April 29, 2024

Blair LeFebvre and Hayley Willoughby are the owners of Anvil Island Design
Photo by Lance Sullivan, Concept Photography

By Mark MacDonald, Business Examiner

NANAIMO – When Barb and Jack Willoughby started Anvil Island Design 30 years ago, they envisioned it to be a family business in every sense of the word.

Their daughter Hayley Willoughby and partner Blair LeFebvre bought the company in 2022, and they’ve been busy adding a new dimension to the ornamental-metal business. Hayley’s colorful, original design, metal-mounted paintings are in much demand from customers throughout the world.

“My goal is to be creating paintings that are valued at $20,000,” she says, adding her largest creation thus far is an 11-foot wide, shiny, metallic map of the world that was installed in a clients’ living room. She has also designed close to 100 pieces, including First Nations artwork and depictions of Vancouver Island, Japan, Iceland, Greenland and others.

Her parents started Anvil Island Design on the lower mainland in 1992 and moved to Nanaimo a year later. They turn steel, aluminum and copper into a wide variety of sculptures, artwork, wall hangings, souvenirs and desk mementos, with their on-site computerized CNC machine cutting through metal with complete accuracy.

Blair says aluminum Sitka tree sets are very popular as corporate gifts, as well as a First Nation raven with berries, and an Orca pod. The metal Japanese Maple Tree sculpture Jack designed in 2003 continues to be one of the most was one of the most sought after pieces.

One of Hayley Willoughby’s wall-mounted sculptures of the world

“We get orders for the tourist season in Alaska and the Yukon, and we’ve shipped products to Japan and Australia as well,” he adds. “I think Hayley’s parents did a great job establishing the company, and with our hunger and with where we’re already at with the wholesale market, and our drive to make it grow and venture into online retail, it’s going to be even bigger.”

Anvil Island Design has mostly been a wholesale business until their recent expansion that added a retail frontage to their location at 1920 Wilfert Road.
Before Covid, Anvil Island had over 80 stores that bought directly from them. Their list of clients is extensive, and includes Butchart Gardens in Victoria, IKEA, and even the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. They currently sell to over 50 stores all over North America.

Blair had come to Nanaimo from Prince George and became a key forward for the B.C. Hockey League champion Clippers, before working at Western Forest Products’ Duke Point sawmill and in the Alberta oil patch. He handles all the work in the back shop: operating the CNC machine, cutting, welding, fabricating, painting and any other work that needs to be done.

“I went to the shop with Hayley when we first started dating, and she showed me what she did,” he notes. “I’d always enjoyed drawing and painting myself, so it wasn’t a hard thing for me to pick up when I started here.”

It was Hayley’s father’s wish that Anvil Island stayed in the family, as she started working part-time in the business in 2018. Blair and Hayley purchased the company in 2022, but sadly, her father passed away just six weeks later.

Blair LeFebvre works on one of the pieces at Anvil Island Design
Photo by Lance Sullivan, Concept Photography

“My dad and I were always very artistic and I loved painting,” she says. “I was a hairstylist for 11 years but became allergic to hair color and became anaphylactic. I was almost grateful I had a reason to get out. . .it was a bit of a blessing in disguise.

“I originally started playing around with poured paint when my kids were young,” she recalls. “I painted on canvas, but my dad said ‘why not try painting it on some aluminum?’. I discovered epoxy resins, and right away, I knew I had something.”

Her process includes a fluid acrylic pour over aluminum, manipulated with multiple tools like air brushes and trowels, then adding finer detail with brushwork, before adding a resin.

Hayley began selling her wares to coffee shops, and started getting custom orders.

“One thing led to another, and along with working at the shop, I was able to feed my kids with what I sold, and get a nice little living off it,” adding they recently shipped a $7,000 piece to a customer in Juneau, Alaska.

Sales have been trending upwards since they bought the company, and they’re preparing for more growth with the addition of retail sales.

“I love see people come in and they’re blown away. I’ve been watching my dad do this for 30 years, and I know how great this is, but it’s all I’ve ever known. I’ve always seen the potential,” she says. “I have more drive than ever now, and I want this company passed on to one of my kids to make it even bigger and better than what my Dad expected it to be.”

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