You never know what life will bring, says Herb Lagois, founder of Lagois Design-Build-Renovate.
For Herb, it has been years of “learning opportunities”, challenges, and triumphs.
For Jacob Kirst, it’s the realization of a dream.
Now, nearly 40 years after creating one of Ottawa’s most successful design-build companies, Herb Lagois has handed over the reins to another young man.
For each, it’s a milestone as well as a turning point, a happy place in their lives. It has been a deliberate, carefully-orchestrated process.
Both arrived at this point in their careers with a unique story.
Herb began the business in 1984 ‒ without truck, tools or business knowledge, but with the heady optimism of youth. Against all odds, he did it, and did it extremely well. But it took time.
Back then he had been working for the summer as a draftsperson for a construction company. Not too long after he graduated with honours as an architectural technologist, he decided he'd start his own company ‒ from almost nothing.
First he figured he needed a truck. So he took one for a test drive, ran into a Hydro pole guy-wire, and bent the bumper. (Guess I’m buying this one, he thought.) Next came the tools. The business knowledge would follow in the years to come.
He hired a few guys and they began building houses in Pembroke and Picton ‒ in the dead of winter. Hindsight said it was not the best decision.
“We left the truck and tools onsite,” he recalls. “We commuted daily in a Volkswagen Rabbit Diesel. Picture four burly guys boppin’ down the road…”
A wall that flew into a next door neighbour’s master bedroom was one of their first experiences. It was during what the locals said was the worst winter Picton had ever had, with snow drifts up to the second floor. The young crew finished a wall and went home. At about 3 am, a severe windgust picked it up and tossed it against the neighbouring house.
“The only thing that survived in that wall was the window,” he says.
Herb learned a big lesson the hard way when he decided all he had to do to improve his business was to increase the crew size. Double it, in fact.
“But then I realized we first needed systems and processes and a specific way to do things.”
That was a money-losing adventure. But it was a learning curve that would prove to be a core of Lagois philosophy. The lessons learned? Not to grow too quickly. To measure quality rather than volume. To have systems and processes. To do things consistently well.
Herb did design work ‒ his first love ‒ on weekends, and thus began the architectural part of the company. He worked out of his house but dreamed of having a company office building. Construction began in the 90s and took about three years to complete when they weren’t working on other projects. It was tough, because it was at a time when banks weren’t loaning to businesses and interest on a loan was 20 per cent. When he was finally able to refinance at six per cent, he says, “I felt as though we had just won the lottery.”
He had to work on developing systems and processes that were repeatable. It wasn’t overnight, but he was moving forward one big step at a time.
Herb began to document the goals that had always been in the back of his mind. He shared them with his team “so we could all go in the same direction.”
Meanwhile, the team was developing personally as well as professionally.
“We made our share of mistakes ‒ I call them learning opportunities ‒ over the years. But how else do you improve? Life has its challenges and lessons. You fall down and you pick yourself up.”
In those early days especially, Herb attributes his strength to his wife, Irene. “She has always been a great positive supporter,” he says. “When I had my not-so-good days, she was always there.”
Herb is a believer in the power of communication and transparency for building a strong team. As the company developed, it was always important to him to have his designers exposed to construction sites, even if it was as simple as helping sweep up. “It’s one thing to know what a two-by-four is. It’s another to touch one, draw one, and to understand how it’s a component of a wall.”
He calls Lagois Design-Build-Renovate a “boutique” firm. The opportunities to grow into something much larger were always there, but “I never wanted to lose that personal touch.”
Jacob’s earliest memories are as a very little boy being allowed to stay up late while his dad worked on architectural drawings. Jacob remembers having his paper and crayons and drawing along with him. He knew even then that this was what he wanted to do.
The passion never let up, even as a professional Grand National Cross-Country racer. During those years he raced for Bombardier across the United States and in Mexico.
After high school, he got ready for the career he knew he wanted from earliest beginnings. He knew education was the key to being able to enter the design/build industry with a holistic approach and philosophy, and that meant learning from every angle.
He studied construction engineering at Algonquin College in Ottawa, then heritage carpentry at the Perth campus, where he was deeply impressed with timber frame structures and fine joinery craftsmanship. Afterwards he studied architectural technology and project management.
Ready to put all his knowledge and practice to work, he began to look at reputable renovation companies in Ottawa. In 2018 he came across the Lagois website and decided to submit his resume.
The very next Saturday he received a phone call from Herb Lagois. The interview process with the team was long, but he was hired.
One of the things that had the biggest impact on him when he began with Lagois was the reaction of clients.
“I heard them share with us how we helped improve their families’ lives,” he says.
He appreciated Lagois’ community involvement, the team’s shared devotion to methods and goals, “and the unique, individual approach to solving clients’ needs”.
After several years of being part of the team, he was “excited and honored to be given the opportunity to continue the legacy”.
He has great appreciation for the company’s accomplishments and values. “There are absolute rockstars here at Lagois,” he adds. “They’re such an awesome team of professionals. Everyone cares. Everyone is determined to leave no stone unturned, to come up with solutions to accomplish homeowners’ goals… all while having fun.”
Herb began to talk about one day retiring ‒ he was always open with his team ‒ and about the idea that one of the employees might end up continuing and building on his legacy. Jacob knew this was the moment. “It had always been a goal I had set for myself,” he says, “to someday be where Herb is now.”
The new President of Lagois Design-Build-Renovate, like its founder, believes keeping the company at a small size is the answer to good teamwork and excellent relationships with clients.
“We’re a family,” Jacob says. “We share common goals. We’re personally involved in our work.” He says he learned that initially from Herb. He watched his individual approach to both staff and clients.
“I have always had a deep respect for Herb, his accomplishments, values, integrity and commitment to making a difference. These things truly resonate with me. Herb and I share similar beliefs and a core passion for our industry and community.”
Like Herb, Jacob has a great woman in his life: his wife, Sabrina. They are the delighted parents of two-year-old Dawson, whom Jacob calls “my world”. Jacob loves fishing, camping, and family time ‒ something Herb encourages.
“Herb’s always reinforcing the importance of ‘reset’ time away from work,” Jacob says. And he acknowledges that he needs that. “I try to be balanced,” he admits, “I could be here 24/7, because I love what I do.” It’s a good thing, though. He remembers that his dad always told him if you love what you’re doing “you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Herb explains there are five stages of a business.
First, a person starts one. Next, there’s a helper. Third, there’s someone who can be in charge 100 per cent of the time.
And that’s when things start to come together: sales, office manager, receptionist.
But it’s the fourth stage when critical growth begins. The company is now not reliant on the owner, so the owner can step back while the company nevertheless carries on.
In the case of Lagois, the fourth stage meant Herb could continue with sales and know everything was humming along nicely without his daily input.
“This is the hardest stage to get to,” he says. “There are a lot of businesses that shut down with the owner, and it’s fine if that’s what you want. But it’s nice to have a legacy, too, to have it continue. To do that we had to get to this point.”
It was difficult for Herb because he has always done sales in his own way, by meeting people and just being himself. But how do you pass that along? How do you tell people to just be YOU? “There was no way I could teach others how I did it,” he says.
So he had to adopt a proven sales method (in this case, the Sandler system). “It was a nightmare re-teaching myself,” he admits. “I lost a lot of sales as I was going through that learning process.”
It was painful because in the midst of it all, the company had to keep going, had to keep making sales so everyone in the company could be employed. It took a long time, he says, but now that the company had a specific sales process in writing, with measurable metrics, others could be taught. It meant the company could succeed beyond him.
“It was hard to lose money to learn something new,” he says, “but it was worth it.”
It also meant the fifth stage ‒ transition ‒ was possible.
“I always thought it would happen, but not this quickly,” says Herb. “Jacob just happened to come along.”
He says he did a lot of soul-searching before they agreed to do the transition. “It’s like birthing and raising a child to an adult and then letting it go out into the world,” he explains. “Once I got over that part, it was a no-brainer. The opportunity was there in Jacob. Jacob has the drive, the work ethic, the passion and the same values. On top of that, he’s such a polite, caring individual. He cares so much about others. I felt it was a great fit.” He added he credits Jacob’s parents for raising “such an amazing person”.
He feels that because of the systems and processes developed over the years, there is a solid foundation for Jacob to continue with measured growth.
Jacob agrees. “I appreciate the methodologies, values and goals of our company, and I know they are a cornerstone to leading our team into the future,” he says.
He is also grateful for the support and trust he has received from Herb and the whole team. He adds: “My commitment is to continue superior customer service while accomplishing our customers’ goals.”
Herb will likely stay with the company for another five years or possibly more. He will be a mentor and do some special projects. He’ll be involved in marketing when staff members don’t have time (and that’s almost always). Design is still one of his great passions, so he will stay involved in that area.
He’s pleased about the next phase of his life and career. He and Irene have a winter home in Tucson, Arizona, and they’re looking forward to having time together.
“It was such a challenge in the early days of building the company and raising three kids,” he says. “Now it’s a happy balance.”
- Written by Francie Healy