By Ted McIntyre
At ease in the spotlight, Dave Depencier promises to be a man of action in the coming year
Having spent his entire lifetime entrenched in and around a predominantly agricultural community of 2,400 in Southwestern Ontario, Dave Depencier is used to watching things grow. Summer jobs as a teen included bailing hay and detasselling corn. But today the 47-year-old Dresden native cultivates a much different type of crop, one for which the province has a serious appetite.
Owner and president of Depencier Builders, which specializes in the design and construction of custom homes, and partner and president of DeMall Group, which focuses on land development and the designing, building and selling of spec homes, Depencier will add Ontario Home Builders’ Association president to his Linkedin profile on Sept. 18 during the 2023 OHBA Annual Conference at Blue Mountain Resort in Collingwood.
And he will have no shortage of fans in attendance. “I was on the humanitarian build with Dave in the Dominican Republic when James Bazely was president,” recalls Marz Homes President Danny Gabriele. “There are guys who are dynamic, who are great at what they do every day, and I witnessed that in the D.R. And when the toolbelt came off, he was the sort of guy you just wanted to be around. He’s magnetic, but very genuine. And he carries a lot of weight when speaking to bureaucratic and elected officials responsible for creating policy.”
“Dave is really, really down to earth,” says Pierre Dufresne, V.P. of Land Development at Cavanagh Developments. “He comes across as a simple guy from the country but has done a really good job in his time at OHBA to appreciate the more urban issues we face with government that he doesn’t necessarily have to deal with in Chatham Region. He has shown an element of sophistication in terms of understanding policy from the provincial level and how it impacts our industry, and he has been an invaluable spokesman for that.”
“He’s smart and he’s a very good communicator,” echoes Rick Martins, V.P. of Huron Creek Developments. “I’ve seen him in the room many times and he really listens and then formulates his message afterward. And he’s very well respected in Chatham-Kent, and really gives back to his community.”
“We started dating in Grade 11,” says Depencier’s wife Kim. “He was good looking, but not typical of normal 17-year-old boys. He was very sensitive, genuine, mature, attentive, loyal, caring, trustworthy. And he’s a very, very good listener. He takes time to process things before he reacts—especially in high-stress situations. I admire that part of him a lot.”
You’re not alone if this is beginning to sound like a scene out of The Manchurian Candidate, where brainwashed former captives each reflexively and robotically refer to U.S. Army Sergeant Raymond Shaw as “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”
But this isn’t a movie. If it were, truth be told, Depencier would be more akin to Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey character in It’s a Wonderful Life—a smalltown home builder who marries a girl from high school, whose father dies prematurely after a hard life, who is beloved and trusted by virtually every resident, and who never departs his hometown. Hell, there’s even that one brush with death to top it off!
“I had a blood clot a few years ago that nearly killed me,” Depencier shares. “I was at a site meeting with clients. We were doing layouts for electrical and plumbing and I started to get a pain in my side. I thought maybe I’d pulled a muscle at the gym. It started getting really bad and it got to where I could barely talk, and I said to the customer, ‘I’m really sorry, but I’ve gotta go home—there’s something wrong.’
“I was just a few lots up from my house, but I could barely get my truck home and get in the door. I had a hot bath because I was cold and shivery, and slowly started to feel okay. Then it woke me up in the middle of the night and felt like it was moving up to my chest, so I went out to my hot tub. I went to work the next day, but that next night it hit me again and I was back to the hot tub. It was 2 a.m. and I was in tears, lying on the edge of the tub, wondering, ‘What the f*#@ is wrong?’”
Depencier drove himself to the hospital, where medical staff cited his gallbladder as the primary culprit, although Kim, a registered massage therapist with a medical background, had suspected a clot from the very beginning. A follow-up visit for further tests the next morning was delayed a day when the imaging machine was out of order.
The final verdict days later was not without its own cinematic drama. “I was waiting in the emergency room for the results of the scan and could see the doctor come in and sit down on the other side of the curtain,” Depencier relates. “He’s on the phone, going, ‘Ya, ok, ok, ya…so it’s cancer.’
“I assumed he was talking about me, and all these thoughts of my wife and kids raced through my mind. A few minutes later the doctor came into the room and said, ‘I have some good news and some bad news.’ And I’m like, ‘Just hit me with it.’ And he said, ‘You had a pulmonary embolism, and the bad news is that we don’t really know why it happened.’ And I go, ‘Am I going to die?’ And he goes, ‘What? No! You’re not going to die.’
“I asked him three times—‘You’re sure I’m OK—I don’t have cancer?’ And he says, ‘No, you don’t have cancer!’
“So now I’m on blood thinners for the rest of my life. The hematologist said, ‘You’re over 40, you’re male and you need to be on these.’ And he was right, because I tried to wean off them for a little bit and then had another attack. I got in trouble for that: ‘You idiot!’ the doctor said. ‘This will legitimately kill you!’”
In a twist of fate, Depencier had recently been recruited to raise money for the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance’s Diagnostic Imaging campaign, with his co-chairs being local radio personality Greg Hetherington and former CFL wide receiver Andy Fantuz. Unbeknownst to the organizers, both Hetherington and Depencier had experienced the same medical condition. “Here’s the really ironic part,” Depencier notes. “Part of the fundraising was for the same CT scanner that had broken down on me!”
Given how personal the cause was, he afterward decided to spur the push for the remaining funds of the $6.9 million campaign. “A good friend of mine, (Chatham-Kent HBA Executive Officer) Dan VanMoorsel, got me into cycling, and I said, ‘Let’s do a bike ride and raise some money.’ We raised over $100,000 with a 1,000 kilometre ride. I had a lot of help from the home builder community, who we kind of planned our trip around. We met up with past presidents like John Meinen, Doug Tarry and Vince Molinaro. We went to the OHBA office in Toronto. We raised a bunch of money outside as well, but the industry really helped us to finish things off.”
As the curtain raises on Depencier’s one-year role as OHBA president, expect him to be far more at ease in the glare of the spotlight than most. Apart from ‘how-to’ videos for Home Hardware, Depencier has played the part of host and contractor on the series Reno My Reno, which aired on Netflix and Cottage Life, as well as the Discovery+ series We Bought A Funeral Home.
“That first show, Reno My Reno, means a lot to me because it kind of came through the OHBA,” he says. “Our executive officer at the time, Clare Curtis, came across an ad of a company looking for the next Bryan Beaumler-type character in the construction world. Clare said to me, ‘I think you should apply for this.’”
Depencier did apply, although it was 18 months before producers responded. “They flew me to Ottawa and drove me into Quebec to the producer’s cottage, where he was building this bunkie. And he’s like, ‘OK, we’ll give you 15 minutes while we set things up. Take a look at this space. We’ve got a couple who are coming and they’re going to pretend like they’re the clients. And then just do what you normally do—sell yourself!’”
Depencier did so—in spades. He immediately won the role, was sent photos of the spaces he’d be working on, was paired with two tradesmen he’d never met, and asked to advise on what products he’d require—all without ever seeing the place in person until he showed up and the cameras rolled. “To this day,” he says, “it was one of the best experiences of my life.”
And what of the experiences that don’t go according to plan? “I try not to look at regrets,” he says. “KIm and I believe that everything happens for a reason, and when it happens, you have to look at that experience and figure out why it happened and how you can prevent it from ever occurring again. Life’s not easy; it’s about how you handle it when things don’t go as expected. We teach our kids, ‘Learn from this and let’s figure out how you can turn it into a positive.’”
Building Good Habits
Depencier’s learning curve in the residential construction industry began with his uncle Mark Labadie, who owned a renovation company in Dresden before retiring two years ago. “My uncle has been a very important figure in my life,” he says. “I started working for him coming out of public school. He taught me about hard work.”
And what did Labadie try to impress upon Depencier as his mentor? “To be upfront with your customers and let them know what’s going on,” Labadie says. “And if a problem occurs, stop the project right away, assure your clients that you can handle it and work things out.”
After a guilt-ridden request to his uncle, Depencier eventually left Mark Labadie Construction to join a framing crew. “I then spent 2 1/2 years just framing, framing, framing—day in and day out,” Depencier says. “We were framing for general contractors as well, and I watched how they dealt with trades, how they dealt with us, how they interacted with clients and handled different problems.”
In the interim he earned a degree in Construction Engineering at Fanshawe College and founded Depencier Builders at the tender age of 23 after securing his Ontario New Home Warranty number with financial help from his mother and stepfather.
“I remember site meetings with clients asking, ‘So is your dad coming to the meeting?’ And I was like, ‘No—it’s just me. My dad owns a trucking company,’” reflects Depencier, who built his first house for the parents of one of his closest friends. “It was a pretty complicated custom home, a 2,800 sq. ft. rancher designed after a train station, with some intricate rooflines—very unique. I remember thinking, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything.’ I built their daughter’s house right after that. It was a custom log home and I’d never built a log home before. They asked, ‘Do you build log homes?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, we build log homes.’
“I still see (those homeowners) all the time. We’re close friends, and we’re best friends with their daughter and son-in-law,” Depencier says.
That’s pretty typical, suggests VanMoorsel. “The thing about Dave that you don’t see with many other builders is that he becomes part of the homebuyers’ lives afterward. They’ll invite him over for a beer—or he and Kim for dinner—five years after he’s built their house!”
Depencier is intensely proud of his Dresden roots, living less than 20 kilometres from his birthplace in Thamesville. And he’s proud of what he’s built there. “About 13 years ago, I developed a piece of land here called Fairport Heights—19 lots. Something like that hadn’t been done in 20 years. People thought I was crazy—‘No one’s going to move to a small town,’ they said. But I said, ‘The time is right.’”
The project snowballed into another development, the 50-odd-home Leisure Lanes, where Depencier himself calls home. The next phase, which includes semi-detached residences, has been completely gobbled up in less than a year.
Which brings us to one of Depencier’s more seminal lessons. “When I was coming up in the business years ago, Danny Gabriele said to me, ‘Dave, you’ve always got to have land. If you don’t, you’re going to be in trouble.’ That’s been an instrumental piece of advice, and I shifted some gears to also focus on land development with DeMall Group, a partnership of Kim and I
along with Kerry and Krista Mall.” That, in turn, led to the birth of the 42-home Rolling Acres subdivision on the northwest corner of town, with homes starting at $500,000. “And we’ve just recently purchased another 20 acres, so it will continue on for many years,” Depencier says.
“I still love the design aspect—creating for my clients—and trying to set everyone’s house apart from one another,” he smiles.
The Depencier offspring are also distinguishing themselves. Daughter Brynn graduated from the University of Guelph in June and is attending Western’s renowned audiology program this fall. And son Beau, 18, is chasing an NCAA hockey scholarship in the U.S. while developing his own clothing line. “He also works for me in the summer doing framing and such, but he’s really taken a liking to the real estate and development side,” Depencier says. “He wants to venture out on his own in the industry at some point.”
Depencier’s own immersion into the industry began after joining OHBA in 2006. “I knew that a lot of the builders and older companies I looked up to were involved in the association,” he says. “I was probably there for three months when incoming Chatham HBA President Wayne Faas, a great friend and a generational builder, tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You’re going to be vice-president.’ And I’m like, ‘What? I just got here!’”
When Depencier ascended to the presidential post for Chatham four years later, he went all in—the resident sponge, attending as many OHBA meetings as possible and soaking up all he could. “I learned so much from pillars of our industry,” he says, “and I brought back as much of it as I could to our own association.”
But Depencier was also fostering relationships in his own backyard. “I owe a lot to Monte and his family,” he says of Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MPP Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s Minister of Labour, Immigration, Skills and Training Development. “Monte, his brother Mike and their father owned the local lumber lot that I originally bought from—and still buy from.”
“I have many fond memories of working with Dave over the years at my family’s Home Hardware Building Centre in Newbury,” McNaughton recalls. “As a longtime community leader in the home building industry, Dave is a perfect choice, with the knowledge and skill to lead the Ontario Home Builders’ Association. Our government is on a mission to build 1.5 million homes by 2031 and make homeownership a reality for more families. I look forward to working with Dave in his new role as we work together to get more people into skilled trades and homes built.”
Tackling Illegal Building and Skilled Trades Challenges
Depencier knows his plate is full. “We need to build a lot of homes and we need to build them faster,” he says. “We have to keep engaging and collaborating with all levels of government. Everyone has to chip in and to find common ground. And to make it happen, we need labour. OHBA’s Job Ready Program will consequently be one of my priorities.”
The daunting ‘to-do’ list also includes addressing illegal building, notes Midhaven Homes owner Peter Saturno. “Dave was part of the Regional Industry Advisory Council I was on,” Saturno says. “I expect his insights will be valuable when it comes to sharing solutions that will help close loopholes on illegal building, especially as he’s coming from a smaller community. Everybody’s gotta tackle a challenge as president, and that’s one I know Dave will focus on.”
“I see illegal building in a lot in smaller areas, and I can’t stand it,” Depencier says. “It’s an unfair playing ground. But you have to do it the legitimate and proper way to protect consumers and our collective industry.”
But matters of importance will begin much closer to home—framed by Depencier’s health scare and other reminders of mortality. “Since Covid, we lost Dave’s dad and my stepdad—both 72 years old—within two weeks,” Kim says. “Then my grandmother passed away. Then last year Dave’s grandmother died. And his stepdad is not well and is only 71 years old with advanced Alzheimers. That has all really helped to shape our outlook on life. We’re extremely close with our two kids and just relish family activities more than anything.”
And when family relationships go astray, well, as Labadie advocates, “Work things out.”
“My parents divorced when I was in high school,” shares Depencier, whose mother worked for a construction company throughout her working life, running the office and managing buildings for the firm. “My father battled heart attacks over the years, and we drifted apart for a long time after the divorce.”
Depencier, however, made the effort to reconnect—a fulfilling decision in light of his father’s passing two years ago. And so it is with a happy heart and a penchant for perfectionism that he prepares to assume his OHBA presidential post.
“Dave won’t be happy with mediocrity,” Kim assures. “He will want to do things differently than others have in the past, to set new expectations and be able to say that he gave his all while he was in that role.”
“I have such a passion for the industry,” says Depencier, who stresses that he’s a team player as far as OHBA mandates go. “The pandemic flatlined us. But we’ve turned the page and I want to build the excitement—to make people want to engage and be active parts of our industry again. I want to leave with people saying, ‘That guy has been an unreal president! He changed the game for us!’ That’s my mission.”
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