BuzzBuzzHome Corp.
March 23, 2011

In this week’s Buzz Talk we catch up with Don Pugh, Vice-President at The Daniels Corporation. We caught up with Don at FirstHome Destination Drive in Mississauga, the second phase of which will open this spring. Our conversation revolved around a program near and dear to Don’s heart – Daniels FirstHome.

FirstHome combines a more achievable deposit structure, incentive-driven low monthly carrying costs, and partnerships with financial institutions that makes qualifying for a mortgage more accessible, to help individuals, couples, and families from all walks of life get a foothold in the housing industry. (To learn more about the program before reading the interview, click here.)

Enjoy!

BuzzBuzzHome: First off, how did you find yourself involved in the development industry?

Don Pugh: Actually, I had no idea I was getting into the industry. I grew up on the West Coast, in a little town called Nanaimo [learn more from Wikipedia], and always thought that I was going to work in a lumber mill (which I eventually did, in fact, part-time).

But the economy went into the tank in the late ’80s and I was moving around a bit and met a guy in Kelowna – he was old, he was 40! [laughs] – who was a construction site supervisor. He eventually moved to Ontario but before he left I said, if you’ve got a job, call me. And sure enough he called and offered me a job as a labourer.

I was fortunate to get involved in an industry that was growing quickly and that I truly loved to be in. No day is the same as the last, and no day turns out to be what you thought it was going to be.

BBH: You’ve worked with the Daniels FirstHome projects from the first one right through to today. What were the initial projects like?

DP: Ten years ago we started developing purpose-built rental because we felt there was a need for that product and it was the right time in our corporate growth to start thinking about those sorts of things. So, we started building townhouse communities, in Mississauga, primarily, with a goal to have rental communities.

As we started doing that we soon realized that it was integrated into our corporate mandate and that there was opportunity to help first-time home-buyers, so we introduced something called HIP [the Homeowner Investment Program] which is still alive and thriving. So, through HIP we had a base of clientele who were building up credit to be able to buy an entry-level home and we, as a company, thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to be able to provide them with that product and at the same time pursue our interest in increasing density in the interest of sustainability?’

And so we had a piece of land at Mavis and Eglinton, and four or five years ago started building a project as a rental community but then asked ourselves if it was something we could take to the marketplace. So we thought ‘we’ll build it, and then, instead of renting it, we’ll sell it.’ And people thought we were nuts! But we did it and the interest, almost immediately, was phenomenal.

As we started preparations for the opening event (which was to be held on a Saturday), we had people wandering around the site by Thursday and a full-fledged line-up by Friday. At that point we were going, ‘OK, now what do we do?’

So that was Heritage Hills, our teeth-cutting project. We didn’t actually brand Daniels FirstHome until the next community. And from there it was a classic snowball effect.

BBH: As you mentioned,the logistics of the opening day must be quite a challenge in themselves.

DP: Well, part of the challenge is dealing with what can, obviously, be a very emotional experience. We’ve learned a lot about how to help people manage the experience. Often people are not prepared for unexpected things and dynamics. But, yes, it’s an event where literally thousands of people show up and so it has to be managed as such.

We learned quickly that you need washrooms, you need shelter, you need to have water – bottles show up by the skid load every day! – and you need to feed people, too. The first time, as we realized people in line were getting hungry, we ordered pizza. Sure enough it took four delivery cars to bring all the food. Now, we’ve moved on to barbecues.

We also decided that Friday nights was a good time to have a chat with everybody and ease them into the action of Saturday, so we host a raffle on Fridayday night and give away cordless drills and restaurant cards and stuff. Roger’s also got involved and so now we combine the raffle with a movie for the kids. It just really evolved into this fantastic event.

BBH: You would imagine this helps foster a sense of community from day one. . .

DP: Exactly, we end up with people who have an emotional attachment not only to their home but to the community – and they know their neighbours, before they’ve even bought a home. We just could not have imagined the impact on people’s lives that this program has been able to have. And obviously it feeds a need to keep doing it, and to keep building and growing the project.

One of my favourite FirstHome stories is from the Erin Mills project: We had decided to introduce paid-duty police officers for people’s safety, and to allay certain concerns. So we had a young officer who must have been about 6’8” who was working on Saturday, which was, by the way, very hot. The food people arrived and were unloading their gear and so we sent over the officers just to make sure everything went smoothly – which it did. But, as I’m chatting with a woman who was there to buy a home for her son, I sensed a hush. I looked over and this very tall cop, in uniform, is playing soccer with these little kids – and everybody, including many new Canadians, are watching. It struck me: we’re in a situation where many of the people have come from environments of deep distrust of police and authorities in general, and here we’ve witnessed community-based policing at its best.

An example is set right off the bat, and it bodes so well for the community going forward. One little moment speaks volumes about ownership and responsibility and community.

BBH: Why are you personally so passionate about this program?

DP: It’s an experience that just goes far beyond sticks and mortars. It’s about the basics: serving people who genuinely need and appreciate quality housing, some of whom come from backgrounds where it has been lacking – often within the boundaries of our own country. It’s a way to break out of the compartmentalization of our profession – like any profession, you can sometimes become detached, and this program denies us that ability.

BBH: Where do you see the FirstHome program in, say, a decade?

DP: Well my colleagues and I are continually looking for land that makes sense for FirstHome. We have some basic criteria: first, it has to be big enough to support the minimum 150 homes or so that we need to make it work; second, being near public transit is important; and further, proximity to established schools and shopping centres is also a big plus.

But as we move forward, the biggest challenge is keeping the essence of FirstHome alive. It’s easy to get carried away and lose the balance between continually wanting to improve the projects – whether it be from a design or materials stand-point – and keeping it affordable. For example, in one of the communities coming up we’re actually going to try to introduce solar energy into the mix to help mitigate increases in the community’s operating costs. Every little thing helps. . .

BBH: So, then, what constitutes the best kind of day in your position?

DP: Of course, any day that you go home tired and rewarded is a good day. This will sound corny because I know you’re supposed to be full of bravado in this business but the best days are when somebody comes up to you and gives you a hug, or a little kid walks up to you and says “we just bought a house and we want a picture with you in front of the house”. . . [pause] You just can’t buy that.

Our thanks to Don for talking the time to chat with us – and stay tuned for more buzz on Daniels FirstHome DestinationDrive Phase 2 in the next few weeks.

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