Navigating New Waters
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He once ran for political office. He’s been married 33 years, has seven children ages 19 to 30, 10 grandchildren and two more on the way. He spends a good part of every summer living on his boat, exploring the waterways of Eastern Ontario. And he's travelled the world volunteering on humanitarian builds.

“He” is incoming OHBA President Eric DenOuden, founder and President of Hilden Homes, an award-winning builder in the Quinte area. Known for its diverse selection of rural/municipal lots, locations and home designs throughout the region, Hilden is a regular recipient of Tarion’s Award of Excellence for customer service. “With more than 1,000 homes built, we’ve never failed to meet a closing date,” says Eric. “Our company was founded on the belief that your home is an integral part of your life. People deserve the security of a home built to the highest standards in quality and design, constructed by professionals with proven building experience.”

The son of Dutch immigrants, Eric says building is in his blood. “My Opa (grandfather) owned a construction company in the Netherlands. Many of my cousins and uncles were in that line of work, and my father was a cabinetmaker. I would help him out at times, and whenever I saw a house under construction, I was interested in the process. I realized at a very young age that building a home involved many talented individuals, from the designers to the dozens of skilled trades who transform their plans into reality.”

With the exception of obtaining a diploma as a civil engineering technician at Sir Sandford Fleming College in Peterborough, Eric has always lived in the Quinte area. So it stood to reason that he would come back to the region, marry his high school sweetheart, Toni, and build his first house. “Let’s clarify that. I hired the right people to build our house. I’ve never been a micromanager and I’ve never been a workaholic. I believe in delegating responsibility and trusting the experts in their respective fields to do their job.”

It wasn’t until the DenOudens had moved into their second house that Eric decided to start his own home building company. In 1985, he and a partner founded Hilden Homes. “I’d worked for some engineering firms and I had a management and design background, although, in retrospect, we were very young and quite naïve. But we hit the market at a good time and by the end of 1986, we’d built 20 houses, all geared toward the first-time buyer.”

In 1989, Eric bought out his partner and for a while everything was going according to plan. “We’d kept our overhead low, diversified by spreading into three communities and really concentrated on efficiencies in design and construction. And then the 1990s came, and with it, recessionary times. Interest rates increased and land values dropped. Banks were changing their lending practices and calling in loans, and Hilden Homes was not immune. Fortunately, we weren’t overly leveraged and we survived. But I also learned a valuable lesson, one that I’ve never forgotten to this day: Never let a bank control your company.”

Busy balancing business with the needs of a young family in the late 1980s, one of Eric’s tradespeople invited him to a meeting with the Quinte Home Builders’ Association. “I went as his guest and never left. I was impressed with the networking and it was great to spend time with like-minded folks. For me, at that time, it was my monthly social night out. Then, about nine years ago, the deputy police chief did a presentation on something called Children’s Safety Village—Belleville. The idea was to build a village with small buildings, detailed roadways, traffic lights, operational railway crossings, mini vehicles and bicycles, along with an instructional classroom to teach road safety and personal safety to children in Grades two, three and four. As the father of seven, it was an initiative that resonated with me. A month later, I became project chairman.”

That involvement gradually deepened. “I became a presidential appointee in the Quinte HBA, and as I moved through the ranks, including serving as the Quinte Association president, I started attending provincial board meetings. I have to admit there was a time when I’d first joined the local chapter that I wondered if there was value in belonging to the provincial association. But over time I became more and more impressed with OHBA’s mandate, the way they work with all levels of government to showcase the importance of the residential housing industry to our overall economy. We all want the same thing: good quality, energy-efficient housing in well-planned communities, but OHBA makes it clear: we are the experts and we want governments to respect our position and to understand the impact on the bottom line before adding another layer of cost.”

While Eric’s personal experience as a builder involved in the Associations has been rewarding, he understands sitting in boardrooms hashing out ideas isn’t for everybody. “That said, the more heads we bring to the table, the more we’re able to think three -and four-dimensionally, and the better the outcome.”

Eric is also quick to point out that getting involved at the local or provincial level isn’t just for builders. “We really need individuals from a cross-section of our industry: renovators, suppliers, developers, trades and professional people. Just because you’re not a builder, don’t think we don’t need or want you to get involved. Each of us has a passion. That diversity can lead to greatness and to making sure we remain a vibrant part of the province’s and country’s economic future. As an industry and a business, we can’t just pick up and move to another country to reduce our costs and overhead. Unfortunately, every level of government and every bureaucracy seem to view that as an invitation to tax us in some manner. Consider the legislation by the end of 1986, we’d built 20 houses, all geared toward the first-time buyer.”

In 1989, Eric bought out his partner and for a while everything was going according to plan. “We’d kept our overhead low, diversified by spreading into three communities and really concentrated on efficiencies in design and construction. And then the 1990s came, and with it, recessionary times. Interest rates increased and land values dropped. Banks were changing their lending practices and calling in loans, and Hilden Homes was not immune. Fortunately, we weren’t overly leveraged and we survived. But I also learned a valuable lesson, one that I’ve never forgotten to this day: Never let a bank control your company.”

The journey to OHBA president Busy balancing business with the needs of a young family in the late 1980s, one of Eric’s tradespeople invited him to a meeting with the Quinte Home Builders’ Association. “I went as his guest and never left. I was impressed with the networking and it was great to spend time with like-minded folks. For me, at that time, it was my monthly social night out. Then, about nine years ago, the deputy police chief did a presentation on something called Children’s Safety Village—Belleville. The idea was to build a village with small buildings, detailed roadways, traffic lights, operational railway crossings, mini vehicles and bicycles, along with an instructional classroom to teach road safety and personal safety to children in Grades two, three and four. As the father of seven, it was an initiative that resonated with me. A month later, I became project chairman.”

That involvement gradually deepened. “I became a presidential appointee in the Quinte HBA, and as I moved through the ranks, including serving as the Quinte Association president, I started attending provincial board meetings. I have to admit there was a time when I’d first joined the local chapter that I wondered if there was value in belonging to the provincial association. But over time I became more and more impressed with OHBA’s mandate, the way they work with all levels of government to showcase the importance of the residential housing industry to our overall economy. We all want the same thing: good quality, energy-efficient housing in well-planned communities, but OHBA makes it clear: we are the experts and we want governments to respect our position and to understand the impact on the bottom line before adding another layer of cost.”

While Eric’s personal experience as a builder involved in the Associations has been rewarding, he understands sitting in boardrooms hashing out ideas isn’t for everybody. “That said, the more heads we bring to the table, the more we’re able to think three -and four-dimensionally, and the better the outcome.”

Eric is also quick to point out that getting involved at the local or provincial level isn’t just for builders. “We really need individuals from a cross-section of our industry: renovators, suppliers, developers, trades and professional people. Just because you’re not a builder, don’t think we don’t need or want you to get involved. Each of us has a passion. That diversity can lead to greatness and to making sure we remain a vibrant part of the province’s and country’s economic future. As an industry and a business, we can’t just pick up and move to another country to reduce our costs and overhead. Unfortunately, every level of government and every bureaucracy seem to view that as an invitation to tax us in some manner. Consider the legislation under Bill 119 and the impact on WSIB rates as an example. These complex policies and procedures may work for a mega-builder with a huge staff, but they may also drive a smaller company out of business or even underground. Development charges are another open ticket, one that drives the costs of all homes in the province, not just new homes. Ontario has some of the best housing in the world, but at what cost? It’s rapidly becoming unaffordable, and that’s with record low interest rates. Our job is to advocate and educate, to stop, or at the very least, slow down new fee structures and unnecessary bureaucracy, and to remain ever vigilant in protecting not just the big builder in large centres, but the small builder in communities across the province.”

One way to do that, Eric believes, is to communicate with the local associations, and continue on with the “Locals First” initiative. “We have to get out to the local communities so we understand their regional needs. We’re also going to continue to provide educational opportunities, and to raise the bar for the educational component for builders. The 2014 Building Code is right around the corner.”

Growing RenoMark is also high atop Eric’s mandate as president. “Renovation is a growing component of the Association, and it’s a market we are watching carefully. We want the consumer to be protected, and the best way to do that is to continue to raise the profile of the brand, and to stress to homeowners that RenoMark members are honest, reputable, insured professionals—that they are the better alternative to the cash operator. We’re also encouraging the government to provide a consistent renovation tax credit.”

Making a difference Two of Eric’s favourite things are travel and giving back. “Throughout my career I have helped local business and community ventures, but I have also had the opportunity to travel the world doing different charitable works in many underdeveloped countries, from Sierra Leone to the Dominican Republic. One of my favourite memories is a trip to a remote part of Uganda, where, as part of a team of 12 volunteers, I worked with local Ugandans who were in the midst of building a community centre, albeit very slowly due to a lack of funding. “

Our team’s mandate was to expedite the project by providing both physical labour and expertise, as well as the financial resources to purchase materials. This isn’t as easy as it might sound on the surface. There is an abundance of clay, and so they could make their own bricks. But other supplies, such as nails and wood, aren’t readily available; there’s a lot of improvising and innovation to get something done. “

The biggest lesson learned, however, is how much North Americans take our conveniences for granted. In Uganda, everyone [including our team] lived in mud huts with grass roofs, and the community was without running water, electricity or refrigeration. To bathe, you had to walk a few miles, put water in a cup and heat it over a coal fire. The market had limited selection and the food was bland and repetitive. If you had goat for dinner one night, you could expect to have some sort of leftover goat dish the next. I can remember, when I got back to civilization, how good it felt just to order a cold beer and a salad with salad dressing.

“People ask me, ‘If it’s going to cost you $3,000, why not just send them a cheque?’ Beyond the very real possibility of corruption—there’s little guarantee all the money slated for a particular project will make it there—I believe it’s also important to show we actually care. Actions and hard work always speak louder than money. Certainly at the end of the day there is a tangible benefit to them, but for me the life experience of living within a different culture, not as a tourist, but as a part of a community, is invaluable. The rewards are internal; for one, you learn to appreciate cultural diversities. “

I really applauded Past President James Bazely’s 2011 Humanitarian Build, not just because we did a good thing as an association, but because it proved, once again, that there is strength in numbers, and that together we can make a difference.”

It’s the desire to give back, pull together and gain recognition that prompted Eric to come up with a new province-wide initiative: Celebrating 50 years with 50 Good Deeds. “OHBA begins its second 50 years in 2014. Our members come from 30 local associations, from small towns to big cities and everything in between. They live, work and play in their respective communities. And I’d venture a guess that most, if not all, of our locals give back in some way. It isn’t always about money; often it’s about lending our talent and abilities or assuming a leadership role in a project. It could be helping a local church get a new roof, or building a playground at a neighbourhood park, or sponsoring a charitable running event. But we aren’t always very good at promoting our good deeds. It’s just something we do.”

That’s where the 50 Good Deeds comes in, Eric explains. The campaign will be officially launched in September at OHBA’s Annual Conference in Niagara with a charity bike ride. OHBA will also be asking the local HBAs to contribute to meet the objective of 50 charitable projects to celebrate OHBA’s 50 years as an organization. In turn, OHBA will assist by supporting locals with their promotion of their charitable project with media at the provincial, regional and local levels.

“Ontario’s residential construction industry makes a difference in everyday lives, every day,” says Eric. “Sometimes we get a bad rap for what we do, but we’re not just the guys taking down trees. We take pride in providing good quality housing for the generations to come. This is just one more way to do what we’re already doing, and gain some recognition for it along the way. I can see our builders, trades and suppliers working together to assist individuals or organizations with specific housing needs. It could be building an accessible barrier-free entrance to a home, or assisting a women’s shelter. The sky’s the limit; there is so much we can do with our time, talent and resources.”

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