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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.

Happy Anniversary, No Schedule Man!

Four years ago today I achieved a goal I’d held for at least a decade: to complete and release a full-length CD of my own music. It was June 26, 2010, when “No Schedule Man” was finally released with a concert at the London Music Club here in London, Ontario. Much has happened since then. And looking back, I feel proud of myself for seeing the goal through to completion, and I’m glad I have those songs recorded in some form.

At the CD Release show

At the CD Release show

It took me almost a year and a half to finish the project (I documented the whole process with a weekly journal. All the entries can be found HERE). At the time, I was not enjoying the accomplishment as much as I’d been hoping to, as I was truly hurting with sciatic nerve pain caused by herniated discs in my lower back (which actually caused a two-week delay in releasing the CD). In fact, just one week after the CD release show, I decided to cancel the rest of the appearances I had booked for that summer because I was just in too much pain and wasn’t enjoying myself at all. Partly because of that, I never really felt those songs got the push they deserved.

Shortly afterwards, many significant life changes took place, including a divorce, change of address and change in career, all of which happened pretty much at the same time. In the face of that, playing the songs from “No Schedule Man” quickly fell down the list of priorities.

CD Artwork in development

CD Artwork in development

For the better part of two years after all that, I didn’t even really look at my guitar, let alone go anywhere and play. My mind was only on being with my two boys, keeping myself healthy and learning what I needed to learn from the life changes that had taken place. To that end, I feel grateful for the lessons I’m not sure I could have learned any other way. But there was always a part of me that felt bad about watching “No Schedule Man” sit and collect dust.

Eventually, the urge to start creating and sharing music bubbled back up. But it was different this time. There was much more patience, and even hesitation, to move forward. As I’ve written and talked about before, it was really my oldest son, Eddie, who nudged me to start working on music again, and so last summer I recorded a handful of new songs that became the acoustic EP, “Solo: The Return of No Schedule Man.” In the process of getting ready to release that collection, I went back and started rehearsing some of the songs from the original “No Schedule Man” CD again and thought, quite honestly, that there were some really good songs just sitting and waiting for me to pay them some mind again.

The new EP, released in February 2014

The new EP, released in February 2014

Now that “Solo” has also been released, my guitar is mostly quiet again, at least for now. I’m still not sure where all this fits in the scheme of a guy who makes his living as a Marketing Consultant and Radio Account Executive. But when I burden myself with trying too hard to make sense of it all, I think back to the lyrics of the “No Schedule Man” title track and remember that “No plan is all part of the plan.”

The idea of control is really a fallacy. Change is inevitable, and this present moment is truly all we have. So I strive to be more like the character I created with “No Schedule Man,” to the extent where I’ve since adopted it as a kind of “brand” for most of the things I do, and hope to be.

No Schedule Man, the character, doesn’t aim to have. He simply wants to be.

It was pretty cool to be able to put this in the CD player. Still is!

It was pretty cool to be able to put this in the CD player. Still is!

One day, I’ll give those songs the attention I always felt they deserved. In the meantime, I can look back and feel proud that they even exist in the first place, and feel emboldened about my ability to navigate through whatever changes and challenges may come from here. With that in mind, I wholeheartedly encourage you to explore and celebrate your own creativity as well, in whatever form that may be. I did, and I’m glad I did.

Happy Anniversary, No Schedule Man. I’m better for knowing you and am curious to see where we set sail next.

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

Stories From a Short Track, Vol. 2: “Snow Crossed”

As the grip of this relentless winter starts to slowly let go, I can’t help but recall one of the coldest, most challenging projects of my career:

Snowcross at Delaware Speedway.

Back when I was General Manager of that half-mile stock car track, the people I worked for thought it would be a good idea to try and create another event in the wintertime.

214770_8596Part of the reality of a “seasonal” business is that you only have so many chances to try and put money in the bank. You’re not open fifty-two weeks of the year like most businesses. At best, we had around 30 – 40 dates annually to bring in revenue (in other words, we would go 325 – 335 days of the year without any actual event). That’s daunting, and not an especially comforting business model.

Still, we understood this and so we worked our tails off year-round to supplement that trend by strategically trying to spread out the flow and timing of other forms of revenue, such as: annual banquet, driver registration and membership, event and race division sponsorship renewals and deposits, billboard advertising renewals, and season ticket renewals.

But the bulk of the revenue came from ticket and concession sales and sponsorship directly associated with a race. So it was decided a winter event was a good idea.

And so, in the winter of 2005, we set  about the task of dumping snow on our race track.

The concept of Snowcross was to turn the track into a venue that people could visit in February. Instead of watching stock cars on the asphalt, they’d watch snowmobiles on (and above) the snow. Think motocross hills, but with snow instead of dirt and snowmobiles instead of motorcycles.

Sounds neat, right? I agree! But I wish it had been hosted by somebody else.

And here begins the lesson in this story.

For starters, the possibility of conducting this particular event required snow, and lots of it. So the first challenge was to find approximately 400 truckloads of the white stuff and deposit it on to the front straightaway of our race track, and on top of pit road. Say that out loud and see how it sounds: “Let’s take our race track, which has not been resurfaced for roughly 30 years and which we depend upon for the very existence of our business, and let’s drop 400 truckloads of snow on top of it.”

Hmmm …

We had no way of knowing whether we would even get enough snow or cold temperatures in the area to make it happen, let alone how we’d get the snow to the race track. We could well have done all the work to prep for the event and end up not having it happen. On top of that logistical challenge, we were also faced with the reality that our facility was never meant to be used in the winter. There was no heat in the concession building or ticket windows, nor in the announcer/scoring tower, washrooms or hospitality lounge.

In addition, we had to try and figure out how to staff the place for just one day, how to find and activate sponsorship (the event really couldn’t be very profitable without it), and how to advertise and market it. Preparing for the upcoming stock car racing season came to a temporary halt.

581435_92802822Despite all those challenges, lo and behold, when the day actually came, we somehow were ready to host a legion of snowmobile racers that were going to jump over hills and amaze and entertain us.

I will never forget that day. It was frigid. I believe the high reached about minus fifteen Celcius. Before we opened the gates to spectators, I was troubled with how much ice was caked all around the facility. Parts of the grandstand steps – already crooked and uneven at best – were icy. The walkways: ice. I furiously tried to put as much salt down as I could before actual paying customers came in. I remember worrying that someone would get hurt.

Amazingly, no one did get hurt, though we came within an eyelash of a disaster in the parking lot. A number of vendors had created a “tented village” along one part of the fence inside the facility. Unfortunately, someone had decided to tether all of the pop-up tents together, and when a strong gust of February wind arose, the tents all went with it, flipping up and over the wall separating the track from the parking lot like a cross between dominoes and a giant snake, barely missing a hydro line that ran above that fence. I can recall with exact emotional clarity how I felt at that moment: I wondered what I was going to see when I went into the parking lot, fully expecting to discover a series of smashed windshields and scraped-up hoods. I knew there was no way those tents could not have fallen on top of the cars of some of the customers from that day.

But they hadn’t. They missed by inches. I couldn’t believe it.

By the end of it, people that attended did seem to have enjoyed it. The folks that ran the Snowcross organization were lovely people and nice to work with.

But, ours was a 50-year old stock car track, made for the summer, not for a snowmobile event in the winter.

All told, financially, the event did a little better than breaking even. But the true cost would not be clear until much later.

Four hundred truckloads of snow do not melt quickly. Nor is it clean, especially when you’ve had racing machines running on top of it. Much of it was trucked in from places like shopping mall parking lots. As it melted, we began to see the sheer volume of garbage, salt and filth it carried with it. It literally turned black as winter turned to spring. And it reeked.

Pit crew members of race teams stood on top of hills of blackened, stinking, rotting snow hills during the first couple of open practice sessions for stock car race teams that spring. It was a sorry sight. If the race teams were upset about it, I wouldn’t have blamed them one bit.

583219_98979002As time went on, the physical effect of that event left real consequences for the track owners. In short, dumping all that filthy snow on the facility pretty much wrecked pit road. It eventually had to be completely re-paved with concrete, a job costing tens of thousands of dollars.

All told, while well intentioned, adding one random Snowcross event to the schedule of a facility that was not built nor personally equipped to handle such a thing, ended up being little more than one big party whose bills continued to show up for years afterward.

The lesson? In your business, know your core product or service and stay true to it. Even (especially?) when times are slow. Know your key customers and what they come to you for and prioritize them over “side shows” and other distractions. Otherwise, you may find that chasing short-term gain might just bring you long-term pain.

And your business may get left out in the cold.

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

Stories From a Short Track, Vol. 1: “Dipstick Down”

Here’s a True Story  …

In my days as Sales and Marketing Director at Delaware Speedway (a half-mile stock car racing track near London, Ontario, Canada), we were always looking for ways to expand our fan base and broaden our demographic.

And we wanted to appeal to kids. Future customers.

At one point, we came upon the notion that, perhaps, the track would benefit from the presence of a “mascot;” you know, like the San Diego Chicken, to whom the kids would relate. Armed with the knowledge that Charlotte Motor Speedway had such a mascot, named “Lugnut,” we decided to embark upon our own characterized adventure. After some deliberation, we settled upon the name “Dipstick,” for three main reasons:

  1. A dipstick was part of any vehicle’s engine. It’s how you checked the oil!
  1. “Dipstick” was what Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane often called Deputy Enos in the TV Show, “The Dukes of Hazzard”
  1. We wanted to poke a little bit of fun at ourselves

After agreeing on the name, I can well remember the discussions of character design: should he have a “T”-shaped head, or a “loop?”

We began examining the dipsticks of any nearby vehicle we could find and, in time, decided that a “T”-shaped head would make for a better character.

Yeah.

We also embarked upon the task of finding a company that could actually design and construct the costume for us (We eventually found a business based out of Edmonton, Alberta. The name escapes me, but they were the ones that made the costume).

In the preliminary drawings, Dipstick actually looked pretty cool, and somewhat agile.

In reality, he was shipped to us in a giant crate. And the costume inside ended up being one big, rigid, giant, heavy box that afforded the person inside almost no mobility, limited visibility and nothing for reach but the equivalent of little T-Rex arms.

In short, a lot of money later, Dipstick was a disaster.

Whoops.

Undaunted, we decided to unveil our new creation to the “world” (or, about 1500 people) at the race track’s annual appearance a London Knights Ontario Hockey League game (note: this was back in the day when the Knights played in a rinky-dink arena and few people followed them with much passion. Nowadays, the Knights pack around 9,000 people into almost every home game. This event pre-dated that trend).

Between periods, our new mascot was to take to the ice to wave to the fans and thereby represent the race track proudly and convert all in attendance at that hockey game into instant stock car racing fans. The plan was foolproof!

When the time came, the players left for their dressing rooms and the zamboni set about its duty, flooding one clean patch of ice down the middle of the rink to begin the task of cleaning the playing surface.

Dipstick stepped out in front of the fans and took a few tentative steps on the frozen stage. Gaining confidence with each step, he shuffled further into the center of the rink, only to come across the freshly flooded center spot where the Zamboni had just recently been.

“Whoosh!”

As soon as Dipstick hit that flooded patch of ice, his feet went out from under him.

The box-like behemoth of a mascot landed with a resounding thud, and it quickly became apparent that the dimensions of the costume were going to make it a challenge for the person inside to get up and resume entertaining the crowd.

As if that were the only problem.

Dipstick Down! Me & Stephen Richmond (in the blue and white race suit) try to help our fallen mascot. Photo by Janice Richmond.

Dipstick Down! Me & Stephen Richmond (in the blue and white race suit) try to help our fallen mascot. Photo by Janice Richmond.

With Dipstick flat on his back, in front of the crowd during intermission of a hockey game at the old London Ice House, I walked over to him, along with young Stephen Richmond, a Delaware Speedway Junior Racing League competitor at the time. When we arrived at our fallen mascot, we both figured that we’d be able to take his hand and lift him back to his feet.

But that didn’t work.

We tried to raise him off the ice.

Nothing.

We tried again.

He didn’t budge.

It was then that I realized, with our newly minted mascot lying flat-out on our local hockey team’s playing surface, that we had a bigger problem on our hands.

Dipstick had frozen to the ice.

The “flood” left by the zamboni mixed with the fabric of Dipstick’s costume and, by the time he’d fallen, the water had frozen, taking Dipstick’s upper body with it.

He was stuck.

True story.

I can well remember it. People in the stands were howling. Tyler Anderson, who was inside the costume, was flat on his back and staring straight up at the ceiling. He commented that all he could see were, “bright lights.”

We eventually got him up and off the ice surface, and the game continued. I can’t recall who won.

But I can tell you this:

Next time you come up with the “next great idea,” take a few extra days and think it through. Once you’ve examined every angle, you may find it’ll work out fine.

Then again, you may end up with your Dipstick stuck to the ice.

“Sunny Day in November” De-constructed

(Listen to the song “Sunny Day in November” HERE)

When I write lyrics and/or music, most often the right words seem to just “show up,” as if they’re being channelled from some other place. When that happens, I let it flow as best I can and capture as much as possible, be it with pen, computer, guitar or even just humming (or singing) an idea or two into a handheld analog recorder. The great majority of times, I leave that process with the infrastructure of a full song, including lyrics and melody. There will be re-writes and arrangement tinkering, but quite often I’ll have the whole thing come to me all in one shot. “Bagley Avenue,” “Song for Sean,” “Kevin’s Prayer,” “Awake But Not Alive” and “Everything’s Just Fine” from my No Schedule Man CD are good examples. They all just appeared to me out of the blue and are pretty much the same songs now as the day I first wrote them.

Rarely, I’ll find a song come together in bits and pieces over a period of time. Rarer still is a song surviving that process and holding its weight without coming off sounding contrived or as if I were trying to write it.

“Sunny Day in November” is such a tune. And this is the story of how it went from its initial inspiration to a complete recorded song on the No Schedule Man CD.

To set the initial scene, I’ll first re-print the passage I wrote about the song that appears in CD liner notes:

In the fall of 2008, London was hit by a snowstorm prior to Hallowe’en. The leaves had not yet fallen, and the weight of the snow took down many trees; an unsightly and unfortunate blow to the “forest” city. Little more than a week later, I found myself at Victoria Park in downtown London on a brilliant, sunny day. Holiday decorations had already been erected in the park, while evidence of the earlier storm was obvious by way of sheered branches on many of the colourful trees. Decked out in a shirt and tie, I ate lunch in the sun that November day; witness to a strange and brilliant collision of circumstances that I knew would turn into a song.

It was an odd feeling that day. I experienced an intense feeling of not wanting to leave that particular moment. I can’t recall many other times in my life like it. I clearly remember thinking, “this has to be a song.” I even “tried” thinking of some lyric lines, to no avail. I was almost disappointed in myself that I could be in an environment so rich with visual poetry and yet still not have any song lyrics come to mind.

So I did all I could. I soaked in as much as I could and then went back to my car and wrote down all the observations I could muster. I jotted as many recollections as I could.

For weeks, nothing happened with it, though I refused to let go of the idea of the song. Then one day I was noodling around with my acoustic guitar and some pre-programmed drum tracks when I started playing a jangly little guitar line that was (and is) nothing more than a C major chord with a little bit of finger play on the D string. I liked how it sounded and felt almost right away that I’d found the musical melody for the song.

But still no words.

More weeks passed and I kept going back to that guitar line until I had the whole song mapped out with only a couple of place-holding lyric lines. One of those early phrases I would sing was “Sunny Day in November” which I liked because of the number of syllables and the natural rhythm they had to go along with the music. The trouble was I knew I’d then have to come up with another multi-syllable phrase ending with something that sounded like “ember” in order to mirror the original phrase.

I was stuck on that for a while. I first hoped that I’d come up with something I liked better than the phrase that ultimately turned out to be the title of the song. I fought myself about that for some time. I didn’t want to draw parallels to the Lighthouse hit “Sunny Days” and I also thought it was a bit of a clunky turn of phrase. And yet I still liked it.

So I waited for the rest of the song to come.

Ultimately, it was one word that opened the lyrical floodgates: surrender. Granted, if you want to get into a rhyming war, “ender” and “ember” are indeed different.  But the thought of surrender intrigued me greatly and added another more meaningful level (for me) to the idea of the song.

The feeling of that November day in Victoria Park came back to me quite vividly. I thought of the warmth, the colour, the light, and how they all seemed to be coming together in one last defiant stance against the colourless cold of the oncoming winter.

I thought: here is a light that won’t surrender to the darkness, no matter how unlikely the odds.

After that, I knew I had my song. I was off to the races, and wrote out the rest of the lyrics in a matter of minutes.

Many artists do not believe in interpreting their own work. Or they do not feel that they should. Fair enough. But for me, it’s a big part of the fun. So I’m going to do it right now with the lyrics to the song. First, I’ll put the song lyrics in italics and then my thoughts on the lines, for anyone that cares to know (and if you don’t care to know … why exactly are you still reading?).

Here we go:

“Sunny Day In November”

All the ghosts have left the stage

Hallowe’en, and all the capitalistic retail-driven madness that surrounds it, has come and gone. It’s a momentary lull before the next hysteria – the Christmas rush – sets in.

Curtain call, now’s the time if you’ve got anything to say

After you’ve seen a really great show, you’ll get one last chance to show your appreciation for the performers when they come out for a curtain call. Or you can “call” a band back out for an encore. But if you like what you saw, you better applaud and soak in every last moment, because the show’s almost over. In the context of this song, you could say that the “show” was summer, and the implied freedom, light and vibrancy that goes with it. Time to give your one last round of applause before the house lights go up.

Summer’s touch slips away

Re-affirming the line before, and insinuating that something comforting has just eluded your grasp as you get set to go into a darker, colder circumstance

But for one more day, this one last day

Here’s your encore, kids. Soak it in. Lyrically, I’m not thrilled about repeating the word “day” so quickly, especially when that word is in the title of the song (and thereby coming up in the chorus). I even thought about cutting out the last part (“this one last day”) and letting the music carry the song into the chorus. Ultimately I decided that “one more” and “one last” were two very different things and it was worth making the point. In other words, you can have one more, but if it’s your last, you’ll think about it and maybe savour it a little longer.

So for all those days when the rain comes down we’ll dream of a Sunny Day in November

I struggled with this line and I’m still not sure how much I like it. I wanted to say “snow” more than “rain” but I didn’t like how it sounded. Also, I thought about it for a while and decided that rain is just as depressing – if not moreso – than snow. It’s debateable, but you can bundle up for a snowfall and feel warm and cozy almost right away after your return home. But if you’re out in a cold, rainy day, you’re going to feel soaked through and chilled to the skin and it’ll take you a while to recover. Much more depressing, I feel.

All the days are coming now, we’ll dream of a sun that won’t surrender

Winter is dreary. Daylight is in short supply. The season plays out in a series of mid tones without much colour (other than pre-manufactured holiday lights). At this point, the singer is acknowledging those late January/early February days that are still far too short and far too cold and yet still seem too far away from a return to the sun’s warmth and sustained embrace.

Shadows lurk, colours fade. Life will spin around us just the same

This line, to me, is ominous and unforgiving. It says that even as your lights are going out and things are almost at an end for you, the cruel reality is that the world will keep on turning without you. I think all of us feel this tug when we pass one of life’s mile markers. Maybe that’s why so many people are so stoic when they finally reach their end: they’ve come to grips with the inevitable truth that impermanence is a fundamental fact of life.

Does this sunny day in November shine in vain?

Now here’s a line that probably means a lot more to me than anyone else. This one phrase, in my opinion, asks a very important question in a metaphorical way. On the surface, it’s saying, “Hey, November! What’re you doing? Winter’s coming no matter why you do, dig? So why bother?” But to me, the line prompts other questions of a similar nature. For instance: when you know you’re going to lose and yet you still give every effort anyway, is your effort in vain? And is what we perceive as “losing” really a loss? Volumes have been written about those two questions alone.

A chorus grand, a season sings

Back to the good stuff now to start the second verse. To me, a “chorus” is a group of voices coming together to make a beautiful sound. The voices in the setting I was in that day were the colours, the vibrancy, the people out and about visiting, picnicking, jogging, playing guitar, bicycling. It was a chorus of soul that, to me, made the autumn sing in a way I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced. It was grand. Really a special thing to be a part of.

In sharp relief to all the monotone the coming winter brings

Everything I just described was all the more sweet knowing way lay ahead. For instance, when you have so much vibrancy in June for instance, you maybe take it a little bit for granted because you expect at least two or three months of the same thing to follow. Also, you don’t get the colour of the trees and the juxtaposition of being on Christmas’ doorstep when summer starts. I guess you could say the awareness of good fortune was heightened that day, perhaps because the spectre of impermanence loomed closer at hand.

The numbing chill, the early dark

I’m setting up the next line here. Numb, chill, dark: these are hard words. Scary even. But I’m saying that, like it or not, this is what’s coming.

Being held at bay, this one last day

So here’s your hero. This last glorious day is holding off those dark things I just mentioned, bestowing upon you a feeling of safety and fulfillment at least for the time being.

Which brings us back to the chorus and the whole point of the song: is there a point to shining in the face of certain defeat? Does this sunny day in November shine in vain?

Something else I’m very proud of with this song is the sonic quality of it. I really must tip my had to my great-good pal Kevin Gorman, who co-produced this track and layered his piano with the Hammond organ that gives me goose bumps when I hear it.

Recalling that idea of a light that won’t surrender to the darkness, no matter how unlikely the odds, I sometimes get emotional when I hear the passage in the solo when KG slides up the keys of the Hammond organ in a triumphant glissando that lands in a solid chord structure and continues on. That, to me, is an example of the music sounding how the song is supposed to feel. I don’t mind admitting to you that when the mood is right, if I am listening to that song at top volume, I want to put my fist in the air at that point in the song. I love it. I hope one day to be able to perform it with a full band with Kevin on the Hammond Organ, the full drum kit pounding home the defiance of that one day that I treasured so much and knew would turn into a song.

Which it did, eventually.

And now that you know the story behind “Sunny Day in November,” I’m offering it to you to download for FREE until the beginning of December. Just click HERE to download your copy and feel free to let me know what you think. All feedback is welcome.

Oh, and by the way: that question? Does this sunny day in November shine in vain?

No.

Shining is never in vain.

Keep shining.

Listen to “Sunny Day in November” by CLICKING HERE.

Recording Journal, Vol. 49: “Is This It?”

Is this it?

One year ago, we started work on a CD I hoped to call “No Schedule Man.”  We’ve been through break-ins, hospital stays, equipment failures and all sorts of other challenges, including the re-scheduling of the CD release show because of some of what I just mentioned. And now, as I write this, we’re standing just a few steps away from the end of the tunnel, with the CD set to arrive later this week and the show scheduled for 6 days from now at the London Music Club.

So this is it, huh?

Of course, I understand that this means far more to me than anyone else. Completing and sharing a collection of my own songs has been a goal of mine my entire adult life. To think that the time has almost arrived is humbling and even a little bit disorienting. I understand that the real work begins only after we put the CD out: no one is going to care about it unless we go and share the music with people that have never heard it before. So far, friends and family have given me wonderful support and encouragement and I am grateful beyond words. But just like anything else, if you want to expand your fan base and market share, you’ve got to go out to where the people are and do the hardest work of all: make a good-enough impression that they might remember you, and maybe even ask you to come back and/or listen to your songs again.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with this music over the next year or two, because I won’t be “touring” per se. Music is what I love most, but it’s not my job and, frankly, I don’t want it to be. I would like to become known as a songwriter and, ten years from now, I’d love to be able to afford to spend my time creating and collaborating more often than I do now. So for the time being, I’ll have to try to be content to do shows at little clubs around Ontario as much as we can without going too hard, and also looking for opportunities to support other artists with an opening set or something like that. I’d also love to get to the point where I could play some festivals and go see some places around Canada I’ve never visited before. But that’ll come with time.

Meantime, when we do release the CD this weekend, it will look like I’m contradicting everything I just said because we are coming out guns a-blazing. The CD, t-shirts, hats, magnets, notepads, bracelets and more will all be available from a customized, fully-themed merchandise area at our shows. A short time later, the CD will be available through online retailers around the world, and the merchandise will be for sale online too, through CPT Entertainment Inc.

On top of all of that, we are set to launch a fund and awareness-raising campaign for Hospice of London called “Celebrating Hope” in memory of Sean and Cindy Alward. I believe I’m just as proud of that as I am of completing the CD. Maybe more so. More information about that partnership will be shared early this coming week.

I am very confident that the more shows we do, the more we’ll give people a really nice evening of music. Kevin Gorman and I have the ability to showcase quite a lot of versatility on stage, and I believe our chemistry, vocal harmonies and range of sounds gives us an edge. When you add Alyssa Sestric into the mix, we can really throw a lot at you, and Alyssa is going to do as many shows with us as she can (that’ll not only give her more experience, but it will provide a chance for her to showcase some of her own songs too, and she is a very talented songwriter). When we do the CD release show, we’ll be a little rusty. You’re never perfect right out of the gates. The difference in me now as opposed to even just a few years ago is that I’m okay with that. As long as the tone of the show as a whole comes off the way we want it, we’ll laugh at whatever else may get in the way.

After all, having been through hospital stays, robberies, computer failures and the like and still getting the job done, I hardly think a few mistakes in our live show will register on the radar screen.

Right now, I’ll be happy just to get there, as I’m writing this while I’m sitting in bed, trying to recover from what seems to be a slight reoccurrence of the illness that set me back a few weeks ago. Or maybe it’s just side effects from the useless drugs my doctor gave me earlier this week to help deal with my back and leg pain and help me sleep. Or maybe it’s from navigating through yet another calamitous week.

Or maybe all of the above.

But that’s another story for another day.

Recording Journal Vol. 40: “Photo Fun”

In my last journal, I mentioned that I had a story about taking pictures. I guess I’m going to tell it now.

I view promotional photos as a bit of a necessary evil with this whole process (even though “evil” is not the right word). I can get behind a microphone on the radio or jump on a stage and start talking or singing and feel completely at home. But going out in public and posing for a camera is not really my cup of tea.

Then again, I suppose should clarify: going out in public with Tracey and my two boys and snapping photos of us having fun and goofing off is most definitely my thing. For instance, I have no issue whatsoever having people stop and watch as I take a picture like this:

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It bothers me not in the least to have people pointing and staring for photo poses like this either:

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Nor am I phased by standing in line for the chance to have photo like this taken in front of other parents and children:

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Although these photos do indicate a little bit of who I am, they don’t necessarily represent how I want my music project communicated. For instance, after working for a year on an album’s worth of heartfelt music, I don’t feel it’s in my best interests to send out a press kit headlined by a photo like this:

Here I am with one of my animal brothers.

Here I am with one of my animal brothers.

No, I’m afraid that won’t do. So I realized that I had to bite the bullet, leave my kids at home and go get some “grown up” looking photos taken to go along with this CD and the related promotion.

The pictures I’ve been using are about two and a half years old so it was time to do something new to have in promotion of the CD. Truth be told, I actually began thinking about this months ago, wondering where I could go and what I could do to make the photos something more than just another yokel standing by the train tracks trying to look artsy, or some goon with his guitar trying to make you think you were worth listening to more than the million others doing the exact same thing.

Naw, I thought, I couldn’t really do any of those things. I figured that if I was going to go to the trouble to do some photos, I wanted to do them in a way that meant something to me so that I would be glad to have them regardless. Thinking in that manner, I asked myself where I would like to go to have my picture taken. I wondered: What is a place that means something to me; a place that is unique, a place that reflects part of who I am, a place that reflects some of the qualities of my music and a place that is part of my hometown? The answer came to me almost instantly.

Joe Kool’s.

Kool’s is a restaurant / bar in downtown London that has held a special place in my heart since the early-to-mid eighties, when it advertised itself as the headquarters for Detroit Tigers fans. It seems a long time ago now, but Tigers vs. Blue Jays was actually a big deal in this town once upon a time. There was a bar on Wharncliffe Road called “Auto’s,” and it was reported to be the home of the Jays. But Kool’s was (and still is) the home of the Tigers in this town (Auto’s, by the way, is long since gone). On top of that, Kool’s has always featured an irresistible, self-deprecating sense of self worth and a hard-won collection of paraphernalia on the walls (and ceiling) in the exact spots they’ve held going on thirty years.

Years ago, when I was working for Delaware Speedway, I got to meet the owner of Kool’s, Mike Smith. We met quite by chance at a tourism-related function. To me, it was like meeting a rock star. I liked Mike straight away and sensed maybe our paths would cross again. Years later, they did just that when I was asked to fill in as on-air host on CJBK Radio. I called Mike to interview him and share stories about the Tigers. He was gracious with his time and I found that talking with him was easy and I’d have liked to have chatted with him for much longer.

Years went by and I had no reason to bother Mike. But then I got this idea that I’d go shoot some photos at Kool’s. Well, I wasn’t going to do it without his blessing so I called and left him a message. He promptly returned the call saying he was “honoured” that I would think of his place in that way and encouraged me to come by. So I told my favourite photographer (who also happens to be my mother) and we made a date.

When we got to Joe Kool’s, I told the waitress what we were up to and that Mike had given me approval to shoot some photos. I also asked for a specific table near the front door that has some great old newspaper pages on display; pages from the days when the Tigers had triumphed. The staff was very accommodating and, true to the style of the place, hardly paid us any notice when we were snapping photos.

I never imagined that we’d actually get to visit with Mike. He owns several restaurants and likely works at a satellite office. I imagine he’d have managers responsible for each place, though I can’t say for sure. I hadn’t told him when I was coming by and I didn’t expect to see him. What were the chances? Nonetheless, he was there. He stop over and visited with Mom and me and we had a great chat about the Tigers, music, business; all sorts of stuff. He was kind enough to let me take a picture with him.

With Mike Smith at Joe Kool's

With Mike Smith at Joe Kool’s

I promised Mike I’d come back after the CD was done to give him a copy. Whether or not he digs the music is beside the point. The message, to me, is that it’s true that it really is the journey that matters, and my visit to Kool’s and reconnection with Mike was more proof. (As a side note, I got to telling Mike about my plans for remembering Tiger Stadium in conjunction with the song “Bagley Avenue,” which will be on the CD. He not only sounded enthusiastic, he seemed as if he might be able to point me in the right direction too. To be continued.)

It’s probably not an accident that one of my other favourite spots in London, Victoria Park, is right across Richmond Street from Joe Kool’s. Since I’ve lived in London all my life, I’ve had many happy memories from Victoria Park. I’ve been taken as a kid to see the Christmas lights with my parents, and I’ve taken my kids to do the same thing. I’ve performed in that bandshell, attended countless festivals and community events and even met one of my musical “mentors,” David Francey, for the first time in that park.

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With David Francey in Victoria Park

But the real reason I wanted to go back was because Victoria Park also gave me the inspiration for the song “Sunny Day in November,” which was conceived in the fall of 2008 when I sat at a picnic table, quietly eating my lunch while observing an eclectic collision of nonsensical circumstances. The story is in the liner notes of the CD and I’ll also tell it at shows, but for now I’ll just say that it was important to me to go back to that spot where the idea(s) for the song came to me. So we did.

We took a few photos in and around the park. As with Kool’s, we got some good ones and some goofy-looking ones but more than anything, we had fun being there and enjoying our time together. Photos or not, I can live with that.

It’s all part of the journey, right?

All of these things are a part of who I am. As are all the songs on the CD. I cannot begin to tell you how much fun it is to see them all coming together all at once.

Back to the journey …

– Kevin

PS – A very Happy Birthday to my sister, Karen. She is not only my sibling, she is one of my best friends, a mentor and an inspiration. She also happens to be a gifted musician and I admit that I don’t care if I ever sell a copy of the CD as long as my sister is proud of what I’ve done. Happy Birthday Karen. I love you.

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