By Ted McIntyre

We are seated by the front window in the new Crabby Joe’s in the east end of Stratford as the lunch crowd begins to filter in, and John Meinen is relating childhood memories from his family farm in nearby Carlingford—a swine operation augmented with extensive cornfields and more than 10 acres of turnips. “One day, around the age of four or five, I got run over by a turnip wagon,” Meinen relates. “So when people say, ‘What—did you just fall off the turnip truck?’ I say, ‘No, but I did get run over by it once.’”

It’s part of Meinen’s charm. For our 90-minute interview, OHBA’s incoming president is engaging, unguarded and brutally honest on all subjects, including the limits of his formal education. Like a bucking bronco awaiting the rodeo gate to open, Meinen quit school one day in Grade 10 to enter the workforce full time. “It just wasn’t for me,” he says. “I didn’t have time to spend another two and a half years in school. I couldn’t wait to physically work with my hands.”

But make no mistake—the pinnacle of learning for the man behind Stratford-based Pinnacle Quality Homes is always a day away. Meinen has continually gleaned knowledge from his mentors and the competition in climbing the ladder to one of his region’s most successful home builders—an ascension that started early. Although his parents moved to B.C. when John was 16, Meinen had his own house framing company by the time he was 18. Four years later, in 1982, he returned to Ontario to reconnect with—and marry—childhood friend Arlene Koskamp, who grew up on her family farm just three kilometres away from John and his 10 siblings.

Life wasn’t easy for the newlyweds, each the offspring of Dutch immigrants. “Arlene and I had a hog farm until I was 25,” Meinen remembers. “She was often looking after the farm while I was living in trailers and such, working for a company that built bridges in small towns across Southwest Ontario. I also framed hard-core until 1997-98—there came a point where we were doing 90% of all the framing in Stratford. In 1998, I bought two lots and started Pinnacle Homes. We’ve since built roughly 200 custom homes in the Stratford area and have never missed a closing date. That’s something I’m very proud of.”

Today, Pinnacle is very much a family affair. “We have three full-time staff and a supervisor—my son-in-law Nevin Dow,” says Meinen. “On the sales side, it’s my real estate agent son-in-law Darryl Guetter. And my son Nathan, who spent three and a half years in construction technology management at Fanshawe, is now working for me. And my eldest daughter, Lisa, has her own painting business and paints all Pinnacle homes.”

And what of Arlene? “I seem to be in charge of anything I stick my nose into. Looking back 20 years, maybe I should have played dumb and I’d now be going golfing or to the gym,” she laughs. “But no, that’s not the way we grew up. Our parents were immigrants and we saw how hard they worked. So it’s pretty natural for us.”

“Arlene is very much in check with all the quality control,” says John. “She has a cleaning staff, but there’s not a house that Pinnacle closes that Arlene is not the last one through. She also singlehandedly takes care of the office.”

“Arlene is extremely supportive of John’s endeavours and very thorough. Together they make a pretty dynamic team,” says Stratford-based builder Larry Otten, proprietor of Larry Otten Contracting. Otten, whose parents also emigrated from Holland, has spent virtually his entire his life growing up in the company of Meinen, and knows that his friend’s legendary charisma will serve him well at the helm of the Ontario Home Builders Association.

“I watched John when he was president of the Stratford and Area Builders’ Association for three different terms,” says Otten. “He has an infectious personality in how he communicates and shares his excitement. He has an ability to motivate people that far exceeds the norm, whether increasing memberships or with other causes that Stratford has been involved with, such as spearheading a home for United Way or the Anne Hathaway Park splash pad.”

While some are adept at getting soldiers to follow them into battle, Meinen can recruit entire armies, says Otten, who succeeded Meinen’s last term as SABA president in 2012—the year Meinen reeled in his second straight OHBA Rooftopper of the Year award as the province’s top membership recruiter. “John has the ability to mobilize people and get them to buy in. And he leads by example,” Otten says of OHBA’s 2011 Member of the Year. “John doesn’t demand things of people where he doesn’t come to the plate with even more himself.”

As OHBA’s 2nd vice-president in 2012/2013, Meinen headed up the formation of both the Bluewater and Oxford Home Builders’ Associations. But the remaining potential for membership growth across the province drives Meinen to distraction. “What angers me is that we have this association that works full-time and a staff that fights issues on a daily basis for this industry, and whether you’re a plumber, electrician or builder, you are part of this industry,” he says. “So we have members who are paying $1,000 a year to be part of this organization and everyone else piggybacking off  them. ‘Be a member and help pay the freight’—that’s my message everywhere, and it usually works well.”

There’s also the simple economics of the matter, Meinen notes. “There are big issues and we need to attract people who have the qualifications to fight some of these,” he told OHB magazine in 2012. “And more revenues mean we can hire the best people to fight the major and complex battles.”

Challenges ahead

One of those issues facing OHBA is the imposing shortage of skilled trades. “I try to convince our youth that a college or university degree is not necessarily the be-all and end-all,” Meinen says. “In Southwestern Ontario, 75-80% of our economic activity is still groomed by small business and entrepreneurship. And there’s still a lot of room left to grow. We’re going to be short 30,000 skilled trade workers in the next 10 years. That tells me we’re not doing our job as a governing body and industry to entice skilled trades. But we also have a problem with setting a ratio of three journeyman to get an apprentice. The small mom-and-pop operations don’t have three journeyman; some don’t have any. So I think there are a lot of barriers when it comes to young people in this industry, and that has to change.

“You want to redo your bathroom? Your plumber can’t nail in a 16-inch block to hold up a pipe; you have to hire a carpenter. And the average licensed carpenter in Southwestern Ontario is 61 years old,” Meinen continues. “You know what making carpentry compulsory on a jobsite will do? Kill the industry!

“So while we have a looming shortage of skilled trades, and of kids wanting to grow up doing physical labour, we also have able-bodied 22-year-olds sitting at home because the ratio isn’t right.”

Meinen claims not to have a specific agenda for his coming term, but expect him to stand up for OHBA’s smaller members. “John respects the GTA and Toronto, but sees the uniqueness in the rest of Ontario and wants to make sure a policy adopted by any government for the GTA doesn’t hurt rural Ontario,” Otten notes. “He’s bringing a balance to that dance.”

“I am not a GTA president,” Meinen says. “I’m the guy out here for you, fighting to change the apprenticeship ratios, who will help and support small locals, because small still matters to me. All I know is that there are more than two dozen files OHBA has been working on, and my hope is that I can play an important role in resolving the issues to a certain point where we can put them away. I’d be very happy at the end of my presidency if I can say 50% of them are done and on the shelf. That being said, we will likely have many new issues crop up in the coming year that will also need to be addressed.”

The good news is that Meinen is no shrinking violet. “He enjoys the spotlight,” Otten concedes, “and he knows how to work the crowd. When John’s in the room, everyone’s knows it. He’s gonna make his way around and touch everyone in a way that leaves an impression on them, whether it’s with politicians or building ongoing or new relationships with the locals. Nobody feels like they’re being passed by or being taken for granted.

“John is strongly outspoken, but he does it in a way that doesn’t offend people or jeopardize relationships,” Otten adds. “That’s a really rare attribute.”

“During the past few years, I’ve met with a lot of politicians, and their political stripe doesn’t matter; I get along with every one of them and we communicate well,” says Meinen. “That dialogue is beneficial, locally, at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa. Three years ago, numerous MPs on the Hill didn’t even know who the CHBA was. That dialogue is going to continue to benefit the industry for years to come.”

And Meinen can even do so bilingually! “Six months ago, I was at an event at Queen’s Park with Premier Wynne and discovered she spoke Dutch, so she and I carried on in fluent Dutch for five or 10 minutes!”

Life in the fast lane

We’re midway into lunch at Crabby Joe’s, and if Meinen’s typical frenetic pace seems to have a little rocket fuel added to it, he can be forgiven. He is fresh from the SABA Awards of Distinction the previous evening, where Pinnacle Homes’ haul included five crowns, capped by Arlene’s Al McLean Memorial Award for the greatest contribution to the association, an honour John shared with her in 2011.

“This morning, all my awards went on social media, and different associations are already retweeting,” smiles Meinen, whose Facebook, Instagram and two Twitter accounts are testament to his appreciation of modern communication channels. He was, in fact, likely the first person in the Stratford region to own a cell phone.

“It was 1984, and it cost me $2,900!” Meinen recalls. “It wasn’t portable; it was wired in to the truck—a big box under the seat. Back in my framing days, when the phone rang, the car horn would go off and I’d have to jump down off the roof to get it. But I quickly learned that communication was key in any successful business. When I bought that phone in ’84, people thought I was crazy. But man, could I stay organized. It was the most amazing piece of technology—great for organization and saving time.”

It’s all a matter of efficiency, he says. “My theory is that life is only so long, and so many things to do and see,” he says. “Do it fast.”

That would explain the turbocharged 2015 GMC Denali diesel heavy duty pickup sitting in the restaurant parking lot—“The thing flies,” he says—as well the decked-out gunmetal-grey, seven-speed, 2014 C7 Stingray Corvette in the driveway at home. “Zero to 100 kph in 3.7 seconds,” Meinen observes.

It sounds suspiciously like the speed of a typical John Meinen workday. “I’m not good at sitting still,” he confesses. “I could be sitting on the deck with a beer, and it’ll come to my mind that we should put up a gazebo. And within 48 hours I’ll have it completed.”

Assigning Meinen any task is sort of like dropping a steak bone into the mouth of a pit bull: you can consider it done, says Otten. “He’s relentless. I’ve seen him overcome a lot of adversity because he just refuses to quit.“

“I do pretty good under pressure,” says Meinen, who will have Tribute Communities Executive VP of Acquisitions & Land Development Neil Rodgers backing him up in the vice-presidential role for the coming year.

As many challenges as there are facing that talented twosome and the rest of the OHBA staff, Meinen gives a nod to the momentum the industry has gained in recent years. “For one, I think we have a better handle on health and safety, as admittedly bureaucratic as it can get every now and then,” Meinen says. “Another thing that’s been a big bonus for the industry is the impact that local associations and the provincial association have had on their communities. And the dialogue we have now with municipal and provincial leaders compared to 10-15 years ago is far better.”

Meinen’s eyes light up whenever the topic turns to communication, and his own door is always open for industry associates. A regular speaker at regional association functions, his advice is routinely sought out by fellow members.

“He may not have a university degree, but when John speaks, everybody is attentive,” says Arlene. “And they all get the message.