While industry analysts, consultants and business school curriculums go deep to dissect and analyze the complex formula for achieving business success, one Calgary company is both an innovative example and a resounding testimonial about the simple but complex secret of business success: family.
For Cal Wenzel the founder, CEO and CVO (chief visionary officer) and Shane Wenzel the president of Calgary’s Shane Homes Group of Companies —one of Alberta’s most successful, best known and most respected builders—hard work, a vision, uncompromised values, a love of community and attention to detail, business success is proudly a generational thing.
“Not only our immediate family but our staff and our customers,” says the high-energy Shane Wenzel with enthusiastic emphasis. “It all matters, a lot. It’s what has brought us to where we are. We have always placed the customer at the top of our organizational chart. We’re building a legacy. Of course things change. Business consumer trends and the market change. And we have to change with the times. We are now very much a full-service company, building quality homes, land development and building entire communities.”
Cal Wenzel embraces the many industry and community changes but looks back with pride on how far Shane Homes has come and the reputation it continues to earn. He remembers the excitement and motivational achievement of selling four homes in the company’s first year. Cal and then partner Barry Basillie founded Shane Homes, rolling-up their sleeves to help with the digging, the framing, the clean-up, the painting and even sales.
“We were a two-person team with no staff for the first couple of years,” the affable Cal Wenzel recalls. “On Saturdays and Sundays, we intentionally worked on the front of the house so people would notice us. When they stopped, got out of their car and walked up to us to ask who the builders were, we switched into sales mode.”
The rest, as the cliché has it, is Calgary business history. Fast forward 41 years and Shane Homes has a loyal staff of 90 and has built more than 13,000 new homes, and active in 10 Calgary communities and two in Airdrie.
The affable 77 year old Wenzel is still up at 5 a.m. each day and shudders “If I retired, I wouldn’t have a clue what to do! Besides, the fact that Shane was willing to take over the company as president, working the day-by-day was, by far, my most memorable achievement. He worked his way up and earned it. I’m still accused of meddling a bit but I have pulled back. The company does extremely well.”
Like most Calgary-based businesses, Shane Homes is focused and looking forward but also practical about navigating business speedbumps in a slightly altered and much different Calgary business climate than ever before. Not only dealing with unexpected broadsides like the lockdown and a cautious re-opening but basic and constant industry factors like the economy, employment, consumer confidence and market trends.
“When it comes to consumer trends, it’s always tricky to guess and speculate but the changes about what consumers are looking for is interesting and very exciting,” the personable Shane Wenzel says. “There is still very much a shift toward green and environmentally friendly aspects, but the biggest factor is technology. People want to be able to connect. They expect smart home solutions in their homes and their lives, like USB ports, smart thermostats and controls, cameras for the front door and other tech features.”
“There was already a growing trend—and the COVID lockdown may have pushed people deeper—into the priority of living in their homes more. A few years ago, re-sale value was an important factor but now people are opting for features that are part of their lifestyle, spending more time living—-and working—in the house more than ever before. Working from home is an increasingly popular trend and the lockdown may have just escalated it. Calgary is the capitol of home-based businesses and that impacts the kinds of homes people are looking for.”
As for most new home builders, social trends and demographics are important factors. “We’re definitely noticing more family members and generations—multi-generational families—opting to live under one roof,” he notes. “Everyone has a different, personalized definition of value and there is an emphasis on the large and personalized space.”
From enlarging square footage, moving walls and separate entrances to elaborate ensuites, multiple kitchens and oversized walk-in pantries, Shane Homes does a lot of customization. Cal explains that it’s a uniquely Canadian factor of new home building that Canadian builders have always done more customization than American builders.
“Thanks to the internet, buyers are more informed than ever,” he points out. “One of our buyers opted for 106 changes!” A recent example of the multi-generational home buyer happened last month, when the Shane Homes sold a new home with three complete Master Bedroom suites.
“Every year we review our models,” Shane explains. “We cancel some models and layouts and include some new designs. Being up to date with what consumers want is crucial. It sets us apart.”
Both father and son are cautiously optimistic about the one critical business factor they can’t do much about: consumer confidence. “We’re looking at the trends and projects and, although it may take about a year longer than some people think, the rebound will happen,” Shane says. “Of course it can’t all be blamed on COVID-19 because, until about five years ago, we had a very confident province with confident consumers. The economy, jobs and Calgary life was booming. People are more cautious now, about the world, the Calgary economy and their jobs.”
Cal adds “Let’s face it. Especially in our industry, without consumer confidence there are no sales and no business. And for the here and now, this is an oil and gas business market. Despite the great hopes for the future of renewable energies, Calgary relies on oil and gas for employment and for our economy. That’s reality. Hopefully governments will realize that until renewables are truly viable alternatives, fossil fuels will continue to drive the economy.”
Being a plugged-in business leader has its disadvantages. “My head is ready explode with all the economist reports and analysis,” Shane says. “Making sense of the numbers, charts and forecasts, we’re fairly sure 2021 will be about the same as this year has been and likely a solid recovery and upswing by 2022.”
Cal echoes the business logic guess. “I’m not so sure if we’re at the bottom yet.
I talked with Jason Kenney about it and asked him about an end-game and when he thought it’s actually going to turn. There’s a possibility that the business we’re getting now is simply pent-up demand. Maybe next year we’ll have stability, not a take-off, and in good shape by 2022.
“Calgary has always been a cyclical business market. The economy has always had its ups and downs. When the slump hit about five years ago, having to let staff go was a huge hurt. We are fortunate to have the best staff! We care deeply about our people and some had been with us for 25-30 years. It was a terrible time,” he added with emotion.
The Shane Homes Group of Companies—its staff and the Wenzel family—continue as tireless boosters and passionate supporters of the Calgary community. “A vital part of business is paying-it-forward,” Shane points out. “There most definitely has to be a balance. Of course it’s important for a business to make a profit but it’s equally important to give back to the community. It’s how a business becomes a legacy. Giving back is a very important part of our company’s core values.
“We are strong supporters of causes that promote health, wellness and education and causes that help change Calgary lives for the better. And as a business, I think our staff want to work for a company with a conscience.”
The Calgary-boosting father and son dynamic duo is reluctant about recognition and details about their extensive giving-back but the list is long: from the first donation to Calgary’s Ronald McDonald House, 20 years of working with trades and suppliers to design and build homes at cost for the Calgary Children’s Hospital Home Lottery, the company’s $3.5 million donation to build the new Shane Homes YMCA at Rocky Ridge and the company being part of the Calgary home builder group which formed the Resolve Foundation to help vulnerable and homeless Calgarians. Cal credits his wife Edith for her commitment and passion and managing the Cal Wenzel Family Foundation. “There are some great causes in our community.”
Sometimes business-speak mentions ROI on philanthropy. “No such thing!” Shane says emphatically. “It doesn’t exist! And it’s never, ever, the way we approach it. You give back because there is a need. The ROI is just a very good feeling.” Cal adds that he got the concept of giving back from his parents. “They always reminded me, ‘Don’t ever forget, it’s not all yours. You must give some back.’ ”
Now that three generations work in the company, Shane admits that, occasionally, the lines between family and work do get blurred. “When we all get together there are 22 of us and only six of us work in the company. It’s not like an episode of Dallas,” he laughs. “When one of us lapses into shop talk, the others let us know real fast.”
Contrary to the familiar disclaimer that “it’s only business, not personal,” Cal and Shane Wenzel and the Shane Group of Companies are glowing contradictions. The hard work is personal. The vision and the focus are personal. The customer relationships are personal. The legacy is personal. And the passion for community is personal.