By Francie Healy
With characteristic grace, Herb Lagois of Lagois Design-Build-Renovate calls his company’s recent Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association “Renovator of the Year” win “an incredible award that speaks to our team.”
He is proud of his team of eight and the evolution of his company that began more than 30 years ago, in 1984.
Back then, it was called Lagois Drafting and Construction. Herb started it soon after he graduated. Right from the start, he learned from his business mistakes.
“My first lesson?” he muses. “You need the proper things in place before you can grow.”
He began by framing houses and doing carpentry. But his first mistake was starting a construction company in the fall.
“Who in their right mind starts a construction business in the fall?” he laughs. “It was going great until winter hit…”
He had a crew of three. Despite winter, however, the fol- lowing year went well. It went so well that he started getting system processes in place for framing houses.
“Now,” he thought, “why not just hire another crew so we can double production?”
That was his second lesson.
But he kept going, and going, and going; and the rest is a remarkably successful history.
Herb wishes he had known more about running a business when he began. He admits he’s learned through his “share of mistakes”, however.
“It’s like producing a wine,” he says. “You keep experimenting, refining, nurturing, continually tweaking, until there are no more major or serious things to change.”
One of the company’s core values is perseverance, and clearly it has paid off.
“But if I had to do things over,” he says, “I’d take some business courses. It’s what I tell anyone who is thinking about starting their own business.”
In fact, he is devoted to mentoring others.
“Most of us get into it because we’re passionate about what we do, but not so passionate about the business part,” he explains. “So my advice to anyone starting out is to take business courses.”
He has worked with business coaches over the years, and “that collective wealth of knowledge is huge,” he says.
He says a good coach can identify weaknesses and fill in the knowledge gaps. “And every single business has its strengths and weaknesses,” he adds.
He is especially interested in helping young people. He says he believes in them and their potential, their energy. Many members of his team are architectural technologists, mostly Algonquin College graduates. And they grow with the job.
“Our construction manager has been here for 19 years,” he says, “and has gone through many iterations, from designer to estimator to site supervisor.”
When new grads from Algonquin join the company, no matter how talented they are, they still need mentoring “to get them up to our expectations,” explains Herb. He says one of the key things is to know the difference between a great and bad set of plans.
He thoroughly enjoys mentoring. He knows what it meant to him when he first graduated and worked for a summer for Karl Norenberg, who founded Norenberg Construction and Kemptville Building Supply. Herb helped him with design.
“It was a short window of mentoring with him,” Herb says, “but he made me believe I could do it. That it was easy (even though it wasn’t).”
Herb’s wife, Irene, is his mentor. “She has always been in the background,” he says. “Her insight has been amazing. She thinks I don’t listen. But I do.”
Irene and Herb have three children who have found their own way in the world, but not in the building industry.
“We encouraged them to spread their wings and do what they’re passionate about,” Herb says, “and they have.” One is a teacher and sports coach in Cape Cod. One is a film producer in Toronto. One is a chiropractor in Edmonton.
“We’re proud of them,” Herbs says a bit wistfully, “although there are times when we wish they were closer. Hopefully there will be grandchildren around the corner. I’m sure they’ll change our lives.”
Although he has learned and grown and become an industry expert, Herb says the hardest thing for him to do, still, is to listen well.
“If clients come to us with a problem, right away I’m thinking about what they can do. But it needs more than that. I need to sit back and really ask the proper questions, to truly understand what their needs are, to find the right solution.”
It’s something he has worked at all through his career. But he’s got it now. “I know I’ve made leaps and bounds in that regard,” he admits.
What does the Renovator of the Year award mean to him?
“For me, it’s a huge accomplishment,” Herb says. “I consider us to be a smaller company but with a more personal approach. Our clients know everybody in the company.” And so, because they’re smaller, the competition with the bigger firms can be formidable.
Part of the criteria for Renovator of the Year is to be able to demonstrate what you have given to the community. Lagois Design-Build-Renovate fits that bill well. Another of the company’s core values is community involvement.
Herb is on the board of Rural Ottawa South Support Services (ROSSS), a non-profit, charitable organization that advocates for seniors, people with disabilities and caregivers. Last year he helped them secure a grant to build an addition to their building in Manotick.
He is also on the board of Ronald McDonald House; and last summer, the company did a pro bono kitchen for them.
“That was a cool project,” says Herb. “We had many other trade partners, and I managed the project on site myself so it wouldn’t affect our regular schedule. I loved that.”
Lagois Design-Build-Renovate builds custom homes, but a large part of the business is renovations and additions.
“We excel when there are multiple disciplines involved,” explains Herb. “When it comes to moving walls, changing electrical and plumbing systems, and coordinating it all, that’s where we shine.”
He is also proud of their five-year guarantee and a promise in writing to be on time and on budget.
“But,” he adds, “whether it’s in writing or not, a client can come to us even if it’s 10 years later, and we look after it.”
He admits it might be a cliché, but the proof is in the pudding. “We’ve been around for 34 years,” he says, “and we’re solid.”
What does the future hold? Succession, that’s what. Herb has been planning it for several years. His vision has him still involved, but in a lesser role. Ultimately he hopes key employees will take over the company.
He’d like to continue being a mentor and to coach people in the industry.
“I have gained knowledge the hard way,” he says, “so I’d love to give back in some format.”