By Ted McIntyre
Incoming OHBA President Bob Schickedanz checks all the boxes
On the list of things Bob Schickedanz likes to do, talking about himself is right up there with shoving bamboo shoots up his fingernails. Seated for a lunch interview at Toronto’s Airport Keg, the 61-year-old partner at FarSight Homes is decidedly uncomfortable recounting his lifetime of accomplishments, and almost apologetic for what he deems as an uneventful personal bio.
Indeed, Bob Schickedanz has climbed no mountains nor cheated death during some exotic adventure. But do not mistake the absence of a spicy past for a full and flavourful life.
Founded in 2000 by brother Rick, FarSight Homes, which Bob runs alongside Rick and his sons Johnathan and David, has flourished from a foundation of more than 35 years of fruitful home building experience. But the family business may have actually had its genesis 75 years ago in the Lithuanian town of Kurdikos Naumiestis. Situated in the previously German province of East Prussia, Neustadt Schirwindt had the historical misfortune of lying along the Russian border. Devastated and then rebuilt after World War I, residents of the rural community in 1944 knew it was only a matter of time before Russian troops laid waste to the region once again. Those locals included a teenaged Daniel Schickedanz—Bob’s father.
“Dad’s family were farmers that also bred and raised horses,” Bob notes. “They were a tight-knit group that included his extended family. ]
“The community knew the war wasn’t going to end well, so there was a mass migration westward to avoid being captured by the Russians,” Bob Schickedanz relates. “They packed up whatever belongings they could and loaded them onto five or six horse-drawn wagons.”
Crossing the country, the Schickedanz clan settled in Southern Germany near Stuttgart. “After the war, dad and his cousins apprenticed in their chosen trades—carpentry, stonemasons. They were rebuilding the country to keep people occupied and create employment,” Bob says. But optimism was tainted by the death of Daniel’s father, who succumbed to kidney disease in the war’s aftermath.
“My dad and some of his cousins decided they wanted to immigrate to North America to start a new life,” Bob relates. “Through the Lutheran Church, he was able to secure sponsorship in 1950. His first experience here was on a farm in New Hamburg in the Kitchener area, working for room and board. He made $50 a month until he could repay his passage and that of my mom, who joined my dad a year later to be married here in Canada.”
Daniel was joined on this side of the Atlantic by three cousins: Gustav, Kurt and Gerhard. The team soon found themselves working for a general contractor in 1951, “building a beautiful custom-built house on the Credit River near Mississaugua Golf and Country Club for a gentleman who published law journals,” Bob notes. “There was a big dispute and the owner fired the general contractor. He asked the brothers, ‘Can you finish this project?’ They huddled up and said, ‘Ya, we can do this.’ And that was the start of Schickedanz Brothers Ltd.—three brothers and their cousin, my dad. They were always referred to as ‘the brothers,’ though, because they were so close and grew up together.
“From there they built a few custom homes in Oakville, mainly for executives working for the Ford Motor Company. Then they focused on the Toronto area, purchasing a number of building lots, and chipped away at it slowly until their first subdivision, when they purchased a small parcel of land in Chipping Park in the Lawrence and Don Mills Rd. area in the late 1950s. It grew organically from there.”
Today, the Schickedanz family’s various arms embrace construction, real estate development, home building and rental units in Southern Ontario, Alberta, B.C., Atlanta, Georgia and Florida, with deliveries of thousands of homes, thousands more lots to other builders, assisted living communities and the construction and management of shopping centres and office buildings. But with the June passing of Gustav Schickedanz—who actually became one of Canada’s most successful horse breeders and owners—only one of the founding four remains: Bob’s father, Daniel.
Framing the Future
Although Bob’s early memories of the family business included his parents’ uninspiring Sunday afternoon drives through new neighbourhoods—“Us kids in the backseat didn’t think peeking out the window at new homes was so cool; we would rather have been outdoors”—he was bitten by the bug at the age of 16.
“My dad and uncles came to my cousins and me and said, ‘You boys should really learn what this building business is all about,’” Bob Schickedanz recalls. “They had a subdivision in Newmarket and decided they’d have us frame houses. None of us had any real carpentry skills. Nonetheless, they gave us a project to work on alongside one of their crews.
“We referred to ourselves as ‘Schickedanz Bros. Juniors,’” Bob grins. “They paid like $2 a square foot. So if it was a 1,000 sq. ft. house, that was $2,000! We thought we’d died and gone to heaven. But that was before we realized what hard work it was. This was before the days of forklift trucks bringing everything close to the site and lifting roof trusses up. It was all by hand, including hand-nailing.
“That was my first indoctrination into the business and it still resonates with me today,” Bob Schickedanz says. “Not so much because of the hard work, but what we learned—the organization and thought process that goes into it so that you don’t have three guys standing around while one guy is working. Or if you didn’t put the floor joists in the right spot, the plumber comes along and says, ‘The toilet’s supposed to go here—you’re gonna have to move that.’
“It was invaluable experience. Looking back, going through engineering school and things like advanced calculus—I wouldn’t know how to do that now without going back through the textbooks. But I can still frame a house…if my back holds up.”
Certainly his character has never wilted. Wally Schickedanz, a managing partner with brother Garry of Schickedanz’s Florida operation, recounts a story that typifies Bob’s professionalism. “We’re working on a rooftop in Newmarket on a sweltering summer day. Bob was maybe 18. Here we are—four kids—and the temperature hits something like 104F.
Crew after crew begin disappearing. One roofer gives up and jumps into a barrel of water. But Bob didn’t leave until we had that roof done. We were the last guys off the job.”
With three summers of framing in the rearview mirror, Schickedanz—a self-professed “quiet nerd” at A. Y. Jackson High School in North York—completed a Civil Engineering degree at the University of Toronto. “I had no expectation of automatically going into the family business; I wanted to go into engineering, to be a builder-designer,” he says. “I took a job at Marshall Macklin Monaghan Group for two years as structural engineer.
“At the same time, the family business was expanding to new horizons, including Florida. An opening was available and I was asked to join under the umbrella of planning development acquisitions, approvals, site servicing—trying to get everything ready for the building end to take over.
“I was only 24 and was really blessed to have that opportunity. But there were also high expectations and a steep learning curve. I quickly appreciated how complex this industry is—how it’s a multi-year process, and about building relationships with various stakeholders, including municipalities, provincial and national government jurisdictions and agencies. There’s a lot of moving parts, and it’s not for the faint-hearted when you consider the financial risk.”
As he orders his second iced tea, and with the subject having shifted from discussing himself to the art of negotiation and industry issues, Schickedanz is now in his comfort zone. So adept is he in this realm that you’d swear he could invite the most ardent of Conservatives and Liberals to Thanksgiving dinner and have them all stumble home together arm in arm.
“Rather than say a policy is no good and have nothing to offer, we have to be prepared to offer realistic solutions—not just say we don’t want this, and then go away,” he stresses. “I think it’s important to always put oneself in the other person’s shoes and try to achieve a reasonable and fair outcome. At times it’s frustrating, but I’ve always been a strong believer in opening up the dialogue and keeping it going. I use a phrase a lot when I’m out in the industry, especially when talking to municipal or provincial counterparts: ‘At the end of the day, we’re all in this boat together.’ I can’t get something done on my own. There’s a process to go through—but what is the end result and how can we get there? And if we make any changes in the process, will that help achieve results in a meaningful way—is it going to get those results sooner, or will it delay the result? The result is the important thing.”
Schickedanz has no shortage of respecting peers. “He is whip-smart and doggedly determined,” notes cousin Wally. “On the political side, one of his jobs will be to be an advocate for the industry. One of the things it takes to be successful there is knowing the rules, laws, by-laws, statutes, ordinances and guidelines better than the folks you’re dealing with. That’s Bob. He is always brutally prepared.”
“He’s thorough and analytical—I mean, he did become an engineer!” notes cousin Fred Schickedanz, who has overseen Schickedanz West since that offshoot of Schickedanz Bros. Ltd. was established in Calgary in 1979. “Bob is a bridge-builder—not an antagonistic, my-way-or-the-highway sort of guy. He’s looking to build alliances and partnerships. He’s very well researched and he knows his stuff—and not just in his own backyard.”
“Perfection is the first word that comes to mind,” exclaims Rick Milne, longtime mayor of New Tecumseth in Simcoe County, who has known Schickedanz for more than 25 years. “His company’s product is fantastic—I don’t think I’ve ever heard a complaint about any of the houses he’s sold. And he’s always a gentleman. In any business there’s a percentage of people who want to push things through, but Bob knows there’s no use in coming to the municipality if he doesn’t have all the boxes checkmarked. He doesn’t expect you to bend over—just do what you’re supposed to do, and he does what he’s supposed to do. And that’s why we have a great working relationship.”
And don’t burn bridges, Schickedanz cautions. “I’m a long-term thinker. Others sometimes take a different approach. Any business has to be profitable, but sometimes you can’t milk every nickel out of a project. That doesn’t necessarily result in the best outcome.”
As Schickedanz assumes the presidential reins, expect him to keep a keen eye on the political process. “My father is 90 now and he still goes to work as often as he can,” Bob notes. “He likes to go through a rundown on the status of various projects, and I find myself repeating: ‘Well, we’re still waiting for this or that.’ Dad’s common response is, ‘What’s taking so long?!’ For example, in the 1960s, there was a post-war construction boom in North York, and it wouldn’t be uncommon for my father or uncles to go in the morning to drop off building permit applications then come back late in the day to pick up the permits. It begs the question, ‘So what has changed so much between then and now? Have the delays and additional oversight created more value and protections that didn’t exist at that point in time? If we’re not achieving something better in the end, what is all this extra time and effort doing other than adding more costs to the homeowner at the end of the day?
“We’ve been touting for a while now to policymakers that we have to get to a point where you create more certainty in the industry in terms of timing and costs. We need to address affordable housing in a meaningful way without creating more uncertainty—where individuals and companies can get into the business and know when they can produce a product and how much it’s going to cost them. With so many unknowns right now, things drag on and costs keep piling it up. It makes it more difficult to create a meaningful supply pipeline of housing for consumers.”Bob Schickedanz is pleased with the number of consultations OHBA has had with the new regime at Queen’s Park in terms of its concerns. “Dramatic proof of that is the recent passing of Bill 108—aimed at creating more housing supply. The key to creating affordability is having supply and choice for people,” he says. “But the devil is in the details. Whatever the rules, regulations, policies—it’s important that they get implemented right down the chain and bear real results. If there’s resistance to implement it at the local level, for example, we won’t create more supply in the end.
“I think it’s our duty to make sure we engage as many stakeholders as possible—towns, municipalities, regional governments, conservation authorities, regulatory groups—to find a proper path and solution, because being at loggerheads and imposing more regulation hasn’t worked.
“Admittedly, our industry has a pause in the marketplace right now,” Schickedanz continues. “But the underlying fact is that supply is still really tight. And by using the government’s own statistics—and BILD has done some work on this—we figure in the next 10-12 years, we’ll need a million new housing units in this province. That’s a lot of supply to bring onto the market, and we’re already running short today in terms of that number, building in the upper 70,000s to 80,000 each year.”
As the FarSight name implies, Schickedanz is taking the long view of laying the groundwork. “I saw a study that indicated that the average time a project takes from the time you make an application until people move in ranges from 10-15 years. So to create those million homes in the next 10 years, those projects have to already be well advanced on the drawing board today. Everything we apply for today, unless things change dramatically, isn’t going to make the cut. If we don’t address this, we’re going to have a disaster on our hands.”
Bob Schickedanz is also painfully aware that the industry has no chance of achieving the required numbers if the shortage of trades isn’t further addressed. “The change to a 1-to-1 apprentice-to-journeyperson ratio is helpful,” he says, “but we need to do a much better job of informing the youth of this province of the opportunities in the trades. I think there are a lot of young individuals who don’t have a clue about the potential for a rewarding career, nor the money that’s in it, simply because they haven’t had the exposure. I feel very strongly that the education system has to pivot to make kids aware of it.
“I’m really concerned as a business owner, and I think a lot of our members are similarly concerned,” Schickedanz notes. “We need to collectively take action. We need a pipeline to supply our business, and things like that take a long time to develop. Just drive into a jobsite and look at the average age of the people working there!”
Bob Schickedanz salivates at a challenge, however. “Sometimes what resonates is overcoming a degree of adversity,” he says. “For the first FarSight project—2000-2001—the company became an investor in a development in Seagrave, north of Port Perry—110 homes. The developer at the time needed a backer, so we invested. But the builder went into default, and the initial developer had financial problems. It was a project that could potentially have been a disaster. We pivoted and took on the responsibility of finishing the development and building the remaining homes. Both Rick and I were on the tools every day—carpentry work, building decks, sweeping up after the trades—whatever it took. While it might not resonate as a successful project from an economic standpoint, we finished off a great community and the people were pleased.
What continues to motivate Schickedanz today? “Two things,” he says. “The first is to be able to take a project from the cradle to fruition—however long it takes. Every time I look at properties, the first thing that tweaks in my mind is, ‘How can we make this work?’ The other thing is that I have two nephews in the business now—Johnathan and David. I call myself G2—Generation Two in the company. They’re G3, and it’s great to see someone passionate being involved. From that perspective, I’m really motivated to grow the business for the next generation.”
Family matters for Bob Schickedanz—a lot. Ask him about his favourite childhood memories and, one by one, he’ll recite various family gatherings. “It would be nothing to have a dozen or more cousins for birthday celebrations.”
The trend has continued, with their four daughters paying visits to Bob and Claritta’s retreat on Sweatman Island, a five-acre dot of land on Georgian Bay that Bob shares with brother Rick’s family, who have their own abode on the island’s western shore. “I don’t have many hobbies,” Bob says, “but I love going up there, puttering around, building projects, clearing and cutting trees. My kids say, ‘Dad only loves to go up there to work.’ But that’s my happy place—just a lazy, sunny summer day, doing a little swimming and maybe taking my grandkids for water sports behind the boat.”
A splash in the lake. Staying in touch with cousins. Another firm handshake with municipal staff, a new friend made at an OHBA event, another award nomination for FarSight Homes.
They seem like simple pleasures. But were he to step back and take inventory of the sheer breadth and weight of those accomplishments, Bob Schickedanz might well discover that there is far more to his personal biography than he ever realized.
Become a member of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association.