By Ted McIntyre
If Neil Rodgers is the Ontario Home Builders’ Association’s next great presidential hope, they seem to have picked the right man.
“Hope is my middle name,” says Rodgers. Seriously.
It may sound like a cheesy line from a B movie, but in the case of Rodgers, it’s merely ancestry. “Several generations have had the name Hope dating back to my grandfather—it’s in the family.”
It’s an idyllic summer afternoon and Tribute Communities’ Executive V.P. of Land Acquisitions is in one of his happy places, the patio of Thornhill Golf and Country Club, where he has been a member for eight years. But then it’s hard to find a sporting venue where the fit-as-a-fiddle 53-year-old isn’t happy, whether he’s cycling 200-300 kilometres a week or treading on the hallowed ground of Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, home to Rodgers’ beloved Packers.
To say he is a passionate fan of the National Football League franchise is to understate the point. “I’m an owner,” observes Rodgers, who purchased shares in the Packers the first day they became available in 2011. “If I do something, I tend to go all in. I began to track (Hall of Fame quarterback) Brett Favre when he was at college at Southern Mississippi and followed him after that.”
Longtime friend and frequent travelling companion Leith Moore, former Senior VP, Urban, with Fieldgate Homes and now president of Waverly Holdings Inc., has witnessed that passion up close. “My favourite moment was when Neil gave me a guided tour of the Green Bay Packers’ museum at Lambeau Field,” relates the former OHBA president. “When we reached the Brett Favre exhibit I am quite certain Neil knelt and had a silent moment of reflection. There were tears of joy in his eyes. And then we dragged him out of there and watched his Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys. He was a very happy man that day. But Mark Tutton, another former president of UDI/Ontario, will remind you that Neil is the only NFL ‘owner’ that has to park a mile from the stadium and then walk to seats that are exposed to the rain and snow.”
Sometimes a little physical endurance is just part of the experience. “I’ve been a distance runner—cross country—since high school,” Rodgers says. “When I turned 40, I started casually running again with a friend of mine and it turned into marathoning. It became a passion, and then an obsession.”
Eight marathons later, from New York and Chicago to Berlin, Rodgers was touring the globe—26.2 miles at a time. But when injuries began to crop up, Rodgers bought a bike. “Now I cycle between 200 and 300 kilometres a week,” he says. “I belong to a couple of cycling clubs.”
Part of the fitness regimen can be traced to his father’s heart attack at age 53. “I didn’t want to be having quadruple bypasses in my early 50s,” Rodgers says. “I will do everything in my power to be as healthy and fit as I can. I believe that the work-life balance is so important. I think it makes you a better, more productive person and employee. I believe in that ‘work hard, play hard’ philosophy.”
Wife Diane, whom Rodgers credits for providing him the opportunity and freedom to explore his athletic pursuits, not to mention the odd golf and football guys trips—has a ‘play hard’ side to her as well. For her 50th birthday, she decided the couple should hike Peru’s Inca Trail over four days and see Machu Picchu.
“We’ve always been kind of drawn to the mountains and holidays that were nature-focused—we’re going as a family to Costa Rica with friends over the New Year, because of its adventure and the rainforest, and Neil and I are talking about Patagonia and Kilimanjaro. More recently we’ve combined cities and an urban focus as well,” says Diane, who has ‘vacationed’ in Cambodia, Vietnam, Chile, Argentina and Hong Kong with Neil. “Once our girls got old enough and weren’t travelling with us anymore, we didn’t have to think about kid-friendly destinations anymore and started challenging ourselves more. We definitely have a shared affection for beautiful places and having challenged ourselves physically and culturally.”
YIN AND YANG
“Diane is not a tremendously competitive person, but I am,” Rodgers concedes. “We’re Yin and Yang, and it’s a good partnership. I’m A-type and she’s the balance. And I thought, ‘What could possibly beat Machu Picchu?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to do Everest Base Camp.’ And she said, ‘Can I do it?’ And I said, ‘Yes you can. We’ll do it together.’ And so the following year we went to Everest.
“We flew from Toronto to Kathmandu, and then started the hike just over a day later,’ Rodgers relates. “We didn’t go to the summit, but there’s a great saying: ‘I may not be on top of the world, but the top of the world stands before me.’ The trekkers who summit are near-immortals. And you don’t appreciate what it takes to get up there until you’ve trekked from Kathmandu to Base Camp, which has an elevation of 17,590 feet. No matter how fit you are, the elevation can kick you in the stomach. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done—more mentally even than physically. Spiritually, you’re in awe. It took eight days to get to base camp—hiking an average of six to seven hours a day. The overnight conditions were primitive. What was difficult was the almost constant state of cold. It eats away at you. I was completely spent when we reached Base Camp. The climbers who attempt to summit spend 30-50 days just to acclimatize!”
GEOGRAPHY HAS SOME HISTORY
“Geography is what started us going to these places,” Diane observes. “But the indirect benefit of that has been the people we’ve met and seeing how happy and helpful they can be, even when they have very little. Those are the experiences we come back and share with our children.”
Geography is also what initially connected the couple. “We met in university,” Rodgers notes. “She was a year ahead of me. We both took Urban and Regional Planning at the University Waterloo and met as summer students at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing—and she’s still there.
In 1989, I joined the Urban Development Institute/Ontario. That created some conflicts, since she was a planner dealing with policy-related land-use issues. To avoid conflicts, she gravitated out of what I would call the ‘front-line’ planning stuff to avoid the conflicts. She has made career and family-related sacrifices for our children and because of me. She’s probably one of the most selfless people I’ve ever known,” Rodgers says.
Why land-use planning? “I loved geography,” Rodgers remembers. “I thought that planning cities could be cool—you’re influencing how a built environment can be transformed. The idea was so appealing to our youngest daughter Alannah that she is currently at fourth year at Waterloo’s School of Planning! It came organically. I was more shocked than anyone. We have great dinner conversations between how I think land development should be, and my wife’s commentary on how the province and cities are dealing with land-use/housing issues and Alannah’s opinion on transit or infrastructure. And our oldest daughter (Lauren) is in the cultural scene and gives me site selection advice: ‘Dad, follow where the artists are going. That’s where all the cool people are going to be. That’s your consumer!’”
Geography has personal history for Rodgers. Although he grew up in Scarborough and has called the GTA home ever since, he was born in the far northeastern corner of India in the town of Jorhat, just south of Bhutan and in the shadows of the Himalayas to Indian-born parents of Anglo-Scottish heritage. “I left when I was a year old and have never been back but hope to sooner rather than later.”
But it’s the land underfoot that has occupied most of Rodgers’ attention over the past 30+ years since his first industry job, at age 21, working on the review of the Parkway Belt West Plan for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, as president of the Urban Development Institute/Ontario (see sidebar), as a board member for both Habitat for Humanity Durham and the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, and to his current position overseeing land acquisitions for Tribute. That training and experience should serve him well for what is to come.
“There are always emerging issues, but we have more than a normal number of proposed and pending government policy reviews at this very moment,” explains Leith Moore. “And since the GTA is home to the largest market in the province—and the country—having a GTA president is particularly significant for us, as Neil will be able to talk to government about the economic impact for our largest (region).”
ART OF COMPROMISE
“Call me a policy junkie. I can speak their language,” Rodgers says. “As a planner, by education and training, I understand the root of the problem and the essence of the solution. Whether it’s the right solution or not remains to be debated. But I’m not approaching this as if I’m a guy who’s been swinging hammers and framing homes; I’m more analytically driven. I really enjoy working in that political (environment) to put forward ideas and solutions that will work for the industry, but that will also not be seen as being truly offensive to government. At the end of the day, I think planning is about finding the balance of what works best. I’ve heard it from as far back as Minister Al Leach (1995-1999) to Minister McMeekin—that if both sides are a little unhappy, government has probably found the best middle ground they can achieve.”
How comfortable will Rodgers be in that realm? “He has been in the political arena so long and is so comfortable in it, that I am sure he does not think of it as an ‘arena’ at all,” says Moore. “He can move through that milieu like he was sitting on the patio at home. He’s already known and respected by the stakeholders he’ll be dealing with, so it’s always like a continuing conversation that gets temporarily interrupted. That is such an advantage—that there’s no learning curve and that he just gets down to business. And that is one of Neil’s strengths: direct, clear, factual. And he listens too, which is something all parties appreciate.
“I’ve seen him work with municipal, regional and provincial staff and politicians many, many times,” continues Moore. “He knows how to speak truth to power and to do so in a way in which they see the clear and reasoned fact behind the argument and not just hear a contrarian position. Sometimes that means delivering the truth to our own members. That’s a skill that we much need at this very time.”
Rodgers’ professional approach has also struck a chord with Audrey Bennett, director of the Provincial Planning Policy Branch at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. “I’ve seen Neil in action on a number of stakeholder working groups over the years,” Bennett notes. “What impressed me is that he is always clear in providing the development sector’s perspective, but at the same time is very respectful of municipal and other stakeholders’ views.”
In addressing OHBA member concerns, Rodgers expects to be hammering on some of the usual political nails once he takes the presidential reins at the association’s Annual Conference later this month in Collingwood. “We’re going to have to finish up this Growth Plan/Greenbelt Review,” he says. “We will continue to tell the Province that it is a cost issue in terms of how we buy land, labour and materials, and that we have to deliver that product to the customer affordably.
“For renovators, there’s the continuing underground economy issue,” Rodgers says. “Much more has to be done by government. By fixing the system and levelling the playing field, government will help our industry and Ontario taxpayers, because there are hundreds of millions of dollars that are being unaccounted for and not collected.
“WSIB premiums are also tremendously high for our industry relative to what other sectors with similar risks are paying,” Rodgers laments. “When you think of those small to medium-sized companies, if WSIB premiums were normalized relative to other sectors, some of the underground contractors might come above board, become legitimate and pay the freight that OHBA members are already paying.”
But it’s the demand for land where the greatest concern may lay. “I’m still not convinced that government fully understands how dynamic the real estate industry and marketplace are,” Rodgers says. “I can remember when we were dealing with the Growth Plan and Greenbelt from 2001 to 2003. I don’t want to say, ‘I told you so,’ but our research was showing a trajectory of where land and housing prices would go. I understand you need to find a balance between the preservation of natural assets, continue to grow an economy. But I firmly believe that the Province underestimated the demand side of the equation and the forces of the marketplace. Just look at the price of housing today, new and resale. The only thing that has prevented a housing crisis has been historically low interest rates.”
But there needs to be greater awareness of the reality of the situation from OHBA members themselves, Rodgers asserts. “We as an industry have to lead evidence-based arguments to demonstrate what is happening in this marketplace and what can happen in the future if we are not more balanced in our policy approach. But at the same time the question will be, ‘Will members adapt?’ I look at Tribute—33 years in the business and for almost 25 of those we built predominantly single-family communities across the GTA. In the last seven or eight years we’ve had to adapt because of a changing marketplace and consumer preferences. Ultimately the marketplace will dictate things. Who would have thought we’d be doing 20,000 or 30,000 condos? You ask that to some of the guys in the business 50 years ago and they would have asked, ‘What’s a condo?’ The builders today who haven’t fully adapted and diversified their portfolio are probably the ones having the hardest time finding land. It’s just like mutual funds—you diversify among many asset classes.”
As with all new OHBA presidents, Rodgers’ time at his paying job will likely suffer. But he won’t be the first employee at Tribute to deal with such trials. “Al Libfeld was a former OHBA president; my colleague Lucy Stocco was a chair for UDI/Ontario; Steve Deveaux is the current president of BILD,” Rodgers notes. “Tribute has a roster of volunteers and people in leadership positions in the industry.”
Not that he won’t be surrounded by talent in his new role as well. “I think Pierre (new OHBA V.P. Pierre Dufresne) is a lot like me in the sense that he understands at a very high level what is working and what needs to be fixed,” says Rodgers of the 2013-14 Greater Ottawa HBA president. “And OHBA already has a great team of staff. We’re very fortunate to have some of the best folks in the business working day and night advancing the interests of the industry.”
So will speaking as a unified voice—and Rodgers is ideally situated to deliver that message, suggests Moore. “Neil is the authentic deal—a planning degree from Waterloo, years of honed experience in the wars of policy development where it touches on our industry, and years of practical development and building experience to balance the theoretical. He is truly the right person at the right time.”