By Ted McIntyre
Music helped change his life. Now Pierre Dufresne knows how to listen more closely than most.
Good day, bad day—the routine is the same for Pierre Dufresne. “The first thing I do when I get home is flip on the tunes,” he says. “Usually I put on deepjams.net on my Bose, or a CD on the stereo, or if I’m in my den, my old vinyl does the trick.”
“Music has charms to soothe the savage breast,” English poet and playwright William Congreve famously penned in 1697. But there’s about as much savage in Dufresne as Mahatma Gandhi. For the Ontario Home Builders Association’s incoming president, consider it a therapeutic regimen.
“Some lyrics do capture me, but it’s more the music than the words,” notes the vice-president of Land Development at Tartan Land Corporation in Ottawa, who, apropos, texts that message on Friday, August 11 from the 2017 Peach Music Festival, a four-day event featuring dozens of alternative rock, jazz, blues groups at Montage Mountain in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Some people go to the cottage or the Caribbean. Pierre Dufresne goes to jam band festivals.
What’s a jam band, you ask? “The best definition I’ve ever heard was a reference to the actual listeners at those events—how much fun they’re having and how many friends they’re making,” Dufresne explains.
While a smattering of jam bands, such as the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, are internationally renowned, most are, shall we say, obscure to the general population. “OHBA asked me for 10 songs and 10 bands for the President’s Gala,” Dufresne notes. “I included my favourite bands, including Widespread Panic and Umphrey’s McGee. Then they called me back and said, ‘We’ve never heard of any of these bands or any of these songs.’ That’s a pretty common response, though. Whenever I’m going to one of these festivals and friends and coworkers ask, ‘What bands will be there?,’ I can list 15 or 20 and they’ll just keep staring at me.”
Dufresne, who estimates he’s attended 30 such festivals, not to mention hundreds of concerts and gigs, likes to reserve the odd Friday night for the local scene, including the Rainbow Bistro, a blues and jazz bar in Ottawa’s Byward Market. “I listen to pretty much everything,” he says, “except country and bluegrass—and very little classical.”
As with many, we need only peer through Dufresne’s Facebook page to learn what else fuels his inner flame. There we discover that on May 31 he updated his profile picture, with a debonair Dufresne staring point blank back at the camera, sporting a pair of black sunglasses that look they were borrowed from Tom Cruise. In the background is a café in downtown Gothenburg, Sweden—which explains the lapel pin of crossed Canadian and Swedish flags on his grey blazer, a souvenir of this year’s OHBA International Housing Tour. His previous post shows an on-stage photo of Gregg Allman at the keyboard, the recently departed member of the Allman Brothers Band. The post before that is an old black and white shot from the long-gone Montreal pub, Taverne du Coin. Preceding that you can find a string of photos of CFL games (including his beloved Ottawa Redblacks) and assorted Montreal Canadiens and Expos references.
Consider the latter as part of Dufresne’s DNA, advises sister Anne: “You’ll never take the Montreal out of Pierre.”
“Every time he gets a chance, there’s a Canadiens quip thrown in,” advises Josh Kardish, president of the Greater Ottawa HBA. “He’ll wear his Habs jersey at industry events in town, and I’ve seen him rush off to Montreal for a playoff game and make it back the same night.”
The love affair with Les Canadiens developed organically. Dufresne was born in Ottawa on Feb. 12, 1964, but raised in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG) neighbourhood of west Montreal to a unilingual Irish mother and Francophone father, the latter of whom—currently a sprightly 92—worked in both languages as a journalist, primarily covering politics with the Canadian Press and newspapers such as the Globe & Mail, La Presse and Le Devoir.
“I had Maurice Richard in my living room once!” Dufresne declares of the Montreal hockey legend. “I was in Grade 5 and came home from school and my mom’s sitting there talking to Rocket Richard! I sat down on the couch and just stared at him. He was long retired from hockey and working as a salesman for the gas company, trying to convince my mom to change from an oil furnace to a gas furnace. But I was even more impressed when my father came home and they said ‘Hi’ like they already knew each other. I said, ‘Dad, how do you know Maurice Richard!?’ But he had covered him as a journalist when my dad first got out of school.”
Aside from family, Dufresne’s undying love of the Habs may only be exceeded by his aforementioned passion for music. But that was a passion borne of trauma.
“When I was 15, I was playing defensive end for my Loyola Braves high school team and went to make a tackle along the line,” Dufresne recalls. “I had tumbled into a sitting position when someone fell on top of me and my body folded forward and a vertebrae cracked. I eventually needed surgery on my spine just over a year later. That was the end of my football career.”
Idle time meant a wandering mind for Dufresne, who would have to repeat Grade 10 after missing the majority of the school year due to his injury. “I spent four months basically lying in bed at home, bored to death,” he says. “One of the things I did that occupied my mind was listening to different types of music on the radio.”
Geography certainly helped. “One of the benefits of living in NDG was that you were close enough to the antennas on Mount Royal that you didn’t need any cable to get great radio reception,” Dufresne says. “There was an amazing blues show from the Kownawaga radio station in the Kahnawake Reserve south of Montreal. And there was a jazz station in Chateauguay and several stations at night from the U.S. I gained a huge appreciation of musical genres I’d never been exposed to. Then about a dozen years ago, a friend of mine bought me XM Sirius Radio. I was searching around the stations and my favourite very quickly became JamBase, a jam band music station.”
Just don’t ask Pierre to play an instrument…or carry a tune, for that matter. “I sing a lot, but very badly,” he concedes. “But my son Dylan plays a great guitar.”
For a guy who claims he can’t sing, though, Dufresne is blessed with the ability to unite disparate voices with the aplomb of a choirmaster.
“He has strong opinions, but is not opinionated,” explains sister Anne, Manager of Marine Conservation Policy at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “He’s very humble that way. If he has a different opinion, he’ll present it in a way that’s not confrontational, unless there’s a reason to be confrontational.”
Jack Stirling, president of the Stirling Group, an Ottawa-based consulting and development firm, has seen Dufresne in action when Stirling served in the planning and development industry of both the public and private sectors with Genstar, Minto and the municipalities of Nepean and Ottawa, among others.
“Pierre’s not one to rail against the bureaucracy and moan about things,” Stirling says. “He gives the public sector its due and appreciates what they’re up against, and then looks for solutions for both sides.”
“He’s very, very fair,” echoes Kardish. “I’ve worked with him as a colleague and have also had to negotiate with him on neighbouring land deals, and he is respectful and caring and wants to make sure everyone is being treated fairly.”
“He’s also an amazing father and he was always very generous as an older brother,” adds Anne. “If Pierre had anything left over from his summer jobs as a youth, he’d share his earnings in whatever way they needed to be used at home. It’s general qualities like that which stand out for people—his good-naturedness, generosity, humility, gratitude. He’s the guy who will bring a stranger in for Christmas dinner. He likes to include people around the dinner table, and there will always be leftovers—usually his Newfoundland/Labrador Salt Cod soup!
“He likes to build bridges and long-lasting relationships,” his sister continues. “To be a leader in any business you have to be able to listen to what people are saying and find common ground and be a connector. Pierre has been doing that sort of thing since he was a kid. And he’s always been extremely loyal.”
A Loyal Employee
Tartan Land Corporation can attest to that. Dufresne joined the Ottawa-based developer straight out of university and hasn’t left in 26 years.
“I worked a couple summer jobs at local planning departments, but we were heading into a recession and I wanted something—anything—full time,” he recalls. “But no one was hiring because all the budgets were being cut. Then I saw an ad in the paper for a planning position at Tartan Homes. They had a vice-president taking care of the planning and project management duties, but he was going on to another position. Instead of filling his role, they decided to pass some of his corporate responsibilities to our CFO Larry Bruce and hire someone young and raw who could do all the planning work. I applied without any great expectations; I just thought it would be a good experience to get interviewed by someone in the private sector.”
Dufresne had secured a B.A. in Geography and Political Science at Carleton University, along with a Masters in Public Administration and Public Policy from Concordia. But he could well have earned a Masters degree in job interviews.
“The president of Tartan Land Corporation, Doug Lazier, told me afterward that it was how I answered the questions that got me in front of the other candidates—showing flexibility instead of being too opinionated,” says Dufresne. “During the second interview, Wes Nicol, who was the founder and owner of Tartan Homes (and who passed away last November), came into the interview and fired off what seemed like about 20 questions. I remember thinking, ‘He is trying to f*&% with me now.’ But I thought about every question sequentially and how I would answer it, and I opened my mouth and answered the first question. Then I said, ‘To go on to your second question…’ And then Wes got up and said, ‘I’ve heard everything I need to hear,’ and left.
“Although I was just starting off, the duties were substantial—I was 27 but handling the same development approvals responsibilities as the V.P.,” Dufresne notes. “It caused some sleepless nights, but it was a very fast learning curve and a high level of expectation in terms of performance. But I learned on the job, with some help from an in-house planning and engineering consultant Lawrence Erion, who basically mentored me on how to cut to the chase on any issue.”
More than a quarter-century later, the job still firmly holds Dufresne’s interest. “The best thing about it is that every day is completely different from the last. There is no routine. You’re dealing with planning, engineering, project managing and the psychology of people, trying to overcome obstacles and leave impressions on people about what you’re trying to achieve—be it City Hall or other clients—in order to get to an end goal. I think our job as builders and developers is to take the official plan policy in a municipality and figure out a way to implement it to get to the objective. But I think that this sometimes gets lost in City Hall and with special interest groups.”
COOL AND CALCULATED
An even temperament has always served as Dufresne’s conductor’s baton during those negotiations.
“He’s a hard guy to fluster—he rarely loses his temper. Actually, I can’t think of him ever losing his temper,” says Stirling.
“I don’t think we’ve ever argued (since he was a teenager),” notes sister Anne.
“Pierre is not reactionary and always has a very thoughtful response,” echoes outgoing OHBA President Neil Rodgers. “He’s the calming influence in meetings. When he speaks, he’s measured, deliberate and really well informed.”
Like a swimming duck, however, there’s sometimes a lot happening beneath the surface that belies a calm exterior. “I probably feel more emotionally volatile internally than I express on the surface, because I do realize that those emotions have to be overcome in order to provide the proper message and to get to the end goal,” Dufresne concedes. “That’s what’s so cool—and frustrating—about planning: Everybody knows what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re building housing, which is probably the most important consumer amenity next to food. It’s security, protection, financial stability and success and your retirement plan. The government wants everyone properly housed and implements policies to that effect. And then we have the municipalities saying, ‘OK, we’re going to tell you where to put housing.’ It can be so challenging to get to that place that everyone wants us to go. I can spend years on approvals processes just to get a plan registered and a single house built—and it’s the same house that everyone thought I was going to build there at the beginning of the whole process!
“I’ve always thought that conflict is inherent in planning, and I used to think that was a good thing, because by having it, you ended up with the best product,” says Dufresne. “But the conflict we’re now seeing can often be damaging, because it can be non-relevant or politically motivated. And I’ve seen situations where we didn’t get to the best place, where we didn’t choose the right answer, but where we should have.”
Lord knows it’s not for a lack of preparation. In an industry that preaches, “Measure twice, cut once,” Dufresne might be as prepared as they come, suggest his industry associates.
“He listens and he studies, so that when he walks into a situation he’s not firing blind and knows exactly what he’s talking about,” says Stirling.
“With Tartan, Pierre has a broader range of understanding of planning, land development and working with the home construction side of his company. He’s extremely knowledgeable.”
“One thing that will serve the industry well is that Pierre brings an outlook from beyond the GTA, but one that is also a big city/region perspective,” says Rodgers. “His knowledge of the issues facing the industry is second to none.”
“He knows how to balance stakeholder issues and has a genuine concern for how the industry is performing—not just quality but reputation,” says Kardish. “He has a great attention to detail and an understanding of the files and how they’ve evolved over time. He’s very knowledgeable when it comes to the Planning Act, municipal affairs and development approvals.”
PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
Dufresne will need to harness all that expertise moving forward. “It’s no secret that the home building industry is subject to many policy initiatives that were enacted by government,” he says. “I think they’re trying to create change for the consumer—the voter—and become more responsive to their needs. But by doing so, a lot of the policy initiatives, I believe, have not been properly assessed in terms of data. In some cases they’re actually going to be counterproductive to what we’re all trying to commonly achieve.
“An example is rent control legislation,” Dufrense explains. “As soon as it was even whispered, I had several builders from Ottawa call me saying, ‘We already have projects on the books!’ Our condo market is flat, and some of our builder members are looking to convert condo projects into purpose-built rentals. There’s going to be quite a few projects that could come on stream in the next couple of years that may be in jeopardy because of the legislation. So what will that do? It will limit the eventual supply of rental units, which puts pressure on price. So when they do become available, they’ll be high demand and cost more, resulting in some people being shut out. I understand the attempt was to protect the consumer—those young professionals in Toronto losing their apartments and moving into their parents’ basements—but I don’t think this is the answer to the overall problem.
“There are some policy initiatives that are very unique to the GTA, such as the Green Belt, but there are also some common objectives we’re all trying to deal with,” Dufresne observes. “I’ve been impressed with OHBA, in that while they’ve always been involved with what some perceive to be Toronto-centric issues, they’ve emphasized that they are a province-wide association and need to represent all the locals within Ontario, making special attempts to recognize the unique issues related to smaller locals and making sure they don’t get buried in the larger urban issues so prevalent in this government. I think one of the biggest challenges I’m starting to realize while sitting on the board for five years is to create that balance of being responsible to larger city locals, but also to the smaller locals who can at times feel alienated. One of my roles will be to visit these places and gain an appreciation so I can do as decent a job representing them as well as the folks here in Ottawa and everywhere else.”
Being situated in the nation’s capital means a physical disconnect from the GTA and provincial government headquarters, but Dufresne dismisses the distance factor. “It’s not a four-hour dive; it’s a one-hour flight,” he says. “I’ve had days where I’ve sat in my office, gone to the airport, flown to Toronto, gone to Queen’s Park and been back in my office by the end of the day. And with modern technology, you’re never away from your office—you can always respond to a situation. I also have great support here at Tartan. Melissa Côté is a planner who is eager to gain more exposure to things I typically take care of, and she’s very competent and qualified, so I’m happy to give her that opportunity. And the people I work for have been very supportive. There will be hiccups here and there, and I have a great backup plan in Toronto—Neil (Rodgers) has offered to continue his involvement, and I have an executive that is willing to step in if it’s absolutely impossible for me to be in Toronto.”
Dufresne also knows that in his predecessor he has a good song sheet to read from. “Neil has been a phenomenal leader and a real mentor to me in walking into this position. He has incredible passion for the industry. He has put so much effort into all the activities he’s done over the past year,” says Dufresne, who intends to take advantage of his presidential opportunity.
“I’m going to give the most to it that I possibly can.”
For those in the home building industry, that should be music to their ears.