepreneurship alive.
After your arrival to Canada and completing your education, how long did it take you to become an entrepreneur and make your vision a reality?
Tariq Syed: “The whole journey took me from 1973 – 1985. It was my learning curve. My boss at the time was the owner of Magic Furniture, a giant in the industry; he said he would help me get started. I can never forget that kindness, Alhamdulillah. So in the basement of my home and with one table saw I did just that. At first it was mostly small jobs for retail outlets and local customers. Then in 1988 my neighbour and I decided to go into business together. Mind you, this was at the height of the recession. People told us we were crazy. No one starts a business in a recession! But we knew if we were able to make this work, we would have the respect of our peers! Business would come to us. Recognition would be ours.”
Omer Syed: “I remember that grand opening! We opened our facility on Falconer Drive in Mississauga. I handed out flyers door to door. My dad was all dressed up in his suit and tie and guess what? No one came!” [Laughter ensues around the room]. ‘It was disheartening — but my dad never lost hope. He never let go of his vision. My father said “If you have a vision, follow it. The money will come later.”
Words of wisdom from a wise man.
At this moment in the interview, Mr. Syed stopped and said, “My wife — she is a big, big, big part of my life.” She had supported this business venture from the beginning. Mr. Syed recalls his wife telling him to go follow his dream! In that first year, she never asked for money. He still doesn’t know how she managed the household. Both Omer and Farhan remember that Eid celebrations were sparse in those early years, but they were still thankful for all that they had. Alhamdulillah.
For the company, 1988 – 1991 was a period of expansion and growth. They shifted from Toronto to Etobicoke to Mississauga. In 1991 they hired more staff and received better contracts. Some of their projects included renovating high-end retail spaces like Gap, Club Monaco, MAC and Tip-Top Tailors. Things were looking up for Mr. Syed and his partner. Their business was thriving. Things were looking up for them. Then something unexpected happened on September 11, 2001.
How did 9/11 affect you, personally and professionally?
Omer Syed: “During 2001 we had projects not just in Ontario but in the United States and overseas as well. Clients such as MaxFactor, Air France and British Airways. But something happened in the aftermath of 9/11. People started to change.”
According to Mr. Tariq Syed, he and his partner, who never fought over any issues, started to see some changes in their relationship. It came to the point where his partner offered to buy him out. Mr. Syed later learned that other people were telling his partner to lay him off. This was a period of great stress for the Syed household. The sad result of this rift was Mr. Syed’s health suffered greatly. He ended up suffering from a heart attack.
How quickly things had deteriorated — relationships forged through years of mutual respect, hard work and camaraderie, were gone in one sweep. Eventually his partner did buy him out, all in a settlement with “no lawyers involved.”
Mr. Syed reluctantly took an early retirement. Time that was needed to heal both physically, mentally and emotionally. Sadly, 9/11 showed an ugly face of the business. How prejudice and biases can permeate through even the thickest of bonds.
After such tragic events, how did you recover? Bounce back?
Omer Syed: “Well, you can imagine what it’s like for a Type A personality person to stay at home. A month went by and then my dad got a job to renovate an optical store — after that, he soon got two more projects! My brother and I were like, “Dad, how can you take these projects? We have no office, no tools?” But it was my dad’s drive, his pursuit of his vision that pulled us through. Alhamdulillah! My father made a lot of contacts in his 20+ years in this business. We outsourced these projects. In the past my father had helped those who didn’t have a job and now when the time came, they were able to help him back.”
When and how did you and your brother get involved?
Omer Syed: “Well, in 2002 I graduated from McMaster University with a degree in Engineering and Management as well as an MBA. My father never wanted us to work in this field. He never wanted us to toil as hard as he had. I was working at Nortel at the time and then I decided to help my father. Help him till he got back on his feet again. I even had an offer from a Bay Street firm. But I declined that to help my dad.”
Farhan Syed: “Around this time I was graduating from McMaster with a degree in Engineering as well and I decided to help out and get those jobs done. Looks like I’m still doing that!”
In 2003, they started to rebuild their business. That was when Woodlogix Interiors was born.
Farhan Syed: We moved into a facility on Wattline Avenue. Just one empty building around 10,000 in square feet, one table saw, and one fork lift. Once again we had a grand opening — and guess what happened? Zero people showed up!” [Smiles and laughter]
The difference this time was that their vision was previously established. The sons were now just holding the rope their father had created and pulling it along.
Woodlogix spent the rest of 2003 and an early part of 2004 establishing themselves. They needed to prove themselves, their company and their vision. Their first project was for Top Kids in Square One. They had to price low just to get a chance to show what they could do, running at a loss, which is normal for fledging businesses.
So now that both of you are also part of the business, what do we see for the future of Woodlogix?
Omer Syed: “The first job that got us on the map, so to speak, was in 2006. It was the Hazel McCallion Academic Learning Centre and the Wellness Centre at the University of Toronto Mississauga. It was tough. I was young, 25, a newbie working with people who were 50+. I had to defend the company and myself constantly. It was definitely a learning experience. I would come home so stressed but my dad would encourage me and say, “Just do it. Finish the work. Just wait and see — you will be on the map.” That was 10 years ago. We won many awards for that and the respect of our peers. You see the business we are in is one where visual minorities like us, are not common. We constantly need to prove ourselves. We have to fight and fight hard to earn the respect of our peers, to make a mark and be recognized.”
Farhan Syed: “When I used to work in the summer I never really appreciated how tough it is. Now I do. My dad he built the infrastructure. He made it possible for us to learn. I went back to school to Sheridan College to take some CAM CAD courses and gain some more knowledge. As my dad grew his business we became his understudies. Alhamdulillah, today I am at a position where I can be a mentor to others and teach them.”
2010 brought with it growth and expansion. Woodlogix moved into a bigger facility. As the business expanded, bigger more prestigious projects started coming in: The Telus Tower, the Research building for The Hospital for Children, the MaRS building (from floors 11 and up) — all located in within downtown Toronto. In 2011 and early 2012, they started working on the Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie. All this while moving once again, and finally to their current location, on Gottardo Court, which spans 30,000 square feet.
The move took about a month. They would start at one facility, move everything over to the new facility, and finish up there. Omer recalls that the Project Manager on the Royal Victoria project was the same person who had given him such a hard time on his initial Hazel McCallion project — as he remembers being called “Taliban” to his face by the people there. Prepared for the ‘ensuing battle’ something pleasantly surprising happened. As Omer walked into the boardroom, the Project Manager turned around and introduced him as “my good friend Omer.”
Alhamdulillah that is amazing — what a 360 degree shift! What are some lessons you have learned from your journey?
Omer Syed: “Unfortunate as it is, racism is a part of our industry. I remember a quote I came across: “I never saw an ignorant person build something they can destroy.” There are pros and cons in the world of construction. One definite pro is there are no veils. People are upfront and outspoken. That is a blessing. Alhamdulillah, because at least you know where you stand. People will not like you for who you are. They will not like you for your religion or colour. They will only like you for your meritocracy.”
Farhan Syed: Mirroring what Omer said, I was once told to my face, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t drink!” It’s a lot of hard work to create a positive image and it doesn’t take a lot to tear that to shreds.
What are the principles of your business? How do you apply these in an Islamic context?
Omer Syed: “You see, a Muslim owned business is different. We work on different principles or ethics. Islamic practices ARE our business practices. When we are doing a project and we see no ‘barakah’ (blessings), we pause and reflect. Is there something we are doing in our personal lives that is stopping the ‘barakah’? We reflect — and we then we make dua (prayers/supplications). Lots and lots of dua. Our formula is: Reflection then dua (supplication) + sadaqa (charity) = barakah. Being in any kind of business is a test of your iman (faith). It is how you carry yourself in your personal and professional life that shows through eventually. That’s why we believe in giving ‘sadaqa’ (charity) constantly. When we had no purchase orders we used the time we had to make Quran tables. When the Imam came to pick them up, that is when we heard the fax machine starting to beep with purchase orders. SubhanAllah. That’s why our business ethic in its core is do things that invite ‘barakah’.
Tariq Syed: “One thing I have done from the beginning, not just with Woodlogix, is that I do not work after 1pm on Fridays. No exceptions. If anyone calls I will return their phone call the next day. Also, we do not allow swearing in our facility.”
Now that you are in a position to give back, how do you reach out to the community?
Farhan Syed: “Alhamdulillah, we have two Syrian refugees working for us right now. We have helped those who are just starting their own careers. We had an architectural student working here one summer. We helped her train and gave her an opportunity to start her own journey into entrepreneurship. My dad would to go to the masjid (mosque) and provide teens summer jobs/internships. We have tours of our workshop for artists and for the public. We feel it is our responsibility to give back as much as we can to the community.”
Tariq Syed: “Early on I would go to people and on their request, talk to their children. Tell them the realities of life and the struggles. Later these kids, all grown up, would come to me in the masjid and say “Uncle, do you remember me? You came to my house and talked to me?”
What advice do you have for the youth of today?
Omer Syed: “Kids today are disconnected from their parents. My dad is my best friend. He is the person I spend most of my day with. Parents and kids need to reconnect. Restart the dialogue. Recreate those bonds. We need to reestablish these roots.”
Tariq Syed: “I tell them go into business. Start small or start big but go into business. Be an entrepreneur. Serve your community. They will recognize you for it.”
Farhan Syed: “We all have setbacks, but through hard work and dedication we can see the ‘barakah’ in what we do, InshAllah. Our community is filled with potential and greatness.”
Any final words or thoughts you would like to share?
Omer Syed: “In 2011 I had to pause and think: did I like what I was doing? I said to myself, yes. I get to work with my family. I get to make beautiful things, things that people need. I can give something real back to the community. We are creating and connecting — creating and connecting not from a foreign source but from within Canada. We are creating from an Islamic culture infused within a real Canadian context.”
Notable Awards received by Woodlogix:
AWMAC (Architectural Woodwork Manufacturers Association of Canada) Awards of Excellence:
2014- The Hospital for Sick Kids, Toronto
2015- Homewood Suites Hotel, Hamilton
2016- MaRS Tower – PHO, Toronto
2016- Luminous Financial, Toronto
TCA (Toronto Construction Association) “Best of the Best Award”:
Woodlogix Interior were recipients of:
2006- Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto
2014- Aga Khan Museum, Toronto
Hazel McCallion Academic Learning Centre (UTM) awarded:
2007- Urban Design Award, Award of Excellence, City of Mississauga
2007- Urban Design Award, People’s Choice Award, City of Mississauga
We wish them all the best!
(Photos for this article courtesy of Woodlogix)