Apr 01, 2021

HAPPY 70th!

I am posting this blog on April Fools’ Day, EllisDon’s seventieth birthday. Years ago, I asked my Dad why he chose such an obviously awkward date, and he replied that everybody told him he was crazy to start his own business, so it just seemed to fit. It was a good line, maybe just a bit too cute. What actually was happening in early 1951? Details are sketchy, we rarely looked back in our family, but I did pick up some tidbits along the way.

At the beginning of 1951, Don Smith was a twenty-six year old construction Superintendent - a fair accomplishment in itself - in London, Ontario, having been transferred there by The Foundation Company of Canada (that company later built the CN Tower). ‘DJ’ was a depression era kid, whose father died when he was very young. His mother Florence raised the family working as a sales clerk at Eaton’s College, though I never once heard anyone use her given name. Somewhere along the way, she had picked up the nickname ‘The Whip’, and that’s what everyone called her. I have no idea whether it was sarcasm or not; her kids were by all accounts a rambunctious group, but she was the sweetest woman you could ever meet. Until she died at 85, her twenty-eight odd grandchildren called her ‘GrammaWhip’, like it was the most normal name in the world. I digress. Don’s asthma kept him from the war (thank God), and he had a tremor in his hands which made his handwriting mostly illegible. All in all, not exactly a rock solid starting point.

Don’s account was that early in 1951, Foundation Company’s Area Vice President came to his site to let him know that some of the profits from that project would be ‘reallocated’ to other London projects, so that all the Area projects looked profitable. The twenty-six year old Superintendent told the VP that would not be happening, that all the profits earned on his project would be accounted for on his project, and that if the VP had problems with his other people, he should be dealing with them directly rather than hiding their losses. His boss suggested that Don perhaps didn’t understand; Don replied that he wasn’t the one who lacked proper understanding - and apparently that was pretty much that for his budding career at the esteemed Foundation Company. Had you ever met EllisDon’s founder, you wouldn’t doubt for a minute the veracity of that story.

Other than our odd inauguration date, it’s not precisely clear how things immediately proceeded from there. On our fortieth anniversary in 1991, Don and a bunch of us got together for a celebratory picture on the front lawn of EllisDon’s very first project, the Northdale Public School. But about five years ago, I was approached by a very ancient lady at a function in Toronto, who asked me if I was Don Smith’s son. After checking to ensure she was unarmed, I confirmed that fact, and she reported “I gave your father his very first project.” “Really!” I said, perhaps a tad insincerely. “Yes. It was an addition to our home on Highland Ave. We normally used those Hayman fellows, but your Dad and his brother seemed like such nice boys, we thought we’d give them a chance. And they did a very good job.”

Now, Highland Ave was just a couple of blocks from where we grew up, but in another country in terms of economic prosperity. I chatted for a while with the nice woman, assuming the whole time that she was delusional. But when I asked my Mom about it later, she said this was exactly right. “Then why all that crap about Northdale?” Mom just shrugged, like it was an uncommonly boring question.

There is no doubt that EllisDon latched on to the fifties’ baby boom school building spree, and also on to the post war immigration boom, in a big hurry. I later got to know well a very early employee named Rolf Heyking. Rolf was a Latvian refugee who had gotten drafted by the German army as an ambulance driver, and shipped to an African air base. Rolf could only move his wounded cargo at night, in total darkness, in order to keep the base hidden from air raids. He thought that was all pretty terrifying until he later ended up on the Russian front. Anyway, after the war, he was able to make his way to London, and he found out that there was this new company hiring pretty much anyone. So he showed up at EllisDon’s ramshackle office in the lower downtown and inquired of the nice woman behind the counter as to his prospects for employment. A voice from a small office bellowed “Do you have tools?” “Yes”, Rolf lied. “Do you have a car?” “Yes” Rolf lied again. “Then show up at Medway School on Monday and go to work!”

The nice lady behind the counter was the aforementioned (Gramma)Whip. The booming voice belonged to Don’s partner, my Uncle David Ellis Smith. Apparently our Human Resource and Skills Training protocols were still in their nascent stages. Rolf stayed with the company nearly fifty years, finishing off his career as General Superintendent in Calgary. (Just by the way, Ellis was also Whip’s maiden name. Much later, I asked my dad why they chose that name. “Everyone knows the origin, but it still seems like a goofy name for a company.” DJ had a quick answer: “We were drinking.”)

We met all sorts of these guys growing up, every one with a story. EllisDon’s second or third employee was a labourer named Jerry Zerdzicki. Jerry had an easy laugh, and was always nice to me as a kid, but years after I learned his nickname was ‘Jerry The Knife’. Now I’m certain that Jerry wasn’t any kind of a criminal, but he might have had a bit of a temper. Whispering Sid was a company legend. Mr. Square was a German boxing champion, and his presence could be felt on the site before he got out of his car. These men went anywhere, and they built everything. Many of them had a bit of an edge, and more than once had to be bailed out of the drunk tank in some distant town in order to get to the site the next morning. Motel repair bills were a common project expense. But some of them, like the venerable Vern Bailey, were soft spoken, bemused by all the chaos, and quietly brilliant. The years passed, the company kept growing, careening from prosperity to near collapse and back again.

Decades later, we made a documentary about the early days and that entrepreneurial spirit, in the hope that we wouldn’t lose it. The film was produced and directed by the estimable Sarah Martin, CBC veteran and Don’s granddaughter. We were able to premiere the final edit at the old Eglinton Theatre, a few blocks from where Whip raised her family. At one crucial moment in the film, one of Don’s great Superintendents, Bob Campbell, suggests that Don’s was determined from the outset to be the top builder in Canada. The camera immediately cuts to Don who says “No, I never had that ambition at all”, and the whole theatre – filled with Don’s family, work associates and close friends - erupted in laughter. It was an awkward moment, but I had laughed too. For a guy like Don, as ambitious and determined a person as you could meet, the response seemed preposterous.

But thinking about it now, I’m feeling bad about that outburst. On April Fools’ Day, 1951, a week after his twenty-seventh birthday, Don Smith had a brand new company, a one and a half year old daughter and a pregnant wife, in a town they didn’t really know. Obviously he didn’t lack for guts, but he was probably scared half to death. My mom too, no doubt. But then, you just never know what might happen.

So happy 70th to both of them, to Rolf, and Whispering Sid, Jerry the Knife, and Mr. Square. Especially to Vern and Kathleen Bayley, and to all of those people that led the way. And to all of us too, who are creating our own adventures in 2021.

And thanks to you. And thanks for reading.