Category Archives: Friends & Mentors

Friends & Mentors, Vol. 5: Rob Hogendoorn of Forest City Community Church

I’ve been fortunate to get to know a great many interesting and inspiring people. I’m grateful to have learned a lot from each of them.

One of those people is Rob Hogendoorn.

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Rob Hogendoorn

The Senior Pastor at Forest City Community Church in London, Ontario, Rob is one of my favourite people to be around. He is, to me, the epitome of both a friend and a mentor, and he is always generous with his time.

In my conversation with Rob, he shared some great perspective that I feel will be extremely valuable to any goal-oriented person, such as the need to have a clear vision to begin but also remaining open to new detours and opportunities, the importance of finding and empowering the right people, and why it’s necessary to be both persistent and patient.

Another key takeaway from my chat with Rob had to do with the idea of “overnight success,” and what it truly takes to achieve the kinds of results worthy of being labelled as such. Rob also reinforced for me the reality that sometimes things don’t go the way you expect them to, and not only is that still okay, but it can actually prove to be even better and more memorable than if things had gone according to plan all along.

Here is my conversation with Rob Hogendoorn.

KB: How did you find your way to London (from Vancouver)?

Rob: It was a combination of things. One is that my wife grew up here, so we had some connection to London. And we lived here for a little bit after we got married.

When you get out into British Columbia, you get so taken by the majesty and the beauty of the place, and the softer climate and all of that. And that’s why people rarely move back. And we had that for five years. We were like, “This place is just amazing – it’s just so beautiful.” But somehow we had just kept a soft spot in our hearts for London.

And then a situation turned up where I was able to find a bit of funding for me to basically pay my salary the first couple of years while I was trying to start a new church here, but it was kind of limited to the London region, this funding. And because the desire was so imbedded in my heart to start a certain kind of church, because that was all taking shape in my mind while we were living in Vancouver, and then the opportunity came and a little bit of that financial means – I had four young kids under the age of 8 and I thought I at least need to feed them and clothe them while I’m trying to do this thing – we took the opportunity.

So it was that convergence of those two things. But the sense of what it (the church) would be like, the kind of way it would function, that started to take root in my mind in 1989, 1990, 1991 – somewhere around in there.

KB: Can you tell me more about the things that were stirring inside you, both in terms of having the sense of needing to move on and in terms of the idea for what became Forest City Community Church? What was going through your heart and mind?

Rob: I’d say two things on it. One is the vision for how it would look increasingly took shape by the fact that I grew up in a church-going family and gave my life to Christ at a pretty early age. And then when I was a pastor of a church, it was kind of a traditional church and it was a church that was really great for people who were born and raised in it, and never really strayed. But increasingly I started really resonating with the need for 85-90% of Canadians for whom that’s not their story.

Probably 85-90% of Canadians, they might have some perspectives on faith and God but they certainly don’t have a very strong integrated personal experience of God and they certainly don’t have a meaningful way in which that’s lived out in a church community.

And so increasingly I thought, “How could we develop a church that would make sense and engage the 85% of Canadians?” And that’s where the kind of model and method and style and approach and philosophy of Forest City Community Church came increasingly clear in my head and in my heart, and what it would look like and what it would feel like and how it would function.

And then it became a matter of saying, “Okay, what things are going to have to happen for that to happen?” And, “What things am I going to have to try to put in place to see that take shape?”

A lot of it had to do with finding some of the key personalities and leaders who could give rise to some of these dimensions of what this church actually is now, because I couldn’t do it all. So I had to find and build a sub-team of people who resonated with that vision but they could take a different piece of it and push that piece of it out.

So that’s really what I ended up doing in the first five years, was really honing that team of people and supporting them and working with them and then together, all these different aspects of the church’s ministry just started to take shape.

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KB: What was the response, if any, from the traditional church community when you first got started? What was that like in the early days?

Rob: You know, it was pretty simple I think, because nobody knew about us. We were nobody. We were just a group of kids, really. I mean I was 30 or 31 years old and all of my other leaders were in their 20’s and we were just a little rag-tag collection of some people doing this little thing. So I don’t think anybody noticed.

KB: And at this stage, you were at Saunders (Secondary School)?

Rob: At that stage we were at Ashley Oaks Public School. After about 5 years, we grew out of that. And then we went to Saunders, and we were there for 7 years.

KB: So the church at this point is more of an intellectual and spiritual entity as opposed to any kind of bricks and mortar?

Rob: Absolutely. And I didn’t feel tension with other churches in the city at all because, first of all, we weren’t trying to reach their people. We were trying to reach people that were not going to church. And most of them were just really quite thrilled about that because many of them would like to have been more effective at that too. But for most of the years, you’re just kind of on your own at it and you don’t even think anybody’s noticing.

KB: What point was it when you realized that this had gained enough traction that you thought, “Wow, we’ve created a going concern here that is going to be somewhat of a long-term, established commitment.” When did that first occur to you?

Rob: It’s a good question. I think that, on one level, I know that for the first 10 years easily, we wondered all the time whether this was going to work.

KB: Ten years?

Rob: (Laughs) Oh yeah. Easily.

KB: I think it’s important to hear that. So many people – and I’ve been guilty of this as well – they think that everything comes right away, or should. And that’s not reality. Every overnight success is born of a lot of time with your sleeves rolled up.

Rob: Yeah, absolutely. It was probably 10 years before I sort of thought, “Wow, I guess this might actually work.” And then the other thing is, I would say this: I still sort of think of it in my heart as this fledgling little community trying to reach into the lives of people who are not super-connected to God. So I still think of us in a very primitive state actually. I don’t think of us as this going concern. I think of us as, “Wow, we’ve got a pretty good start.”

KB: Do you think that’s what allows your curiosity to continue to flourish?

Rob: Yes, I think so. You’re probably right.

KB: So Rob, when you talk about that 85-90% of people who don’t regularly go to church, what it is about Forest City Community Church that does seem to connect with them?

Rob: I guess I would say that there are a number of things but one of them would rise to the top for me. It’s two of our core values are Biblical truth and cultural relevance. Without a strong, truly transformative, authoritative message, you don’t have anything for people. But at the same time, if you’re not engaging people in a truly culturally relevant way and in a way that addresses life today, and communicates in the way that life is lived today and the realities people have today, if you’re not bringing those two to bear on each other, you’re also missing the boat. So that’s what we work really hard to do.

KB: I’m interested in what it’s like for you, where you are the leader here in a number of different senses, in finding the balance in being able to be confident wearing that day after day, but also knowing that you’re an individual that is probably looking for guidance as well.

Rob: A couple of things come to my mind. One is that I think it’s important to not try to do this alone. There’s no doubt that I have a central, visible, pivotal leadership role in this church and this faith community. But I think that if you try to do that in isolation, it’s dangerous because I’m fallible just like everybody else is fallible. So I can get off track. I can make mistakes just like anybody else can. And I’ve made my share. So that’s where you’ve got to be careful.

It’s important for me to have people around me who I am also learning from, bouncing ideas off of, who are either bringing good ideas or confirming ideas I have. So we have a small elder board, a little team. We’ve got some senior staff people and then I also stay networked with pastors of other larger churches in North America that also are communities and not just try to do this in isolation. So that’s the one side.

But the other side of it is that I believe that when you have a calling from God, when you know you have been called to do something, you have to also believe that He’s going to give you what you need to do it. And if you really have sensed and believe that you have that calling, you work very hard to stay close to Him and you experience how He repeatedly, and I’ve seen this for 21 years, how He continues to come through and confirm that call with wisdom at the right time, with resources at the right time with people at the right time. So in that way, you have to keep a healthy sense of humility about your dependence on other people and God while also recognizing the importance of the role you have.

Forest City Community Church on Bostwick Road in London, ON

Forest City Community Church on Bostwick Road in London, ON

KB: As we’re having this conversation, we’re sitting inside the church. When did this building even become the seed of a thought, and then where did it go from there?

Rob: We started the church with just a dozen people and, literally, in a living room. And then the church started growing in that little Elementary School in White Oaks (a neighbourhood in London, Ontario). And it continued to grow and then we went into Saunders (Secondary School) and like I said, we spent 7 years there. So we were in rented facilities for 12 years before we built anything with physical bricks.

In the Saunders era, as the church was growing and we were reaching people, maybe 3, 4, 5 years in, we started realizing, “Okay, the rental facilities, as useful as this has been, is starting to become limiting to the vision.” And like we mentioned before, when you know what your vision is, it makes it a little easier to say ‘yay’ to that, ‘nay’ to that. When we realized that our vision was starting to get limited by rental facilities, then the option became maybe, “Is it time for us to build a facility that can continue to facilitate the vision and the mission of this church?”  So those thoughts and conversations started happening in that era, which would have been about 10, 11 years ago.

And then we started thinking about, “well what would that kind of facility look like?” And so we got some architects and interestingly, our first architects were people who were not church architects at all. They’d never been involved in a church. Because that’s the other thing: you typically will get a church architect, and we decided, no, we don’t want a church architect because they’re going to be thinking about building a church building and we wanted to find an architect that’s going to think a bit outside the box with us on what the facility could look like that could facilitate the vision of the church.

So we did that and then took them to some other places to kind of give them ideas of what buildings could look like. And then we just started the process here of just starting to put numbers down on paper, putting a bit of a design together.

We sort of thought, “Right now we have this amount of people, and if the growth continues, in 10 years from now we’re going to have ‘this’ amount of people, well then we have to find a way to build something that ultimately could be facilitating THAT many people when we don’t have THAT many people to pay for it right now.” So how do we do that?

So we developed a master plan of the facility, just sort of dreaming crazy of what this facility could grow into over the years. But then we broke it down into components and we built the first component. And then 3 years later we build the next component and then 3 years later we built the next component and then a couple years later we built the next component and we just kept adding components as the church continued to grow and as we continue to expand some of our generosity base of people who could actually be part of these expansions. So in a nutshell, that’s sort of how it came to be.

KB: What was it like, the first service here?

Rob: Oh, it was amazing! Actually the first service we had was outside. This was all parking lot, for the first service, where we’re sitting now. And we had our Grand Opening morning – this is a bit of a side point to what you’re asking – and we had announced it at Saunders, that everything was lined up, next week was our opening on Bostwick Road. And that week, the final inspectors came and the Fire Inspector came and there were a couple of things he did not like, that didn’t meet his standards. I don’t blame him, but he just said – and this on a Friday afternoon – he said, “You cannot open this building on Sunday.” And we were like, “Are you kidding me? We’ve got hundreds and hundreds of people that are going to be showing up, because that’s what we said last week (he chuckles)!”

So we had to make a decision. What we did is set up a stage outside in the parking lot, right there (points outside) and we had a little outdoor service, and there were hundreds of people standing here for the very first service. And it was magical, because it was a great moment.

Our Creative Arts Director, who is still on the staff, I remember him getting up and he said something about, “You know, this is just a great reminder to all of us that that’s not the church. This is the church. The church is the people here. The church is not that thing.”

And I think we’ve tried to never forget that.

Friends & Mentors, Vol. 4: Kyla Woodcock of Forest City Sport & Social Club

I’ve been fortunate to get to know a great many interesting and inspiring people. I’m grateful to have learned a lot from each of them.

One of those people is Kyla Woodcock.

Kyla Woodcock, Founder of FCSSC

Kyla Woodcock, Founder of FCSSC

Kyla is the founder of the Forest City Sport & Social Club, a co-ed, recreational sports league designed to bring people together for fun, to meet new friends, and to stay fit while giving back to  the community. Built upon Kyla’s vision and values, the club has been an amazing hit, and has since expanded to Windsor (Rose City Sport & Social Club).

From the moment I met her, I’ve admired Kyla. When I talk with Kyla, I find myself both wanting to learn from her and to try and find a thought to challenge her. I am always interested in what she will say or do next. And I am never disappointed.

Kyla’s story fascinates me. In telling parts of it, she relates some powerful perspective that any entrepreneur should find valuable.  As I listened to her talk about her journey, I caught myself on numerous occasions thinking, “People need to hear/see this.” And now they can.

Here is my conversation with Kyla Woodcock:

KB: Where were you professionally before you even started to get the seeds of the idea for FCSSC?

Kyla: My background is in business and human resources. I worked for a large corporation in the technology industry until the bubble burst in the early 90’s.

It found it relatively easy to find a really great HR job really early in my career and I immediately started traveling with that company, and other companies within the industry, because everything was going so fast in tech at the time.

I moved all over the country with those tech companies doing HR stuff and then, the classic story, I became completely exhausted of that life after about 7 or 8 years, being early in my own professional story and moving around incessantly. I was never close to family and I missed every birthday party and I wasn’t married and I didn’t have any kids and I was pushing 30 years old and thinking, “I’m not doing this anymore. I’m tired.”

When the tech industry experienced a significant downturn I had to severance a whole bunch of people out of work. In HR, that was my job I wrote myself a package too. I just said, “I’ve had enough.”

KB: What was going through your mind and heart at that time?

Kyla: I was exhausted. I saw the opportunity. I knew the company had to decrease the payroll and I knew that we didn’t need another HR person to do the recruiting, performance manage and compensation strategy because we just lost the 500 people for whom that HR person was responsible.

The Forest City Sport & Social Club (FCSSC) exists to improve the quality of life for adults in London through fun, friends, fitness and connection to our community.

The Forest City Sport & Social Club (FCSSC) exists to improve the quality of life for adults in London through fun, friends, fitness and connection to our community.

KB: When, along that timeline, did what has turned into FCSSC start to germinate as an idea, let alone a business plan?

Kyla: There was a period in the early days of my career in HR that I actually got to settle at the head office of one of the companies I worked for and that was in Ottawa. And so I started to invest a bit into a local lifestyle.

It was just pure, off the clock play time. It was what I really needed and I found when I joined the sport and social club. And I became friends with Nicki, the woman who started the club in Ottawa. Her story was not dissimilar to mine. She started her cub having leaving the tech industry. She was a couple of years ahead of me. We’re still friends to this day.

KB: So was it that time that the thought came to you, “Maybe I can do something like this in another market?”

Kyla: It wasn’t until after I took time off. I left the corporate job that I was in, and then I traveled for over a year. I just didn’t work at all. I sold my house and everything in it. I literally put clothes in a backpack and started traveling. I traveled through the South Pacific mostly.

FCSSC donated over $7,000 and made countless equipment donations to various local charities in 2014 alone.

FCSSC donated over $7,000, along with countless equipment donations, to various local charities in 2014 alone.

KB: You did that by yourself?

Kyla: By myself. And I met fabulous people along the way. Totally fabulous people.

And then I came home because my grandfather passed away. I had intentions of going back overseas. I wasn’t sure I was done traveling; I still wanted to see more; I didn’t really want to get another job and I was fortunate because I still had a little bit left in the bank. The plan was always to spend it until it was gone and I still had countries on the list and so I was going to go back. But I didn’t.

I got home and I reconnected with my family during that stay at home and realized there was too much I was missing out on.

KB: What did you learn about yourself that that time?

Kyla: Oh. What didn’t I learn about myself? I took a lot of my identity from who I was in the corporate world and what people recognized me as being good at. I was chasing that next great big title and I was needing to be at the boardroom table and part of every corporate decision because that made me valuable and important. And then when I stepped away from all of that, I realized that’s not how I needed to be important.

Being important for me is being there for my husband and kids, parents and my siblings. That’s being important. Being there for my friends and being somebody that people can rely on. Being in the big chair at the boardroom table … I don’t care about that anymore.

KB: And at that time, at that point in your life, you’re doing what you just think that you’re supposed to be doing.

Kyla: Yeah! Everybody always said, get a great job and get out there and work and it’s all about realizing your earning power and putting your degree to work. You spent thousands of dollars at university: do something with that. You know?.

KB: So you end up doing everything that you’re “supposed” to do and you wind up exhausted and empty.

Kyla: Something like that.

With Kyla at a recent FCSSC event.

With Kyla at a recent FCSSC event.

KB: I’d like to talk a little bit about FCSSC.

Kyla: Sure!

KB: Fast forward then to how that came together and why?

I still had ambitions to finish schooling. I had an undergrad degree but I’d always wanted my Masters in business and I decided that I was going to make time for that. So I went to Ivey and did my MBA (Masters in Business Administration) there and when I graduated, I didn’t want to do what I’d always done. It didn’t make sense to me that that was a good use of the investment in my education. I wanted to do something else.

I come from a long line of entrepreneurs. My dad is an incredibly successful entrepreneur. So is my mom. My stepdad is a successful entrepreneur too. I wanted to try. And that’s where the club came from. The club was my entrepreneurial attempt that was perfectly fitted to the lifestyle that I wanted for myself.

I wanted connection to my community and I wanted more fun factor in my life. I wanted the chance to meet really great people every single day and I wanted to be in a business that naturally had the opportunity to do good. The club ticked all of those boxes, so it was an absolute no-brainer.

KB: You’ve just had your 5th anniversary, which is fantastic. Congratulations.

Kyla: Thank you.

KB: Where are you hoping to go from here?

Kyla: Wherever the membership of the club wants us to go. If they want a new sport, then we’re going to work on getting them a new sport. If they want a huge party or event once a year, then let’s get a huge party event once a year. If they want 50 partners in the network of the Forest City Sport & Social Club then we’ll work on 50 partners in the network. The club is a member-based organization and what we set our sights on as the organizers of the club is directly related to what the members are telling us they want the club to be and do. So I don’t dictate that. We plug in and respond.

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KB: And it sounds like you’re trying to manage that organically, as opposed to go back to what you experienced in the tech world, where it got too far out ahead of itself and fell in. So the growth, doing it at the right speed, is important.

Kyla: Yes. Absolutely true. We’ve had lots of ideas for different things that we haven’t actually done. And we don’t flip the switch on those ideas because it’s maybe not what the membership is looking for from us at that point in time.

KB: That’s a valuable lesson that I wish I could go back and teach my 20 and 30-something year-old self.

Kyla: Yeah.

KB: Just because you have a card in your hand doesn’t mean now’s the time to play it.

Kyla: That’s right. And for us, that’s absolutely true.

At the same time, we have the ability, for example, to expand the concept to other markets. There are lots of cities near and far from here that don’t have a sport & social club. And the joy of creating it for me, making those connections and bringing rays of sunshine to the people in those communities when they come and play with us once a week, when we take them off the clock and we give them that carefree play time, I take a lot of pride in that and I think it’s super cool that that’s my work.

Friends and Mentors, Vol. 3: Dan Balch (aka “Dan the Mortgage Man”)

I’ve been fortunate to get to know a great many interesting and inspiring people. I’m grateful to have learned a lot from each of them.

One of those people is Dan Balch.

DanTheMortgageManBalchA man of family and faith, Dan has been a mortgage broker for eighteen years. He cheerily refers to himself as “Dan the Mortgage Man.” One visit to his website (www.bankhostage.com) and you’ll see that Dan Balch is a person who both knows his stuff and has fun while helping people with one of the biggest decisions of their lives.

Though his expertise as a mortgage planner goes back almost two decades, Dan has enjoyed many unique experiences in both business and in life that have helped shape him into the very likable and interesting person he is today. From real estate to marine biology and reptile road shows to helping countless people have the home and lifestyle of their dreams, Dan has met each challenge with a quick smile and an open heart.

Family has always come first for Dan. He and his wife, Gail, have been happily married for over thirty years. In that time, they’ve touched the lives of many young people, taking in and caring for pregnant teens in support of the Crisis Pregnancy Center. They have also built a happy family that includes six children and six grand children.

When you meet with Dan, it becomes quickly apparent that he brings the same level of care and compassion to his clients that he has applied to every other area of his life.

Here is my conversation with Dan Balch:

Kevin: Listening to you talk about family makes me feel like asking you what it was like for you when you were a kid? Did you have siblings?

Dan: Oh, gee whiz. Well, I have an older brother and younger sister. Two parents. My father just passed away about two years ago, but up to that point, great family. It was great growing up. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we spent time together. I only have great memories of growing up. That’s probably why I am the way I am. I’m a pretty easy going guy. My father was a jokester. I got my sense of humour from him.

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Kevin: You mentioned not having a lot of money but still having a great time and great recollections of that time.

Dan: The problem is that we think that money solves our problems. We think that money gives us things that we need. And on a temporal basis, sure. It gives you food, it gives you other things. But it doesn’t give you the love. It doesn’t give you the satisfaction or the emotional things that a good family does. We get so caught up with trying to make money, which fuels our ego and a lot of other things, but really with the kids, instead of buying all these electronics and things, they really just want to spend time with you. They want to be able to ask you any question. They want you at home.

Kevin: You used the word ‘ego.’ Ego often is screaming at you, but that’s maybe not the voice you want to be listening to as much.

Dan: I think you’re more successful when you’re always looking outward, not inward. Meaning, you’re always trying to help other people, rather than help yourself. I think you get more out of helping people than with anything you can do for yourself, by buying stuff or doing stuff.

whole family

The Balch Family

Kevin: There is the word ‘help,’ and there is another word you’ve been very specific about: the word ‘care.’ Talk about your interpretation of what care means, as opposed to – or in addition to – ‘help.’

Dan: Some people I can’t help, but I can care for them. I can give them good sound advice. I can put them on the road to success. So, in our case, fixing their credit or something like that. Just looking after them and trying to put their best interests before my own. It’s the old saying of, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Care is really more than just helping. It’s looking after people. It’s wanting to see them successful and wanting to see them do well also and get good information so they can make their own decisions.

Kevin: You also talked about the kind of work that you and I do, where if you don’t get deals, you don’t get paid. I’ve long felt that everybody should have the opportunity to be an entrepreneur and that it would really change your perspective on a lot of things, but that’s another conversation entirely.

Dan: (laughs) Oh, yeah.

Kevin: By that thought, you almost feel like you should be beating the bushes even harder. But it goes back to caring about people and just trusting that the results will come.

Dan: Most salespeople are transactional. They’re thinking, “I need to do a transaction,” which is usually a sale. I think there’s more to it. We’re only on this earth one time around. So if you can help someone or care for someone or put them on a different path that’s better, I think you’re far better off and they’re far better off than worrying about that one sale that may or may not happen. It’s a better way to live.

I feel much better if I talk to someone and put them on a path to getting their credit fixed so that in six months instead of renting, they can own their own house. Now, do they come back to me? A lot of them do. Some don’t. But I know inside that I’ve helped these people. And that’s good. That’s what life’s about.

Kevin: I’m going to change topics on you. I didn’t know you’d gone to school for marine biology. What led you to that (marine biology) and then away from it?

Dan: To be honest with you, it was just kind of cool.

Kevin: You’re just like George Costanza (from the TV show “Seinfeld”): “You know I always wanted to be a Marine Biologist!”

Dan: (Laughing) Yeah. I always loved the water and it sounded like a fun thing to do. But when I graduated, there just weren’t very many jobs and because I’m a home guy and love being around my parents and my kids, I didn’t really want to move away from everybody.

The Balch Grandkids

The Balch Grandkids

Kevin: Then what happened?

Dan: I got married right out of university (U of Guelph) and needed a job. So I started actually selling real estate. I enjoyed it but I was so young. I think I was one of the youngest guys on the board at the time. I did it for about four years. I didn’t like being on call 24-7, especially with a young family. It just didn’t work.

Well, we had always had pet stores, so I started into pet stores for a number of years. I owned a traveling reptile show for about ten years and did shows all across Canada with that. We went on the road and I brought the kids along. We spent the summers together.

And then, actually a client of mine had a sick tortoise. He knew I was in the real estate business back in the day and said, “I’m looking for new mortgage brokers.” I told him I didn’t want to be a mortgage broker, and that I couldn’t charge fees to people for doing that. And he said, “It’s just changed. Now we get a finder’s fee from the mortgage company, so we work hard for the client and somebody else pays us.” And I thought, “That sounds good.” But again, I still liked what I was doing.

But then, we went away on holidays and we were down in Florida for about a month. When we came back, we’d had a break-in at our house. They stole everything, left my doors wide open and all my animals that I had from the reptile show froze. So there I was with no money. I used up all my credit on my holiday.

Well, my client happened to call me and said, “My tortoise is sick.” And I said, “Ask me to come work for you again,” and he said, “Well, come work for me!” And I said, “Okay. Sounds good.” And I started working for him, and that was about 18 years ago.

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Kevin: From what you’ve described, pretty much since university, it doesn’t sound as if you’ve ever had a straight-ahead, salaried 9-to-5 type gig?

Dan: Never. It’s not in my DNA to work for someone. I think I have to be my own boss.

Kevin: Not everybody’s wired to be able to deal with that, because they need that feeling of safety, which in itself I think is a little bit of a fallacy.

Dan: It is.

Kevin: I want to talk a little bit more specifically about what you’re doing, and that aspect of helping people and caring for people because, other than what they do with their family, you’re dealing with what I think is the most impactful thing in their lives. I’ve got to feel that there’s a very high level of trust, because it’s one of the most important decisions people are ever going to make.

Dan: I’ve had people where I’ve gone through everything with them, and I ask, “Do you have any questions?” They say, “Well, no.”

Well then, I’ve done my job. Or I’ve had someone say, “Isn’t there something else I’m supposed to do here?” And I’ll say, “Nope. I’ve taken care of everything.” That’s the way it should be. It should be, “I’ve taught you everything you need to know. You’ve made an informed decision and we’re going to go on from here.”

That’s going back to what we talked about earlier: being transactional. I think that’s where I differ, though I know a lot of other brokers are that way too. I can’t say that it’s just me. But I think that with the banks, they are very transactional and they don’t say, “We want to be your bank for your whole life” or “We want to look after you, we want to take care of you.” Well, no. They make billions of dollars in profit because they’re charging you all kinds of money.

I’ve got clients that I dealt with 18 years ago that I’m still dealing with. A lot of them now have paid off their mortgages and their kids are getting mortgages from me because they know and trust me. And that’s who you want to deal with. You want to deal with someone you know and trust and you have a connection with.

Dan_interestrate1

Kevin: I know that, for me as I get older and my kids get older, I look for those opportunities. I become more patient. There have been times in my life when I was younger when I almost wouldn’t want to engage in a high level conversation with an expert in their field like you, because I wouldn’t want to hear what I knew I needed to hear. I just wanted to get on with it and be able to check that thing off my list. But now, I want to be able to know. And if there’s an issue, I want to be able to call, say, Dan.

Dan: Well, look at Home Hardware. Why is Home Hardware still around? I mean, their prices aren’t cheaper than Home Depot or Rona or Lowe’s or whatever. They’re actually more money. But they have that service. They have that old time kind of, “Come in and we’ll look after you and we’ll figure that problem out together” type of thing.

Some of these other small shops that are still around … why are they still around? Well, they’re still around because they’ve gone back to, “Let’s have a relationship here, so you can call me up. I’ll give you some good information.” Now, what’s that worth? Well that’s the problem. Some people think it’s not worth anything and that’s why they’ll get a mortgage off the internet because it’s the lowest rate. The only quantitative thing they can look at is, “Who’s got the best rate?” Well, who has the best pre-payment privileges? Who has the best penalties to get out of this mortgage? Am I locked in? You’ve got to know.

You have to pick up that phone and you have to call a professional.

Kevin: And you’re going to be there. It’s a face. It’s a name. It’s a relationship. It’s not just a transaction and then, “See you later.”

Dan: That’s right

Kevin: There is real peace of mind with that.

Dan: You don’t have to know everything in life. You can’t possibly. But you have to have good people around you that do. So in this case we’ll put the client as the center of the spoke. I’m just one part. I’m their mortgage expert.

Friends & Mentors, Vol. 2: Mark Malerba of Metropolitan Maintenance

I’ve been fortunate to get to know a great many interesting and inspiring people. I’m grateful to have learned a lot from each of them.

One of those people is Mark Malerba.

Mark Malerba

A proud father of two children (Luca, 4 and Mila, 2) and loving husband to his wife of almost 8 years (Caterina), Mark was recognized as one of London’s “Top 20 under 40 (years of age) Emerging Leaders” just last year. Mark is also Vice President of Metropolitan Maintenance, a London, Ontario-based and family-owned janitorial service provider that has been in business since his parents, Mike and Joanne, started the company in 1980.

Over the course of more than three decades, Metropolitan Maintenance has earned a well-deserved reputation of doing business consistently with integrity and respect. As such, the company has been recognized with several awards in recent years, including the Consumer Choice Award for Janitorial Service; Best of London award for Best Cleaning Service; London Chamber of Commerce’s London Quality Award; the Better Business Bureau’s Business Integrity Award; and the Family Enterprise of the Year, awarded by the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise, among others.

Although he did not originally aspire to be a part of the family business, when you talk to Mark, you quickly get the sense that he has a deep and genuine respect for his parents and the legacy they’ve built, and is extremely proud to be a part of it now. Like most of us, Mark took a somewhat indirect path to his current place, but has now found a role that suits him and also benefits those around him.

While he is rightfully proud of the company’s accomplishments, Mark does not seem to be defined by them. Rather, he has always struck me as a very humble and genuine person who is sincerely grateful for the effort of everyone that makes a contribution into making Metropolitan Maintenance the great company that it is.

Here is my conversation with Mark Malerba:

Kevin: What were your recollections of your parents, back when they started this business, and what was your perception of all of that?

Mark: I remember when I was young even going to a specific site with my Dad. I don’t know why this one sticks in my head but it was a printing shop. He would clean it on the weekends and I would go with him, just because I was fascinated by all the supplies. I just loved being in that kind of environment. And so he’d take me. I wouldn’t do any cleaning, but I would just be there and just kind of watch him and spend time there.

The one thing that both my parents did was, as I was starting to grow up, I was involved in soccer and basketball and hockey and I can never remember them ever missing a game. And we traveled quite a bit, especially for soccer, all over Ontario. We even went to Italy one year and my Dad came for two weeks during March Break. So as busy as they always were, they always made time.

Kevin: What did your Dad do prior to starting this company, and how did Metropolitan Maintenance even come to be?

Mark: He came from Italy, I believe when he was 19. And he didn’t speak any English or anything. He did have some family here that helped him get started. I know he mentioned he worked for a little while at the hospital as a patient porter. But he always felt like he could do more. So he put an ad in the paper for himself, basically just advertising himself, that he wanted to do more and that he had the skills and desire to basically run a business.

One of the calls he got was from the owner of a cleaning company. He had never run a cleaning company before. So he just basically figured it out as he went. He managed the company. He did the cleaning, he basically was doing all of it. And he ran it like it was his own business. And then the point came – I’m not sure when the transition happened of him leaving that business or that owner deciding to retire, but that’s when my Dad decided to go out on his own and start this business. My Mom told him he was crazy because there was a lot of risk involved and a lot of competition at that time too. But again, his whole thought process was, “I can do more, and I want to do more.” And he worked extremely hard to get it started.

Looking back, you wonder, ‘Would I be able to do that if I went to a country where English wasn’t the first language, or where I didn’t know anybody really, and was basically starting from scratch?’

Kevin: There’s a resourcefulness there that, in my personal feeling, we’re lacking as a culture in general.

Mark: I agree

Kevin: To think about it in the context of, ‘If I were to go to some other country, and learn how to speak the language and try to figure out how to start a business from scratch?’ When you think of it that way, it really is pretty astounding.

Mark: It is. That’s how I always looked at it, is, where would you even know how to begin?

Kevin: I’d like to talk about your journey into the family business.

Mark: I’ve always been involved with the family business, but it was really in 2005 – so it’s been 9 years – since I decided to really commit full time. Now I’m Vice President.

For the first few years, I really just managed business development. I did a lot of learning. And then, slowly, took what I had learned from Ivey (School of Business), and I had worked in consulting for a couple of years prior to coming back into the family business, so I took what I learned in those experiences and started implementing them here.

And it was definitely the best decision I ever made. It was a good mix. My father’s had the years of experience of being in this industry and running the business and I bring the formal tools that I’ve learned. He wasn’t fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go to university and that kind of thing so that’s where we mesh well.

Kevin: To what extent is he still involved?

Mark: He’s the President and he’s still here every day. He enjoys quoting jobs, going to visiting clients. He doesn’t have any thoughts of retirement.

I think that, slowly, he’d maybe like to start taking some more time off, but he always says, “If I enjoy it and my health allows me to keep doing it, then I want to keep doing it.”

My wife always says we’re like the Brady Bunch here. We get along. And there’s no issue on my end that he stays as long as he wants.

The Malerba family. From left: Mark, Mike (Mark's father), Joanne (Mother) and Emily (sister).

The Malerba family. From left: Mark, Mike (Mark’s father), Joanne (Mother) and Emily (sister).

Kevin: Can you take me back to when you were younger, even before Ivey and all of that? What were your thoughts about maybe being a part of this business? What was going through your mind about what you wanted out of the work world and what you wanted your place to be in it?

Mark: I played a lot of sports so I think that a lot of kids that are into sports think that, at one time, maybe they want to be a professional athlete. But then you realize quickly that’s not going to happen.

In high school, at one point I was thinking about medicine. But then in Grade Eleven biology, we had to start dissecting things, and that didn’t go well (laughs).

So then, for the longest time, I did have an interest in law. I did speak to three lawyers whom I’d known for a while and trusted. All three of them suggested I not go into law. So I took that information for what it was and decided that if these were three people that are in the role, and that I trust, and that have the experience and basically are telling me that if they had to do it again they wouldn’t do it, that kind of pushed that one aside too.

But you start to realize that you have all these ideas as you’re growing up.

So growing up in a family business, you always have an interest in business because it’s always there. My parents always suggested or encouraged me to do something else and not to come into the family business because the last thing I think any second or third generation should be is pressured to go into the family business, because you’re not going to do well if you don’t want to be there.

That’s why, when I went through university, I still went for my business degree. At that point I still wasn’t sure what I would do, whether I would come here or interview for different positions all over the map. And then I decided to take the consulting position at Ivey because they had a consulting group. And that was a great decision because we got to work with different sized organizations: small, medium, profit, non-profit or whatever they may be, and you get to see what kinds of issues they may face and help them overcome them. So that’s what I talked about before, about taking some of that experience and applying it here. That was definitely a positive decision that I made was not coming right into the family business but doing something different.

And then you ultimately realize that you do want to do this. I don’t think anybody grows up thinking, “I want to run a cleaning company.” It’s back to that idea that it’s not the glamourous movie star job and all these things, but once you grow up with it, it’s kind of in your blood too. It’s in you, it’s a part of you and no matter what you’re doing, no matter what industry you’re in, no matter what service or product or whatever you’re doing, if you do it with passion, then you’ll do it well. Whether you’re selling a widget, cleaning a floor, cutting a lawn or whatever it is, as long as you do it right and do it well and take care of the people that work for you, I think you’ll go a long way.

Kevin: So that brings us back to where I think we started. Rather than asking you where the passion comes from when it wasn’t something you grew up with a burning desire to do, the theme that runs through the whole thing to me seems to be one of family and partnership and integrity. To what extent is it fair to say that that’s maybe the link to the passion? There seems to be a sense of ownership and pride amongst everybody here.

questions_85475Mark: That’s exactly it because there are a lot of employees that are still with us that have been with us even from when my parents started. And in the cleaning business …

Kevin: In any business

Mark: Yeah

Kevin: It doesn’t happen anymore.

Mark: It doesn’t. It doesn’t. And that’s because of the respect my parents earned from the staff, seeing them work as hard as they did. Seeing my Dad sell during the day and then cleaning at night. Actions speak louder than words, right?

Employees do not feel like they can’t pick up the phone and call one of us, whether it’s good or bad, it’s like any family: if you communicate well, then more often than not, you’re going to have positive results. And if you don’t communicate in business, you don’t know where you stand.

Kevin: In my experience, communication, even with the best of intentions, can still go wrong, or can be taken a different way. And so to create and foster that sense of family and ownership, what do you need to be doing as somebody that’s responsible for operating the business to interact with the rest of the team members and foster that environment?

Mark: There are daily meetings so that everyone knows what’s going on and everybody’s on the same page. The employees will either communicate a lot of the time with our supervisors and managers. Our management personnel will visit the sites to get feedback from the employees and to check on them and tell them they’re doing a good job. We even encourage the clients to communicate with our employees directly as well, whether it’s to tell them pay special attention to a specific boardroom that evening because of a special visit, or to say, ‘You know what? Thank you so much for everything you’ve been doing for us.’

We even find a lot of times that clients invite our staff to their luncheons or parties or give them a little something at Christmas just as a sign of appreciation. It kind of trickles down all the way through. And I think that’s why we’ve been successful too is because those front line employees that are the heart and soul and backbone of the company, they feel accountable and take ownership of what they do. They feel like we’re all in this together. This is one big family and if I do my part and they do their part – if everybody does their part, then we’re all better off.

To Visit the Metropolitan Maintenance website, please CLICK HERE

Friends & Mentors, Vol. 1: Fred Geiger of Custom Mobility

I’ve been fortunate to get to know a great many interesting and inspiring people. I’m grateful to have learned a lot from each of them.

One those people is Fred Geiger.

Picture1Fred co-owns a London, Ontario-based business called Custom Mobility, which provides wheelchairs, walkers, and other mobility devices, as well as home healthcare equipment. Compassion, integrity, transparency and empowerment are all extremely important to Fred, and he brings all of these things (and more) to Custom Mobility on a day-to-day basis.

Currently a weekly host of his own “Ask the Experts” radio show on 1290 CJBK (Mondays at 12:00 pm), Fred has always been one to explore new and different opportunities. He has been in the Military, Police, Education and has helped build private businesses on a couple of different fronts.

Even at the age of 17, he was ready to take on a challenge, feeling at that time that he could (should?) open a McDonald’s franchise. His feelings about it were strong enough that he took the initiative to contact the restaurant chain’s Regional Vice President, with whom he eventually took a meeting … at 17 years of age! Among the many things that came from that conversation was the prediction from the McDonald’s Executive that Fred would be “a millionaire by the time he was in his 40’s.” He was also offered a position in the company at that time, but eventually decided to pass due to potential travel concerns.

Those things will come up again later in this conversation.

All of it has brought Fred to where he is now, at the wheel of Custom Mobility, a business that helps people find comfort and independence in their own homes at a time in their lives when they are more potentially vulnerable – both physically and emotionally – than they may ever have been before.

Fred is a man of great integrity, and he seems genuinely content inside his own skin, so I wanted to talk to him and find out more about his story and what got him to this point, and to see what I could learn from him. It was time very well spent.

Here is my conversation with Fred Geiger of Custom Mobility:

Kevin: Your first real interest was in Policing?

Fred: “Well, first, it was the fire department. But when that didn’t look like it could happen, yes, I wanted to get into Policing.

“Now, part of the problem was that to get on the police department, you needed to have either a two-year college program under you or you had to have two university credits. I had neither.”

Kevin: So why not go back to school?

Fred: “At that time, when I was 18, I already owned my first house, so I thought, ‘I can’t quit and go back to school now.’”

Kevin: So then what?

Fred: “And then I looked at military police because they were taking people, and I thought, ‘Okay, then what I’ll do is go into military police and work at that for a little bit and then from that, I’ll be able to leverage that to be able to get on to a police department.  And so I joined the military police, with the intention of, later on, switching to the police department, which is exactly what I did.

“From the military police, I got on to the University of Western Ontario police department, which at that time was just a security department but it was transposing into a police department so I was there through all that process. From there, five years later, I got on Niagara Regional Police department. And then I bounced to St. Thomas (Ontario) from Niagara because I wanted to be home, closer to my son from my first marriage. My son was living in London and I didn’t want to be a weekend Dad. So I quit Niagara Region and joined St. Thomas City and that was a story in itself.

“But after a while, from there, that’s when I went to Westervelt (College, in London, ON), to teach, and started the Police Foundations Program.

Kevin: Do you mind telling me how long you were in Policing and what age you were?

Fred: “13 years. I’m gonna say I was 35 when I got out.”

Kevin: At some point over those 13 years, and you’re in the prime of your life, are you thinking, “Gosh – I’ve invested almost a decade and a half of my adult life into this. It doesn’t light my fire anymore. But how can I maybe take some of what I’ve invested in myself and extract from it and then apply it in a way that will maybe feed me a little bit more?”

Fred: “I think it was exactly that. What I had also done in the meantime, I started going back to university part time. I did get my university degree. I wasn’t complete by the time I left the police department but I continued with it. What I did was pretty significant because I had been on the police department long enough that I wasn’t going to get laid off. And, great benefits, excellent money, pension. I gave it all up. I just wasn’t happy. My wife Vera has always been wonderfully supportive so with her blessing, I took a big pay cut to go from the police department to Westervelt College.

“I don’t regret that for one second.”

"There’s so much value in your quality of life. And it’s maybe a cliché, but most people don’t live it. "

Fred ( left, with business partner, Kevin Baxter): “There’s so much value in your quality of life.
And it’s maybe a cliché, but most people don’t live it.”

Kevin: Tell me more about what you did at Westervelt.

Fred: “When I started teaching at Westervelt, they had a version of a law and security program. And from there I heard that there was an inkling that they wanted to go to this new standardized training and it was called the Police Foundations Program. So I kind of ran with that.

“It’s getting buried pretty deep now, but even if you Google my name, I have an acknowledgement from the Solicitor General because I sat on the original curriculum development committee for all the Police Foundation Programs. And because we were private colleges as opposed to the community colleges, we were able to beat everybody else to the marketplace.”

Kevin: How long did you do that?

Fred: “Close to 7 years.”

Kevin: So now you’re in your early 40’s. Next thing you know, you’re getting into the truck wash business ….

Fred: “What happened was, at Westervelt, now there were new owners from back then. They had a different vision.

“When I first started there, and I started telling them that I had this vision of the Police Foundations Program, I was telling them, ‘I think I can build you a really successful program.’

“When I started there, they had 8 students in their security program. I said, ‘You give me five years; I’ll have 100 students in my program.’

“Well, within 5 years, I had 150 students in the legal programs.

“We had a great program. I said, ‘You give me five more years, I’ll have 500 students in this program.’

“We put together one helluva program with a lot of credibility and that’s why we were beating so many people out of the gate. But then I began experiencing resistance on how I believed the program needed to develop to grow successfully and to maintain its integrity.  I had a lot of pride and seeing the program shift in a way that I felt was diluting the quality, I said, ‘It’s time to move on.’”

“So, I went from that, I got offered a job to help import this equipment from Sweden, which is a whole other story.”

Kevin: How did you feel about life in general around that time?

Fred: “I remember feeling a little bit of pressure. It’s funny, because you pointed it out. There was a little bit of pressure in me from what that guy at McDonald’s had said (about being a millionaire by the time he was in his 40’s). Because I thought it was almost like I was letting him down at that time.”

Kevin: Him or yourself?

Fred: “Maybe both.

“But I remember thinking ‘You know, I wanted to prove him right.’ But it just turned out a different way. I’ve forgiven myself for that now, because I also believe that at age 17 when I made that kind of bridge – you know – I can’t be an entrepreneur because I don’t have the money, that I went the different direction of the employment route, being on the police department. I think that really stagnated me for quite a while. Because when I was at Westervelt College, honestly, I was a pure entrepreneur. I developed a program, I put the program together. I marketed it. I got the Chiefs of Police to say it was a good program. There was a lot of work. It was like building a business within a business and I really loved that part. That part was just great.

“And I really believe that the only way that you make what you deserve in this world is working for yourself. That’s a little bit harder. That steady paycheque isn’t there or anything. And there is that work in the trenches and everything else. But at the end of the day, it’s not all about money.”

"I’m just a believer that where there are opportunities, you’ve got to take it and explore it. Because you never know where the heck that’s going to lead you"

“I’m just a believer that where there are opportunities, you’ve got to take it and explore it.
Because you never know where that’s going to lead you”

Kevin: That’s a hard thing to learn.

Fred: “We always want to make as much money as we possibly can, but there’s so much value in your quality of life. And it’s maybe a cliché, but most people don’t live it.”

Kevin: So, it sounds like you’re saying that if you consistently do the right thing, the results you require will eventually find their way to you?

Fred: “Yes. Because I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think you can be incredibly ethical and do a good job and still make money at it. You don’t have to cut corners. Of all the industries, it should be able to be done in this one.”

Kevin: And for all the talk of money, it seems to me it would be just as gratifying, if not more so, to go another however-many-years and look at – where there was nothing – and then look at what had been established and the lives that had been effected and the people that had been helped. There was nothing there, just like the Police Foundations Program, but then you created it and helped a lot of people along the way. We talk about money but there’s also this challenge that seems to keep running through everything you’re telling me about.

Fred: “You’re right. Because that is still one of my proudest accomplishments, is that whole Police Foundations thing. Because there was absolutely nothing. And now there are 35 colleges and universities that offer that program. And to say that I was the first guy out of the gate on that … there’s a lot of pride in that.”

Kevin: I was going to ask about what would be something that stands out that would make you particularly proud. It sounds like that would be at the top of the list?

Fred: “That’d be up there. And I haven’t found what the one is yet here (at Custom Mobility). I haven’t put a finger on it. But I get the sense it will evolve around the fact we have so many clients say to us, ‘You know, thanks. You’re the first people that listened to me.’

slide3

Kevin: If you could go back and talk to that 17-year-old Fred Geiger, whether it was the time around the McDonald’s inquiry or even a little bit beyond that, when you were investigating the fire department and you were getting restless with high school … what do you think you’d want to impart upon yourself, knowing what you know now?

Fred: “Probably to have found a mentor in the field of what I wanted to do.

“I really … I never begrudge what happened, because I believe that everything happens in due course.  You develop at every step along the road and I’ve learned transferable skills that I use in my business today. And so I’m happy where I am and I’m happy about the road.

“But if there was something I could change, I probably wish I had have taken that job offer with that guy in McDonald’s, because I think that fellow would have taught me a lot.

And for that same reason today, I’ve encouraged my son to explore a Specialty Management program for university grads offered where he works. When you get an opportunity like that, there are jobs that you’ve never dreamed of in your life and you’re going to be exposed to it.

“I’m just a believer that where there are opportunities, you’ve got to take it and explore it. Because you never know where that’s going to lead you.

“I never would have dreamed in a million years I’d be doing what I’m doing. But it has really brought a lot of my passion together. It’s brought a lot of the entrepreneurship. And helping people. In earlier years, I wouldn’t have anticipated that it would come from this, but it has. And I think it’s a matter of having that open mind, saying, ‘Can it work?’ and ‘Do I want it to work?’

“It’s the same with you. You’re constantly exposed to things. Yet our training over time tends to direct us to think, ‘Ah, that’s not going to work’ or ‘there’s too much competition in that’ or ‘there’s too much this.’

We don’t need to think like that. Go explore it.”

To visit the Custom Mobility website, please CLICK HERE

To access, listen to and share the archived Podcasts of Fred’s “Ask the Experts” radio programs on 1290 CJBK, please CLICK HERE

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