By John Kernaghan

For the company it’s a powerful marketing tool. For the staff it’s a pat on the back; praise for a job well done. We’re talking about builder awards, and the call for submissions for the annual OHBA Awards of Distinction has gone out.

If anyone has had second thoughts about whether to enter simply needs to have a brief conversation with Brian Johnston. The president of Monarch Corporation, a past winner of a number of OHBA awards including Ontario Home Builder of the Year, says winning an award is more about recognizing the team, and good for staff morale.

“I think it is worth entering. It really is about demonstrating senior management’s or the owner’s belief that the company is creating or marketing in a way that they are proud of. In other words, it validates, in a tangible way, the direction the company is moving in,” Johnston suggests.

Whether the win translates into more sales may be debatable. In fact, the only awards he would publicize are Home Builder of the Year or Project of the Year – the “big ones.”

“Personally, I think they validate, for a buyer, their purchase decision. But I don’t think they drive sales to any great extent, since where one chooses to live is almost entirely based on location, price and product design.”

Builder or Project of the Year, however, do require an enormous commitment to the craft and a passion for the industry. Builders who have won in the past have demonstrated numerous qualities that had to be pulled together to create a remarkable package — innovation, customer service, creative marketing and a dedication to consistently build high-quality homes.

Ontario Home Builder approached some past winners to learn their secrets for success. Whether it was a desire to keep those secrets close to their chest or just a sincere modesty, these builders claimed the steps to top recognition in the industry were reasonably simple. Their advice is to believe in what you are doing, build with passion and look after your customers. Simple in theory perhaps, but in practice the strides required to receive such high praise are challenging. Yet, establishing a clear plan and sticking to it seems to be the answer.

“It’s not magic,” notes Jessica Clinesmith, vice-president of sales and marketing at Mattamy Homes. She points to Mattamy’s  OHBA Ontario Home Builder of the Year honours in 2006, 2008 and 2011 and says it is more about consistency powered by the passion of the staff.

“One good word is passion. We’re passionate about what we do and that we’re doing the right thing.”

This is the fourth “P” added to Mattamy founder and president Peter Gilgan’s mantra of “product, process and people.”

Clinesmith says it is hard to identify and single out a trend or innovation that puts a builder over the top in an award competition. It’s more the ability to deliver high quality products reliably over time and, in Mattamy’s case, centre on creating communities and collections of neighbourhoods, not soulless subdivisions.

“From design of the community to house design, we want to encourage interaction between people.”

One aspect that has helped knit newcomers together, Clinesmith explained, is front porches in homes that get people out of backyards and engaging with neighbours.

“I’m not convinced it’s one thing that wins an award,” said Sid Kerrigan, president of 2010 OHBA Ontario Home Builder of the Year, Brookfield Homes. “I think long-term excellence is part of it. We’ve been in the business a long time and dedicated to brand development.”

Kerrigan said Brookfield doesn’t fear setting the bar extremely high and meeting the challenge to deliver on its promises. He feels one sweeping factor in the 2010 win was the exceptional footprint Brookfield operated in during that period.

“We had projects from Oshawa to Brantford to Niagara-on-the-Lake, one of the few to have that reach in 2010.” That meant delivering many different floor plans on a wide variety of lot sizes in as many as 20 separate municipalities, a huge challenge.

Jim Ritchie, senior vice-president of sales and marketing for condo builder Tridel, believes consistent excellence of products and service to consumers were likely the keys to the 2009 OHBA Ontario Home Builder of the Year award. “We simply want to be the first choice for people and that means connecting with them at many touchpoints.”

In fact, Tridel has a program of 40 touchpoints with consumers from first contact to well beyond closing of the condominium. The key point of contact is moving in, and Ritchie says, “We like the hotel-finished concept; that the sidewalks are in and elevators are working. That is not so typical in our industry.”

Meanwhile, Johnston feels that simple respect for a company building homes since 1936 may have factored into the 2003 OHBA Ontario Home Builder of the Year Award. That said, he thinks Monarch has been at or near the front in terms of land development and design, possibly another reason for the honour.

“We try to do the little things well and enjoy high consumer satisfaction. We’re in this for the long haul, so it’s not a good idea to nickel-and-dime anyone in the supply chain.”

While past winners agree consistency and excellence are the bedrock of their businesses, they are divided on trends like marketing via social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Kerrigan says Brookfield Homes is fully in, having hired a communications executive two years ago who has a strong social-media background.

And Ritchie stresses Tridel has a digital journalist on staff who writes stories and updates regularly for social media as well as a website,, which offers lifestyle articles and advice from designers.

Mattamy is taking a wait-and-see approach, offers Clinesmith. “We don’t believe we need it (social media) to sell houses, but we believe we have to be in it. But we want to do it right with dedicated staff.”

Monarch’s Johnston admits he is skeptical at this point. “It seems more a presence than marketing. When someone says they ‘Like’ something on Facebook — will they buy? No one can answer that.”

Here Comes the Judge

Award-winning advice direct from the source — a judge. Ramsin Khachi of KHACHI Design Group suggests:

  1. Address every point of the submission guidelines.
  2. Style your spaces before photographing.
  3. Try to maintain consistent camera angles on before-and-after photos.
  4. Submit photos of details that can influence judging.
  5. 5. Keep descriptions brief but very informative.

The bottom line is if you don’t enter, you can’t win. And you could be missing out on an important morale booster for staff and a bragging point with current and potential homeowners.

To learn more about OHBA’s Awards of Distinction please visit

The Advertising Spin

Awards can be a powerful tool to differentiate your company from the competition. This is how advertising experts suggest you make the most of your win.

  1. Tell the media. Use PR to ensure all media outlets pertinent to your market know about your win. Get them primed by announcing you are a finalist. That alone is a bragging point.
  2. Celebrate with your current homeowners. Make sure you communicate the good news with current homeowners. They are proud to own one of your homes and will tell family and friends about the success of their builder.
  3. If you win for a room design and that room still exists in a model home — invite current owners and the public at large to come view your award-winning kitchen. The idea is to build traffic.
  4. Make your win part of your ongoing marketing — website, brochures, press releases, etc. Find a way to highlight the win in your sales office. It might be as simple as a framed poster with all your wins; even finalist placements are worth mentioning.
  5. Put your awards on display. If it is your first win, park the trophy on your reception desk for all to see. As you collect more, perhaps a display case is the ticket. Everyone who walks into your office should know you are an award-winning builder.

Strategies That Win Awards

  1. Passion.
    Create an environment where every employee has an emotional investment in the housing product. That passion rubs off on consumers, too.
  2. Set the bar high.
    Don’t fear lofty aims. Challenge your team to meet higher expectations.
  3. Communicate.
    Create as many touchpoints as possible with the homebuyer and maintain communication beyond the point at which the new homeowner occupies the home.
  4. Create neighbourhoods, not subdivisions.
    Planning and home design should aim to connect people and activities in a new community.
  5. Think green.
    It’s the right thing to do, but it needs to be done right, not as a gimmick but as a sustainable component of new housing.

Originally published in Ontario Home Builder – Trends 2012.