Mike is always six or seven steps ahead
By Francie Healy
When you first meet Mike Martin, you think of a giant.
He’s tall, for sure. He has a “presence” and a charm in the same way celebrities or politicians sometimes do – but in a down-to-earth, comfortable way.
He has a deep voice with conviction in it, and the sparkle in his eyes tells you there might be a bit of mischief to him.
However, when he speaks of his career as a renovator, the sparkle in the eyes turns to fire. This is his passion. He tells you that right away.
The sense of a “big” Mike Martin also seems to come from his work, his volunteerism, his integrity, and his reputation. He is clearly one of the giants in his field.
This is a man who has lived and learned, with a work ethic forged in Newfoundland and Labrador, from parents he admires… parents he proudly says are “good people”.
His dad, now retired, is Michael S. Martin, who was the Member of the House of Assembly for the District of Labrador South. He designed and promoted the first flag for the province, and his wife, Mike’s mother, Patricia, sewed it. Mike’s grandfather “built half of Labrador”, but when he was a child Mike had no idea he’d follow in his footsteps.
His dad wanted him to study computer science, so Mike came to Ottawa to do that, managed to get 80s and 90s, but it wasn’t for him.
“One day,” he recalls, “I don’t know why, I decided to go to carpentry school at Algonquin College in Perth (Ont.), and just went on from there.”
His dad was concerned. He knew it was a rough business. But it was what Mike wanted to do.
It didn’t go smoothly for him at first. The only job he could get after carpentry school was in new-home building. He showed up on his bike with his hard hat, tool belt and skill saw, ready to do some good work. He was told to put away his fancy skill saw – that it was going to be a chainsaw for him from now on. That kind of workmanship weighed heavily and unhappily on him. He lasted 18 months.
Meanwhile, the bottom was falling out of the building industry, and money was hard to come by. Mike used his earnings to go to Toronto and buy a car… and then lived out of it. He wasn’t yet 20 years old.
He lived there for five months, washed by a fire hydrant (he devised a way to get some water out) and took on jobs installing frost walls in basements. Those basements are part of what is now known as Richmond Hill in Toronto.
Eventually he returned to Ottawa and worked for a renovator. After a year and a half or so, he began work on his own. He teamed up with a buddy, Jeff Poirier, who was also looking for jobs in the industry, and they often ended up working together.
At one point, when work was slow, he and Jeff took on the job of shoveling out mailboxes in winter. They shoveled 203 mailboxes each day for 75 cents a mailbox. But when they were also able to get renovation work, they’d sleep for two or three hours and do that job, too.
“You gotta have money to eat if you’re going to survive,” Mike laughs.
Both boys – because really they were still boys then – kept going, kept working, kept targeting different places (the Yellow Pages were a good source) until Mike by himself had enough work to hire 15 employees.
One of his biggest and most challenging jobs came along when he won the job of building the huge wooden domes of St. Elias Cathedral, across from Mooney’s Bay. The middle dome weighed nine tons, and with each there was about a quarter of an inch of “play” when it came time to fit them to the building. Mike was about 23 years old. It was an incredible project and an important learning curve that propelled him into a new level of excellence.
But he still had lots to learn. He bid for the job of building a new printing company that had been burned in a fire. His bid assumed he would need four dumpsters to cart away the burnt debris. He was wrong… very wrong. It took 30.
He kept at it and completed the job. When all was said and done, he made $16. However, he finished it and it was perhaps an indication, even at that age, of his persistence, integrity and philosophy: when you have a job to do, you simply do it, no matter what.
It was while he was living in Toronto that he met Suzanne. He bet a friend $20 that he’d get a date with her. He got the date, never collected the $20, but married her and went into business with her.
Suzanne, a well-respected designer in her own right, owns “Reno by Design”. She and Mike are often, but not always, a team. Both own and operate Luxury Renovations. Suzanne is the “up front” person who works with a client six to seven months in advance to get exactly the right design.
It can be hell, this business. Mike knows the pitfalls, so much so that Suzanne will often tell him he’s a pessimist.
“I’m the most optimistic person I know,” he argues. “But I am always thinking about any job: ‘What can go wrong?’ I have to always be six or seven steps ahead, always on top of things. That’s just good planning – and by the time the job’s done, it’s perfect.”
Mike knows about playing rough. He’s been a hockey player for years and now also coaches. He, Suzanne and their teenage son, Jamie, all play hockey regularly.
He says he’s competitive but not aggressive. And he says, despite his outgoing exterior, despite his larger-than-life persona, despite his good rapport with clients, he’s a shy fellow – or at least, he adds, he used to be.
“Maybe not now,” he says. “I got ripped off too many times when I first started. You learn to look out for yourself.”
Shy or not, the seasoned professional has no qualms about speaking the truth. Articulate, well-informed and impassioned, he tells it like it is.
“I don’t b.s. anyone,” he says.
He says he has become so experienced that he can tell at a glance if a client’s going to be easy to get along with. “But almost any renovator will tell you that,” he says. “You can almost see it in a person’s eyes.”
The trick in this stressful business seems to be to stay calm, and that’s exactly how Mike Martin appears. Despite all the things he does – he’s Secretary of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association, Chair of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association Renovators’ Council, Chair of the Home Show Committee of the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association, board director of both the Ontario and Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Associations and the incoming Chair of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association – he doesn’t seem anxious or frazzled. He says he attends at least four or five meetings a week. He’s in Toronto a day or two every month. And every third month there are still more meetings… all this and business, too. And his family. And hockey.
“It’s non-stop,” he says. “But it’s fun.”
His “downtime” is hockey. And fishing. And going to Labrador, back into the bush with friends and guides for a couple of weeks. These things keep him calm, energized, in focus.
He also limits his business to two employees and only a certain number of projects at a time. This means quality attention to both projects and employees, whom he tends to mentor as they develop and grow in their craft.
He is adamant that neither he nor his employees answer their cellphones for half an hour or so when they’re together for lunch. He tells them: “They’ll call back if it’s important. You have to take time to relax.”
At the bottom of it all, Mike Martin stands on his own two feet no matter what’s going on. If there’s a problem, he simply deals with it. There’s a Mike Martin attitude behind that.
“Crap happens,” he says. “So you fix it and move on. There’s no sense stressing yourself out about it.”
He has another motto: “Don’t blame others,” he says. “If there’s a problem, it’s mine. I’ll take the crap for it.”
His high-end clients tend to be particular about what they want.
“Lots of people say this must be stressful, when clients are too picky. But I expect them to be picky. They have every right to be.”
He knows the renovation process can be hard on them. He tries to make it as easy as possible, but then there’s reality. He and his clients are practically living on top of each other for months at a time.
“I tell them, if it’s your first time renovating, be prepared to go through hell,” he says. “It’s a tough industry.”