A rhetorical question needs no answer, but sometimes it’s better to be safe than sorry. “Am I full of crap?” Mike Holmes barks from the stage, pausing just long enough to flash a teeth-baring smile. “No, I know I’m not.”
Even if they disagree, the teenagers before him—Aboriginal youth from across southwestern Ontario, brought together for a career fair at which the burly contractor is the keynote speaker—are unlikely to say it out loud. They’ve seen him on TV. He’s famous. Or at least recognizable enough that a bunch of 16-year-olds want to take his picture with their cellphones. At their age, Canada’s second most trusted man—trailing only David Suzuki in an April survey by Reader’s Digest—was a dropout, working full-time as a renovator, and living alone in a Toronto apartment where he wired the TV, stereo and all the lights to a panel attached to his armchair. Now he’s standing there, jabbing his finger in the air like Apollo Creed in Rocky, and pulling out every trick in the motivational bag to convince them to stay in school, and preferably pick up a skilled trade. There’s the scare: “If you quit, what the hell are you going to do? Work at McDonald’s?” Blandishment: “There’s so much opportunity. In 10 years, we’re going to be a million tradespeople short.” Even the potential for hookups: “I have met some of the hottest female electricians, welders and plumbers . . .”
But it’s the appeals to a higher purpose that seem to really capture their attention. Working construction isn’t just about throwing up ticky-tacky boxes in the suburbs, it’s blazing a path to change, Holmes promises. Energy efficient homes that can be “heated with a candle, and cooled with an ice cube.” Eliminating mouldy attics and basements so that kids don’t develop asthma. Saving the planet from evils as diverse as oil dependency to prescription meds entering the water supply via our toilets.
On a crisp fall day, beneath a blue and white striped tent in a field outside Brantford, Ont., Holmes is preaching the eco-gospel with fervour. He talks about the subdivision he’s planning in Okotoks, Alta., envisioned as the “greenest community in North America.” He mentions his stint last year as an official adviser to Canada’s delegation at the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change, and a new pilot project with the Assembly of First Nations to design and construct sustainable housing for Canada’s native reserves. He pledges that sometime in 2011, there will be a relief mission to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, one that will mirror his successful New Orleans project in the wake of hurricane Katrina. (“Haiti’s not quite ready for me,” he tells the teens.) It’s the “Make it Right” philosophy he’s been expounding on TV since 2003, and more recently in a newspaper column, books, and an eponymous magazine, writ far larger than fixing somebody’s leaky basement. The revolution is coming, and the crew-cut 47-year-old with the bib overalls and Popeye forearms is nominating himself as its leader. “I’ve taken on the world,” Mike Holmes proclaims. “I’m the guy who throws the bricks and blocks through the windows. I’m the guy who makes things happen.”
The story of Mike is a well-polished monologue. It begins with his father Jim, a “jack of all trades, master of none,” who begat a repair prodigy. At six, Holmes will tell you, he helped rewire the family home in Toronto’s east end. At 12, he refinished his first basement. At 19, he was running a contracting company with 13 employees. By 21, he owned his own firm. The family, which includes an older sister and younger brother, was poor—“Kraft Dinner and hot dogs on a daily basis”—but happy. “Doing things right the first time” was the Holmes way.
The stuff that usually gets left out of the spiel are the grittier details. How he left school in Grade 11 after clashing with his teachers. How he married at 19, became a father at 21, and had two more kids by his mid-20s. How the last big economic downturn in the early 1990s practically wiped him out. As the reno market tilted toward the “bottom-feeders,” Holmes had to sell his company building, then lay off all his employees, and finally sell his car. His marriage imploded. And then, about a month after he and his wife separated, his father died at age 55.
“My dad went down to the basement one night, missed the top step, fell down the stairs and broke his neck,” Holmes says quietly. We’re sitting in the backyard of a split-level in North York. Out front his crew are getting ready to drill holes for a geothermal heating system, a project that will be part of the upcoming season of his new show Holmes Inspection.
His mother Shirley died a few years later at age 56—she had a heart condition, but it was the medication that killed her, says Holmes. The losses have left Canada’s favourite contractor with a rather morbid outlook. “Even when I was younger, I said that I’d never make it to 60,” he says. That’s why he’s in a hurry to break ground on his first Holmes Community in Okotoks, start fixing the reserves, build the business and a legacy for his own kids. (All three work for him, although the eldest, Amanda, is on maternity leave, having recently made him a grandfather.) “It’s a different focus. It means that I’ve got to accomplish everything I want to accomplish by that age. I’ve got 13 years left.”
The TV stardom that fuels those grand ambitions came about through serendipity. A decade ago, Holmes took on a side project building sets for an HGTV how-to show, Just Ask Jon Eakes. Michael Quast, then the director of studio programming for Alliance Atlantis, now the Holmes Group CEO operations, figured the stagehand was a star-in-waiting. “He came in with veins popping out on his neck, and diarrhea of the mouth, talking about how he was sick and tired of seeing people get screwed by contractors. I said, that’s a great concept for a television show and you should host it.”
It took more than a year to get Holmes on Homes off the ground. Pete Kettlewell, who started off doing sound for the show, moved on to be the director, and is now CEO media for Holmes’s company, recalls the particular challenge of finding reno victims. “Nobody wanted anything to do with Mike. We couldn’t get into anybody’s house to film.” In desperation, they snapped a picture of their electrician, Frank Cozzolino, bent over on the job, and plastered his plumber’s butt on flyers asking consumers if they were “tired of getting a bum deal.” Holmes himself handed them out along busy Toronto sidewalks and in Home Depot parking lots.