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John Wenuk and his wife and co-owner, Cathy Wenuk, in their own newly-renovated kitchen (Photo Jean Levac/Ottawa Citizen, republished with permission)

By Francie Healy

People will say John Wenuk’s passion is building and making beautiful spaces. And it is. His work over the past 30 years proves it.

But John Wenuk, owner of Sandy Hill Construction in Ottawa, has another passion, one that might not be quite so obvious.

John is devoted to people: to his staff, his clients, his regular tradespeople, his family.

His dedication extends to volunteer work with disadvantaged people and their families in crisis in India and around the world; and with some of Ottawa’s disadvantaged people.

It tells you something about him that is perhaps more profound, but less obvious, than the fine work he does.

The way he cares about how people are treated, his empathy, his insistence on respect and dignity, may have been among the reasons he was named 2013 Renovator of the Year by the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association (GOHBA).

He began as a carpenter about 30 years ago, but the stage seemed to be set for his career when he was a child. When he was 10 years old, he spent hours studying the structure of his family home and wondering how it fit together, wall by wall. So, although he was also academically inclined, work with his hands won out… and ultimately led to his success.

Sandy Hill Construction, now 20 years old, grew steadily from the start, and there were challenges. But John had a good foundation right from childhood.

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“My dad brought me up to be honest and to get paid for an honest day’s worth of labour,” he says. “And I’ve been blessed with a capacity for business – which is an entirely different skillset than working as a carpenter.”

He says going from carpenter to owner of a company was much more difficult than most people might think. There was much to learn to organize an efficient company and assemble an outstanding team of people, starting with the right craftspeople. There was the paperwork, and the client expectations.

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But it came together well, and it included John’s strong philosophy that people and relationships come first above all else.

“The company developed with goals of having everyone involved in what we’re doing, to be happy and to benefit from the work,” he explains.
Clients must know they can trust you and be happy from day one, he says, and so must the staff (whom he calls co-workers), the sub-trades, and everyone else involved.

“They’ve got to be making enough money to know they’ve put in a good day’s work and have been properly compensated for it,” he adds.
Tradespeople are chosen not just for their excellent work, but for their “people skills”.

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“When I’m doing a renovation for a client,” says John, “I have to know that everyone who goes onto that site is going to have a good interaction with the client.” Renovation is stressful enough, he says, without also having strangers in the house. So those “strangers” have to be clean, respectful, helpful and skilled.

“We hire nice people, actually,” he says. “I can teach nice people trade skills to support their careers, but it’s really difficult to teach a person who’s not nice to be nice.”

He adds the company does its best to minimize the disruption that renovation causes. “We do it so the client’s experience is the best it can be,” he says. “We spend a lot of time managing that.”

For John, care and nurturing goes beyond business. He and his wife, Cathy, who has a background as a lawyer and is co-owner, like to travel. They went to India for the first time in 2000. When they were there, they learned about how effective community outreach could be in rural southern India. The outreach was just beginning in the Vellore region. John and Cathy returned each year to see how it grew and how it continued to impact the lives of so many. Inspired by this, they founded Canadians Sharing Locally and Globally (www.canadianssharing.org), an Ottawa-based charity in which Canadians share skills and resources with small communities in southern India.

The charity supplies basic amenities such as food and clothing; supports medical programs and outreach by purchasing medicines and medical equipment; provides scholarships to students; creates vocational training and environmental awareness. It also raises money for worldwide disaster relief.

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“I have learned,” says John, “it doesn’t take very much to protect a child from needless death in a developing country. I found I can make a difference in one person’s life. Once you’ve done that, you can move onto the next person, and the next.”

He and Cathy are also involved with Horizons of Friendship (www.horizons.ca), that was started by Cathy’s uncle and a couple of his friends 40 years ago. Horizons of Friendship builds partnerships to End Poverty in Central America and Mexico.

John also volunteers at Shepherds of Good Hope in Ottawa. He believes people – and businesses – must have a social conscience, that they should give back to the community.

“It’s important to me,” he says. “It’s one thing to be running a successful renovation business. It’s another to travel and see what’s really going on in other places of the world . . .  to understand that kids really do die because a mosquito bit them. And then to do something about what we see.”

A lot of Sandy Hill Construction’s focus is on quality control and management. The company usually has five carpenters on staff and has used many of the same sub-trades for years. And it tends to do one major project (defined by John as anything from $100,000 to $500,000) at a time.

“The reason is because we need to focus on that job so everyone has the best experience,” he says. “It takes a fair bit of expertise to manage a job at that level. We might have a job that’s smaller in scope as well, however, so we can smooth out our scheduling. We can move our staff to and from jobs at optimal times.”

Taking on one big job at a time also means they’re focused on one client. They’re there from start to finish, day by day, moving the job forward until every last thing is finished.

Much of the company’s work is in heritage buildings. The company developed and grew first in Sandy Hill, then The Glebe, Ottawa South, Ottawa East, Manor Park, Ottawa Centre, New Edinburgh, Rockcliffe Park, Hampton Park, and Hintonburg. Its presence reaches to Orleans, Dunrobin and, more recently, Barrhaven.

John says the company has a traditionalist approach to heritage work, so it respects the visual quality of the neighbourhood as well as the character and age of the home. Most of the work is design-build, and although Sandy Hill Construction has a particular expertise in heritage buildings, it also works with new homes or any age of home that needs remodelling. “We renovate a lot of kitchens, basements, bathrooms and entire homes each year,” he says.

Sandy Hill Construction is a member of RenoMark ™. John has been involved in RenoMark in Ottawa since 2000, when he was co-chair of the GOHBA Renovators’ Council.

“It’s the highest standard of renovation in Canada, agreed upon by quality renovators from coast to coast,” he says. And it’s essential, he adds. “How do you identify someone who knows what they’re doing? To me, RenoMark is the best way to do this.”

John is appreciative of the support he has received from his colleagues on the Renovators’ Council. When he was starting up his business, members of the Council – people who know their business well – inspired him and gave him guidelines about creating a successful company. And so, when he was named Renovator of the Year, it meant a great deal to him.

“It’s an acknowledgement from the community that we are the best renovators for 2013,” he says. “In a league of giants, it’s a vote from our colleagues. I was really quite touched by it. It shows that we’re doing renovations that are award-winning, and it’s nice that other people in the industry recognize this.”

Sandy Hill Construction was also named runner up for design in the small bathroom category.

John and Cathy are outdoors people who like to ski, walk, swim and cycle. They especially enjoy walking their 13-year-old Portuguese Water Dog, Lakshmi (an Indian name meaning Goddess of Wealth). Son Shawn, 30, studies business administration and theatre arts at the University of Ottawa.

The family knows all about renovation upheaval because they have had two major renovations of their own. (They just completed a big renovation last year and plan on entering it into one of the awards categories for 2014.)

Their empathy for clients is enhanced by their own reno experience.

“We had the best people imaginable working with us,” John recalls. “But it was really challenging to have people in our house all day… to experience the dust, the decisions. We know what it’s like. We know how hard it is for clients who are experiencing it for the first time, so we try to make it a bit better for them.”

There’s stress in the job, but John says it’s all in the way you handle it. You might have sick co-workers. The weather might be terrible. An old building might yield unexpected surprises. Things might not go according to the best-laid plans.

And there are other, smaller things, that crop up. If you don’t smile at them and move on, you’re sunk.

Like the time John and his crew were doing a difficult excavation. A client’s main drain line had collapsed in winter. It was a deep excavation, and the drain was not where it was expected to be. The ground was frozen, and there were gas lines close to where they had to excavate. They were worried that the frost in the ground might do damage to the gas lines. The whole team was working, watching, waiting. It was a tense moment.

All of a sudden, John’s phone rang. It was a client who wanted to talk about the door she had ordered. She wasn’t sure if she liked the kind of glass in the door… did he think it should be changed?

“There are a lot of things that can go on in a day,” John says.

But that’s what he likes about the work.

“Every day is a new day,” he says. “I like making things better in the physical world. To me, that’s exciting: to transform things and to transform them in a way that makes people happy.”