30 years and still loving it

By Francie Healy

It was the year Pierre Trudeau retired from politics, Brian Mulroney was elected prime minister, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip visited Ottawa, the Chicago White Sox defeated the Milwaukee Brewers, and Ethel Merman died.

It was also the year a young fellow by the name of Herb Lagois started a business called Lagois Drafting& Constructionthat would flourish and expand for many years into the future.

And now, in 2014, the re-named Lagois Design-Build-Renovate, Ottawa Renovation Specialists, is happily celebrating its 30th anniversary.

“It’s wild how quickly time goes,” says Herb Lagois. “I can’t believe 30 years just flew by.”

Herb started out framing houses. He loved it; he loved, still loves, carpentry. But he also loves design. He is trained as an architectural technologist.

Not surprisingly, he has learned a great deal over the past 30 years. One of the biggest learning curves was the art of business. Herb loves seeing ideas come to life, but he says he wishes he had taken business courses. It would have made life so much easier.

On the other hand, people tell him trial-by-fire learning is a good thing, because you learn by experience.

“I just could have circumvented some of those experiences,” he says with a laugh.

When Herb graduated, he worked for a builder for the summer. He thought: “I could do this!” And then he thought: “But I guess I need a truck.”

So he went looking for one without even securing financing, because he realized he could actually afford it.

But then there was the next step: finding the work.

He framed a house near Carleton Place. It went well.

“Now,” he thought, “I need a crew.”

So he put together a crew and took on a job in Picton, Ont.

As it happened, that was the worst winter Picton residents could remember. Herb had to hire one person to shovel the snow away full-time just to keep it off the materials. It was a house at the edge of a field, where the wind and snow blew mercilessly. It was so bad at one point that the snow was level with the second floor.

“I didn’t make money on that venture,” says Herb.

But the next year he had as many as 25 houses to frame.

“It was crazy,” he recalls. “Insanely long hours. But I was young and foolish. I thought all I had to do was to expand the crew.”

And that’s when he learned, the hard way, that just hiring people is not enough. You have to hire the RIGHT people. He also learned not to expand too quickly.

“Growth should be slow and measured,” he says. “The most important thing is to keep quality in mind – and what’s best for the client.”

But at that point, not having learned these critical wisdoms, he was grabbing crew members from anywhere. Herb winces at the memory of it.

“Now,” he says, “we have a very in-depth hiring and interview process.”

Bit by bit he developed the design part of the business. Design, after all, was his passion. And with hands-on experience, he knew exactly how things went together. He now exposes all his designers to construction projects so they can visualize the final result and understand the process.

The design work began to take off about three or four years later. At that point, he started planning to build an office.

“It was the height of the recession,” he says. “The banks didn’t want to lend money to businesses, so I had to go to an independent lender, and my interest rate was 20 per cent.”

It was a struggle making ends meet, especially because he had a young family to support. But he says he had great support from his wife, Irene. “She always believed in me,” he says.

There are still always challenges, of course, but it’s part of the excitement of the work, to figure out the next steps.

“There’s always a solution to a problem,” says Herb. “It’s just finding the best one.”

Despite his busy 30 years, Herb has been involved with charitable ventures. Ronald McDonald house is a big part of Lagois history. From the very start, Herb was building playhouses to be raffled off. Those alone raised about $300,000. About five or six years ago, he built, pro bono, an addition for Ronald McDonald house – a bright, sun-filledplayroom.

Lagois Design-Build-Renovate has won numerous awards over the years. Herb is modest when he talks about them. “It’s nice for our team to be recognized for all their efforts,” he says simply.

Will he retire some day?

“My goal is to retire at 70,”he says, but that will really just be to step back a bit from the company’s day-to-day operation.”  He’ll want to stay involved with design, his first love.

Does he have any regrets? Herb says no.

“But if I were to give advice to someone starting out,” he says, “I’d say take the time for your family and for yourself as well. I should have taken more time, but my focus was always business. You have to have a balance.”

Herb must have struck that balance, because he and Irene are still married with three happy grown-up kids in their 30s.

“When I reflect back on it,” he says, “I think just getting up in the morning and being happy going to work is success in itself.”