It’s a family thing

By Francie Healy

There’s something the same about the two Jacques men. You can’t put your finger on it at first, although you know you should be able to. They are, after all, father and son.

But it’s more than a family resemblance. It’s a look in the eye, a demeanor, a confidence.

And then, when they get talking about business, you see it clear as day.

It’s a sureness. These men are sure: sure about what they do, who they are, and why their company, General Repairs & Renovations, Inc., is so successful. People can tell you they have integrity or good values or fine ethics. That’s one thing. But it’s another to see it in a couple of faces and to know it’s the honest-to-goodness truth.

The men are proud of their accomplishments. They’ll tell you right off that the structure of their company is not from the top down but a partnership of equals.

And anyway, if there was a “top”, it wouldn’t be the older Jacques (George), as many people first think. (“The grey hair fools them,” he says.) Mike, the son, is the guy in charge. He’s the one with all the hands-on talent.

George is the fellow behind the scenes who co-ordinates jobs, billing, administration, sales proposals, presentations, appointments and all the other essential services of a well-run operation. He says there’s a huge amount of paperwork – more than most – because General Repairs & Renovations is one of the rare companies which provides estimates, specifications, a copy of the contract, all the insurances and everything else a client needs – before a customer has committed to a project.

“We make sure they have all the information they need up front,” he says, “rather than after the contract has been signed.”

George is usually the first voice people hear when they call General Repairs & Renovations. He sets a date for Mike to meet with them. He gets an idea about what the customer wants. And he always asks their expectations about when they need a job completed. Sometimes, if they need it done right away, he has to turn them down. The company usually books at least three months ahead, even with full crews running at all times. They do everything by priority.

Timing is also important because once the crews begin, they finish the job. Mike insists on that.

“There are so many stories,” he says, “of other contractors leaving to do something else and then not returning for weeks. We don’t do that.”

“And we always make sure a customer has contact with one of us at any time,” adds George.

Customers’ expectations can still surprise them. George often gets calls at 10 or 11 at night.

“And from people who wanted us to start this afternoon,” says Mike.

But the two stand firm. They know you can’t operate like that and keep consistently high standards.

“If you ask for a doctor’s appointment, for instance,” says Mike, “you can’t say, ‘I’d rather you come to my house at 9 p.m. tomorrow’. And we can’t, either.”

Mike learned not to let other people control his hours a long time ago when he worked to the point of burning himself out.

“Now,” he says, “after 5:30, I’m done for the day. I have a family. And I’m not 22 anymore.”

George still makes some early-evening appointments for Mike when a client needs to meet with him. But they’re not every day, and they usually end at a reasonable hour. “And of course,” says Mike, “if there’s a real emergency, we get someone there no matter what.”

Mike spends a full day on the weekend estimating. Then he brings the estimate to George, who types it up and puts it into a professional presentation.

Any way you look at it, these guys are busy.

It was George who financially kick-started the company. He was working at the Canadian Bank Note Company. Mike had spent five years in the military at Petawawa and studying carpentry at St. Lawrence College, Cornwall. With the military, he worked on bridging, heavy equipment, water purification systems and some wood structure. Even when he had other jobs, he was always doing carpentry on the side.

In 1991, father and son decided to go into business together.

“I had the experience; he had the chequebook,” says Mike. Ten years ago, in 2000, Mike took over the company as sole owner. But the two work together as closely as ever.

General Repairs & Renovations uses only licensed carpenters and, says Mike, the best in each of the trades.

They all wear uniforms (company t-shirts, jackets, ball caps) – white in summer, green in winter. “All the ‘subs’ wear our colours,” says Mike. “Everyone’s clean, and they take care. The first thing they do is to lay down the drop sheets.”

He grins. “The next thing they do is to bring out their sledge hammers.” He says the look on people’s faces tells him what they think of that. “But I tell them ‘It’s gonna get ugly before it gets pretty’.”

Once they get over the horror of the demolition process, however, Mike says people begin to relax, especially if they’ve gone through it with his company before.

“They often say they had fun letting us make a mess of their house,” he says. “But that’s because they’re dealing with professionals.”

It helps that the company’s reputation precedes them, Mike says.  “In a word,” says George, “we are quality. That means quality in our work, our presentation, and in the way we treat our customers.”

“That’s true regardless of the size of the job,” adds Mike. “We’re finding that many people won’t hire anyone else.”

“We have a book of references from people that thick,” says George like a proud Dad. He holds his fingers about three inches apart.

Another thing that seems to work for the company is the relationship they have built up over the years with a team of professionals.

“Architects, engineers and designers will come to me and ask if I can do something,” says Mike. “I tell them I can build anything they want. We enjoy working with each other. If they need a carpenter to fix a mistake, they call on me.”

What makes a good carpenter? Mike says it takes talent, but it also goes beyond formal training and into the field. He has made a point of working in many different areas of his trade in order to expand his knowledge and experience. And he goes further, into other trades. He has made a point of working with a roofer and tile-setter, for instance. “The more I know,” he says, “the more versatile I become.” His own favourite expertise is troubleshooting: “It’s one of the things I enjoy doing the most.”

The company has grown rapidly, and it requires Mike to be on the road most of the time. He misses the constant hands-on work with tools… but only sometimes.
“Some days I don’t,” he admits. “My knees don’t hurt as much.”

Mike is proud of his team of carpenters and other tradespeople.

“They know their jobs,” he says, “and we take good care of them.”

He’s in constant touch through two-way radios with the crews. If there are slow days, he often keeps them employed at his own house.

“They have budgets and families, too,” he says. “I do my best to make sure they maintain their hours.”

Mike has carpenters on staff, and he uses the same tradespeople he has been using for years. When you work at a pace like his, you have to know your crews are top-notch.

“I know who’s where, who’s doing what, and what they need. I make sure all materials are on site before they get there, and I insist that it meets my standards of quality.”

Standards of quality extend to his workers, too.

“I know their ethics,” he says. “I can rely on them.       “

If the two Jacques men seem similar in one way, in another they’re noticeably different. Mike is full of energy. You get the feeling he just wants to get up and get going, to take on another challenge, to figure out a problem, to check on the crews. George seems calmer, more relaxed, aware of all the tasks that lie ahead, but with that solid assurance that age and long experience so often bring.

He’s proud of his son and proud of his family. He and his wife, Suzanne, began their married lives in Montreal and then moved to Ottawa in 1973. Both their children, Mike and Linda, are married. George and Suzanne have three grandchildren.

“We’re a close family,” he says. “At the snap of a finger, the family’s there.

How do you create a family like that?

“We were always conservative in our approach to kids,” he says. “We tried to teach them as many values as we could, and we were strict with them. They respected us.”

No matter what, he said, “we always stayed close to them and they always knew we were there for them. We had our ups and downs, but we dealt with them together – with a lot of love.”

George’s eyes are kind. Wise.

“It’s like a bank account,” he says. “You can only take out of it what you put in. Today our kids will do anything for their parents.”

It explains the confident partnership between the Jacques men. They seem comfortable in each other’s presence. Each seems to know his particular contributions to the company. You get the feeling it’s a balance of experience and energy, confidence and ability, respect and understanding.

“There’s nothing more important than family,” says George.

In this case, family mixed with business seems to work just fine.