Then & Now: Baths By Design overcomes industry, gender barriers

“If you want to succeed in business, you have to do something that really inspires you."

Baths By Design has adapted over the years to the changing ideas behind bathroom design.

Baths By Design founder Mary Ann Gill found success as a young entrepreneur thanks to her unbridled passion and the support of a loyal customer base.

When Gill started Baths By Design in 1992, her motivation was freedom.

Freedom from restrictive corporate policies, freedom to do something different, and freedom to sell bath fixtures and accessories her way.

“I was trained in plumbing back in Toronto,” she says.

“When my husband got transferred to B.C., I followed him.

“For a few years I worked for a competing plumbing and bath company, but I didn’t like their business concept.

“We could only sell the product lines we could get. My job as a salesperson was to talk people out of what they wanted and into what we were selling.”

Gill recalls how that didn’t make sense to her.

“And at that time there weren’t any cool, neat, or innovative designs,” she continues.

“People were just starting to say, ‘Bathrooms are really cool! Let’s make them something special!’

“But the companies were only offering the same exact fixture. So I took what I learned from selling world-renowned names in Toronto and brought it to Kelowna.”

In the early years, Gill found that Kelowna’s large German and Italian populations were very supportive of her efforts.

She quickly began contacting the European suppliers she had dealt with in Toronto.

Baths By Design was the first local company to carry European product lines, she says, and that’s what allowed the fledgling business to gain a foothold in Kelowna’s restrictive plumbing industry.

“At that time, I was 27 years old, and I was a woman in a male-dominated industry. People tried to force me out.

“I had to call the police two or three times because men came to threaten me at my store or tried to force me to shut down.”

Gill would later learn that Kelowna was home to an oppressive plumbing cartel.

Plumbers, she says, would refuse to sell products that weren’t a name brand carried by a wholesaler. She says that the wholesalers paid plumbers to bring them business.

And when Gill refused to work according to the kickback system, the cartel decided to blackball her.

“The threats didn’t scare me,” she says. “I knew that the educated European residents would see through this and stand up for what’s right. The European communities here gave me a lot of support.”

Gill notes that since Baths By Design began, five independent companies have come and gone.

There are only four independent plumbing companies in B.C., she says, and Baths By Design is the only independent store in Kelowna.

Gill credits her success to her incredible passion for her work.

“I remember when I was eight years old, I kept staring at the bathtub faucet, wondering how it worked,” she says.

“Instead of playing with toys, I’d ask if I could have a screwdriver and figure out how the plumbing fixtures worked.

“If you want to succeed in business, you have to do something that really inspires you. You have to be into what you’re doing or else you cannot succeed at it.”