In mid-July, I called up Greg Barnes to ask if he’d like to be featured in our Member Highlight series. I explained to him that we could schedule a time for a quick phone or Zoom interview, during which I’d ask him a series of questions about his business and career story.
“It should only take about 30-45 minutes,” I said.
Greg agreed to be interviewed, but not simply over the phone or video call. He wanted something a little more personal. “Why don’t you swing by my business and we can chat face-to-face?” He proposed.
I accepted, and the following week I zipped over to Great Bear Products for one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever conducted. What was originally supposed to be a 30-45 minute chat turned into a three-hour conversation.
Located at 647 Welham Road, just off Mapleview Road in Barrie, the Great Bear showroom is an aesthetically-pleasing tour of precision woodworking and design. There are shelves and shelves chock-full of personalized wooden signs, cutting boards, cups – you name it! And, of course, their new and ever-so-popular collection of BenShot glasses.
But as much as Greg loves personalized engravings and custom woodworking, it hasn’t been his lifelong career. In fact, Greg only founded Great Bear Products nine years ago after working in the tech industry for the majority of his career. He has lived on several continents at different points in his life and worked closely with big name companies like Apple and Samsung. So let’s start at the beginning of Greg’s journey in his hometown of London, Ontario.
Greg grew up the eldest of five kids. His dad was a small-time contractor from Muskoka that had decided to raise his family in London. But when a construction job opportunity arose in Florida, Greg’s dad decided to pack up the family and make an excursion down to the hot n’ palm-studded Sunshine State.
Things weren’t all sunshine and rainbows, but they managed to get by. Greg went to high school and then to the St. Petersburg College, Clearwater where he majored in Journalism.
Greg’s tenure as a journalist, though short, was eventful. He was given a full ride scholarship for his first two years in the program, in which he focused on photo journalism.
Greg’s education in this field was full of hands-on work. The university hired him to be its campus newspaper photographer. Yes, that’s right, Greg was that one student who always walked around campus asking if he could snap your portrait for a piece he was doing.
But the job included many perks as well. For instance, Greg received free press passes to be on the sidelines during both NFL and college football games. He’d work the sidelines, snapping pictures of the action and then interviewing them after the game.
Not only did he get front row football seats, but Greg also crossed paths with some famous household names. One time, he found himself with a bunch of big-newspaper journalists in a President Nixon press conference.
“I didn’t ask any questions,” he said, laughing. “Nobody would’ve listened to a young guy like me anyway.”
Another time, he had the privilege of a one-on-one interview with Buzz Aldrin, the second man to ever set foot on the moon, for a piece the campus paper was writing. That’s an honour even full-time journalists would kill for, and here was college freshman Greg interviewing one of America’s heroes.
But as it turned out, Greg, the accomplished college journalist, didn’t even get the chance to complete his degree. Because right about the time he was finishing his second year, the United States started drafting young men to fight in the Vietnam War.
Contrary to what you might’ve thought, Greg’s status as a Canadian did not offer him immunity from getting drafted. He was a permanent U.S resident and that was enough to make him eligible.
“I didn’t want to go into the Army or Marine Corps,” said Greg. “I wasn’t inclined to be pounding the ground in Vietnam, with the possibility of getting whacked constantly hanging over my head. I could’ve run back to Canada, but I didn’t want to do that. My Dad, Granddad, and Uncles were all proud veterans of the Canadian Forces so I wasn’t inclined to run away.”
Instead, he used his connections and found an opportunity that changed his life for good.
“My dad had some friends and one of them was an Air Force guy,” he explained. “So this guy convinced me to join the Air Force because that way, I could get some high-quality education. The only catch was that I’d have to serve for four years, but I didn’t care. So I joined.”
And that’s how Greg came to be a member of the US Air Force for four years. Despite the fact that Greg was pursuing journalism at this time, the Air Force didn’t have much need nor care for that. What they did need, however, was computer technicians. The Air Force didn’t care that Greg had no prior education or interest in this field. They trained him as a computer technician and, in so doing, changed his career course.
“It turned out to be a great education,” he said. “And as a result of that, I switched majors. I went to the University of Nebraska while I was still in the Air Force and studied to become an electrical engineer.”
And after four and half years of serving in the Air Force, Greg was free to go. He moved back to Florida where he found work with a military contractor company named Sperry Microwave. Although no longer in existence, Sperry-Rand Corporationwas a large tech company back in the day and one of the pioneers of digital computers. This was Greg’s first foot-in-the-door in the tech industry and he made it count.
“I worked at Sperry for four years,” Greg said. “To them, I was the young guy who got all the jobs nobody else wanted to do. So one of the things they gave me to do was dealing with vendors and technical salespeople that would come to sell components to the company. And even though nobody wanted to do it, I loved it. It made me want to be a sales guy.”
As it turned out, getting a technical sales job was not very hard for Greg. He had engineering training, he knew the product, and, most of all, he wanted to be a sales engineer. Without hesitation, he left Sperry and went to work for a company in Seattle.
After that, he hopped from company to company in Silicon Valley for 30 years as a technical salesman. And then Greg began his tour of the world, travelling to different parts of Asia and Europe for work. During this time, Greg was still a technical salesman. But getting into the specifics of what he sold is where things get confusing.
“[We sold] a really crazy, complicated system called an in-circuit emulator,” he said.
In one sentence, a circuit emulator is hardware that ensures computer new silicon hardware and software runs smoothly together and, if it doesn’t, identifies what errors must be fixed by the manufacturer before “tape-out” (final hardware design). To understand the complexity of the job, just remember that there can be tens of millions of transistors inside a single computer microchip. Do that math and you’ll find that’s a whole lot of microscopic 1s and 0s zipping around.
Now, while you won’t be able to obtain a computer science degree with that knowledge, you will be able to understand why Greg was contracted by big-name computer companies like Apple, Samsung, Intel, Nokia, nVidia, ATI, and so on. These companies would contract Greg’s company to do trial runs of their new technology through the circuit emulators, thus discovering any kinks that needed to be ironed out before hitting the market.
There was good money in the business, too. The cheapest system they ever sold was still over a million dollars.
Although he worked in Europe and different parts of Asia, Greg’s longest-duration home was in Bangkok, Thailand. Greg met his wife there, settled for a number of years, and started his family. Both of his now-adult children were born there as well. The experience afforded him a wide range of experiences. As a result, Greg can pull story after story out of his back pocket as if he were a standup comedian.
One of his best is about when he got involved in the Thailand lumber industry. After a number of years working in the tech industry, Greg started to get tired of the never-ending sequence of big tech companies swallowing up the smaller ones. He wanted a change, but he never dreamed he’d end up in the lumber industry.
“My wife’s friends are big hardwood manufacturers,” he said. “And at that time there was a lumber shortage over in Thailand. So they asked me, ‘Hey, you’re Canadian. Can you help us get some wood?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know anything about, but I’ll try.’”
And just like that, Greg Barnes went from being a tech salesman to a lumber buyer based in Bangkok, Thailand.
“I learned fast,” he said. “I started making trips to Vancouver and visiting all the big lumber companies out there. I was buying lumber by the container loads and we were shipping about 50 to 100 containers a month.”
And in 2012, Greg founded Great Bear Products, a small company that began in Thailand, would move to Gravenhurst, ON, in 2015, and then finally to its present location in Barrie in 2019.
Greg’s business philosophy with Great Bear has always been to forge relationships with clients and partners. When you put your heart and soul into your work, making the customer feel like an individual who is worthy of the best purchase experience possible, it leaves an impression on them. Treat them like that and they will come back. Furthermore, they will tell their friends to support you. Before you know it, you will have a network of clients extending like an oak tree’s roots into the ground. “Where else can you drive around and visits your friends all day….and get paid for it!”
Greg wholeheartedly believes in this tried and true, traditional business method.
“We survived Covid because of those relationships,” he said. “When the pandemic hit, everybody was rushing to get their businesses online with websites and socials and everything. And sure, that’s a good thing. But as soon as you develop a good website and that becomes your primary mode of business, how are you any different from, say, Amazon?”
Greg stressed that doing personal business, where customer service is valued over sheer value of the product, will never be fully replaced by online superstores.
“Amazon is always going to be Amazon,” he said. “At least for the next few years, they’re going to keep sucking the life out of all their competitors. So, yes, get on the internet, have a social page, do all that. But, damn it, do the normal, traditional business too. People will always buy from people and customers will always respect good service.”
Great Bear Products follows this philosophy to a T. They have an excellent website. It’s easy to navigate, colourful, and visually pleasing. But when I set foot in that store, I instantly understood the value of an in-person shopping experience where everything is personal, customized to suit the client’s needs.
“From the start, I had the philosophy that everything we make will be customized in some way,” said Greg. And he’s certainly followed through on that. From canoe paddles to steak knife handles, Great Bear Products engraves and custom designs dozens of products. You name it, they cut or engrave it.
And how many times have you seen an engraved wooden business card? That’s just one more product that Greg custom carves.
So head on over to Great Bear Products for an excellent experience in customer service. And even if you don’t want to buy anything, have a chat with Greg and maybe he’ll tell you one of his captivating stories from life in Europe or Thailand.
But I’d be willing to bet that you will want to buy something once you go in. That’s the magic of customer service and traditional business.
Written by Peter Wilson
Photography by Yvonne Metcalfe Images