Our 70th Anniversary celebrations conclude with Greta and Henry Heinen, owners of BC Greenhouse Builders
This spotlight article is a collaborative effort of love from Marie (Heinen) Grim and sourcing essays and interviews from Henry and Greta and is 62 years in the making
There is something beautiful about ending our 70th anniversary celebrations by going back to the beginning and the beginning of BCG is a great story.
BC Greenhouse Builders was founded by Bert and Mary Wells. The earliest record is a price list from 1951 and many believe the company began even earlier than that. In those days, the greenhouses were fabricated out of cedar on Fraser Street in Vancouver, British Columbia. The hip roof ‘Pride of the Pacific’ custom model sold for $385 was considered the height of style.
At that time, the company was a small operation with Dick Foreman as the foreman (true story) and as luck would have it, their future longest term employee was on his way to Canada. Henry Heinen emigrated from Holland with his family on August 26, 1956 at 13 years of age. The Heinen’s including Henry and his 7 siblings landed in Montreal by plane (there would eventually be 11 children) and took the train west to Vancouver. As luck would have it, Henry’s father got a job the day after landing in Vancouver on Lulu Island, eventually found a house and settled in New Westminster.
Henry didn’t like the Canadian school system as they forced him to drop back a grade as he was learning English. While in Holland, he had performed an aptitude test which revealed strength in working with his hands and suggested a career in metal work. Believing that it’s more important to understand the principles of life, Henry dropped out of school with the blessing of his parents and started working for BC Greenhouse Builders in 1959 at sixteen years of age. His first day on the job involved taking down the wooden display greenhouses at the Pacific National Exhibition the day after Labour Day.
“I was hired as the clean-up boy. I started as a Dutch immigrant kid who knew nothing about Canadian life and was learning the names of the tools. I think it must have been very frustrating to get a screwdriver instead of a chisel,” says Henry. “After two years of tutoring me, Dick decided that if he can teach me, maybe he could do it as a career and left to go back to school to become a teacher. He taught me how to do the things that I needed in the next 50 years of my career. He was a great mentor to me.”
For Henry’s 40th anniversary with BCG, Henry’s wife Greta had penned a historical account of his career and had this to say in 1999 about those early days:
BCG was making big changes in production from the wooden greenhouse design to aluminum. Because Henry was there through the change, he developed a keen eye and interest in design. His job was production and installation, thank goodness, because he was so shy and certainly not interested in sales.
Henry became the only labourer in production but the work was seasonal and Henry was only busy in the spring and fall with an extra person brought in to help with installations as needed. But he also had the travel bug and went as far as Nashville, loved football with his pal John Euverman and enjoyed driving around in his famous car “The Lone Wolf” listening to country music.
As story points connect on a map, the next best thing to happen to Henry was a ferry ride away in 1966. Greta Kruk emigrated from Holland in 1952 with her family and settled on a beet farm in Lethbridge, Alberta. From there they moved to Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. Henry was visiting friends and was asked to go on a blind date because Greta did not want to come to the mainland to be a third wheel with her brother and his fiancé. She told them she would come if they found someone for her to go on a double date with. After the plans were made the double date fell through but Henry and Greta decided to carry on with the plans and their path together began. They just needed to agree to the location on the map. Henry shared that he really liked his job and did not want to live in Port Alberni and hoped Greta would agree to move to the Mainland. She agreed and they married in 1969.
In 1969, Bert Wells approached Henry and asked if he was interested in buying the business as Bert was ready to retire. Henry had to decline as they had just purchased their first home, a baby was on the way and money was tight. Tony Fritzke bought the business but was not involved in the day to day operations of the company which meant that Henry moved out of his comfort zone and started answering phones and handling sales. Although he loved the work, it remained very seasonal and the wages were low. The mental stress of only having work for six months of the year resulted in Henry deciding to move on after 13 years with the company. The offer to buy BC Greenhouse Builders presented itself a second time. Again, he had to decline. Tony suggested they could figure out a down payment with a five year payment plan.
Henry was excited and went home to discuss this with his thrifty wife Greta. Over half of his monthly earnings went to pay the mortgage on the house. They now had three children, so she operated on a very strict budget. Henry’s pocket money was $1.00 a week. But yes, this was an opportunity and they were still young so why not try it?
“The business had declined a lot by 1972. The competition from pre-fab English greenhouses was coming to the West Coast however I always thought that the company could be great if it was run properly,” says Henry. “It was a scary and exciting time. The plan was that I was to continue building greenhouses and Greta would learn accounting and managing the company while raising four kids.”
A display greenhouse was put up in the backyard at home. Greta did her greenhouse gardening and customers would come to the house. Many sales were made in the backyard greenhouse. By December 1973, the sales had tripled and one more full time employee and a Saturday employee was hired. One of Henry’s sisters would babysit on Saturdays so Greta could work in the office. (G. Heinen, 1999)
At that time, the rent on Griffith Avenue increased by 30%, so Henry and Greta decided to sell their house and look for a place that would have a house with a shop in the backyard.
“Low and behold there was a place a block away on Hedley Avenue. Greta signed the papers the day after Marie was born from her hospital bed. Both were very joyous moments,” says Henry.
They went to 900 square feet shop on Griffith Ave to 1300 sq. ft. on Hedley Street. Many family and friends pitched in to help paint, clean the house, set up the new shop and build the display greenhouses on the roof. As time went on, the kids were getting older and able to help with building greenhouses, punching caps and bars, cleaning up and learning how a greenhouse comes together. In true BCG fashion where you just push forward to get things done, Henry’s television career began with the first episode of Bernard Moore’s gardening show filmed on their roof of the shop within two weeks of the move.
“As the business grew with Greta’s promotions and brochures brought in more orders, the shop and office was getting too small,” says Henry. “Greta wanted to move the business away from our home with all the trucks coming in with supplies. We moved into a new house and the property on Hedley was turned into an office and showroom and that worked well for another 10 years.”
By 1983, the business continued to grow but Henry was growing tired. Greta suggested the choice was either sell the company or take a long break.
“We decided to take the family to Australia for 8 months. We mortgaged our house to the max and away we went without a plan or a place to live. This was before the internet and it was a real adventure. Greta would phone in every week to BCG to check in and during that time I had no contact with the business at all,” says Henry. “When I came back totally relaxed, the country was in a deep recession. The timing for the break could not have been better. I was optimistic and energized for the future and we developed different models to keep us going and slowly things improved.”
Every year BCG grew larger with more staff. Rick joined the company full time in 1986 and Wayne joined Greta in the front office when he graduated from Grade 12. Jay moved into cabinet making and joined the Army and was stationed in Victoria which allowed him to help out on the weekends with his buddy Lockhart. Marie wore many hats between her school and sports schedule acting as secretary, cleaner, home show helper and more. BCG was given an opportunity by the BC government to participate in a glazier’s apprenticeship program and Henry passed. As a non-union company, this was not an easy task but again, Greta’s determination prevailed and friends helped out including Henry’s old boss Dick Foreman. Greta sourced the books and sample exam questions and they passed.
In 1995 solariums were increasing in popularity and the property on 94th Avenue in Surrey was purchased to showcase ‘Easy Living Conservatories” under the direction of Rick. This was an exciting time as exports were heating up, the internet was new and computers improved efficiencies in the office. This was also the year Henry decided to take a step back from the day-to-day operations and become partners with Rick and focus on financials. At this time, Greta was a Master Gardener, wrote a successful greenhouse gardening book, articles for various gardening magazines and she also decided to take a step back to enjoy more time with their grandchildren and travel.
In 2009, Henry retired after 50 years with BCG and they sold the company to Rick. BC Greenhouse Builders presented Henry and Greta with a 30 day cruise and they toured Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Japan. Upon their return, they were hit with terrible news.
“When we came back Greta tested positive for breast cancer and lived life fully every day until she passed away May 21, 2015. We were married for 48 years and many times we said to each other – How did we do it? Raise a family and run a business and still be together,” says Henry. “Our determination to put the family first, make the business grow and give our children a chance to continue on with it… Sometimes it was very difficult and if it wasn’t for Greta doing two jobs with a happy face, I give her all of the credit. She had the patience, wisdom and the ability to teach.”
One of the best things about the new building is that we brought the company history with us. Photos of old shops, past owners and Greta and Henry grace our history wall and custom wallpaper with vintage photos adorns the upstairs hallway. Henry stops by the new shop regularly and is always full of great stories. He now happily acts as our greenhouse ambassador and lives between his home in Surrey, Lake Havasu and travels the world with his new wife Helen.
Henry is the first to share the success of the company with others but it would simply not exist without him. All of those points in history that seemed like everyday moments were plot points to this incredible story. Add that to his unbelievable work ethic, natural talent, insight and fun loving nature makes him a legend in this industry.
“The kids get half the credit,” Henry says. “As they got older, they became assets to the business and Greta would be walking on clouds to see her grandchildren working here. The whole family still supports BCG. Watching the grandchildren learning how to work at a very young age and how to treat people respectfully has been a big part of the success of the company. I am now a great grandfather and hope to see the next generation do the same.”
Seventy years of hard work, determination, friendship, and good times is our history. We feel privileged to carry forward the lessons and memories. It is truly a legacy of a wonderful family, support from many, and the art of taking risks. At the close of our 70th year in business, we send our gratitude and thanks to everyone who helped us along the way. To Henry and Greta, we send our love.