By Charlie Blore
What defines a Parkhill home? In short, a top-quality design and an ease of living that is unmatched. That’s what president, Derek Thorsteinson, and his wife and sales director, Lori, have prided themselves on for the last 22 years. And it’s how they’ve taken a floundering building company and transformed into one of the top custom builders in the country.
“We purchased, what I call, a 1970’s style of builder and brought it up to the mid-80’s almost overnight because a lot of the specs and the detail and the things that they were doing were dated,” explains Thorsteinson. “We really took over a drawer full of plans that, quite frankly, weren’t all that attractive. Our expertise has been in design since that day.”
Design and taking the time and care necessary to get the project done exactly the way a client wants it. Parkhill Homes aims to complete between just 20 and 25 new units per year — a tight limit that is completely self-imposed to ensure a high level of quality.
In the late 1980’s, the company strove to be all things to all people, often spending big money on advertising and pushing their work load as high as 100 starts per annum. It’s an approach that was soon abandoned for a custom-design operation powered by referrals, much to the delight of all involved.
“[My wife and I] decided we weren’t happy with the lack of customer contact we were having as the owners and operators of a building company,” says Thorsteinson. “We decided we preferred the total custom approach to housing and the relationships we developed with the clients on a one-on-one basis.”
Starting from Scratch
For Thorsteinson, his construction career began in finance. A former CIBC corporate manager who specialized in residential construction financing and land development, he would leave the bank when the opportunity to buy a piece of Parkhill homes presented itself. With a bit of coaxing, that is.
“It was actually my boss at the time who encouraged me to take the opportunity to step out and purchase the company,” recalls Thorsteinson. “He felt I had the ability and what it took in terms of brains and a little bit of fortitude to take the chance. As it turns out he was right and I still thank him to this day for making me realize what was in front of me.”
Brains and fortitude would be all the more important because while he had developed an in depth understanding of the Winnipeg market through his work at the bank, Thorsteinson had exactly zero hands-on experience when he made the jump. So did his wife Lori, for that matter, when she left her own career as a mortgage manager at CIBC. She would soon become a fully licensed real estate broker and take over the marketing and sales responsibilities for the bourgeoning company.
Responding to an Evolving Market
(from left) Framer Wayne Sutter, production manager Jeff Krishka, Derek and Lori Thorsteinson, sales manager.
Over the next 17 years the pair would narrow their focus and define their skill set more fully. Until last year, that is, when the company began an incursion into the renovation market. The division will be expected to complete a modest eight to ten renovation projects a year.
It’s part of a global strategy the company is employing to maximize growth in an environment defined by ever-rising housing prices. Increasingly, affordability is becoming an issue in new starts and that trend was a driving force behind Parkhill’s decision to move into the renovation market. This, combined with the aging of the baby boomer population, have Thorsteinson predicting a pivotal shift away from large single-family custom to multi-family condo projects over the next five to ten years. It should come as no surprise therefore that the company’s five-year plan is one defined by the flexibility needed to meet this projected demand shift, rather than a fixed path punctuated by hard targets.
“When you’re running a business I think you want to be where the client wants to be and so we haven’t had any preconceived ideas about where we’re going,” explains Thorsteinson. “We are, like a lot of people, aggressively watching what’s happening with the market place but I think what we are going to see is a downsizing of units that are out there with a significant increase in the value that’s being put into them in terms of the extras and the convenience of living.”
No hands-on experience; a floundering company; how did Derek Thorsteinson take these two conditions and turn them into one of the top builders in the country? He credits the company’s superior design skills.
“I think that a lot of people, when they’re designing homes, forget that what they really want to deal with is how they’re going to live and what their lifestyle and habits are,” Thorsteinson says. “We do, I think, an outstanding job of pulling that out of a client, turning it into a house design and then getting the house done for them.”
A professional designer is still brought in to oversee the final stages. At that point, though, the bulk of the work has already been done in terms of drawing out the wishes of the client and translating them into a comprehensive design.
“We kind of do it as an overview for the client to give them some comfort that someone who does have the professional training in interior design has looked at the project and has given it his stamp of approval,” says Thorsteinson. “But generally speaking that’s a pretty smooth transition for us and not much in the way of major change takes place.”
Design should have been yet another insurmountable challenge; another area where someone coming out of the financial sector without any hint of formal training in design should excel. Instead the Thorsteinsons turned it into their greatest strength. It seems no challenge is too great for some people.