Most people want to make a difference in the world but aren’t always sure where to start. For Michelle Taggart, her eye-opening moment came while she was a first-year university student and environmental activist protesting outside the 3rd Summit of the Americas in 2001.
She watched from the rowdy crowd while the security gates opened long enough to permit entry for the cars carrying the leaders and influencers.
“I felt kind of powerless out there,” Taggart recalls of that day in Quebec City. “I decided that if I wanted to make a difference, I would have to be in the room where the decisions were being made.”
She came up with a plan. She completed her business degree at Dalhousie and went on to earn her master’s in urban planning at Queen’s University. She worked for several years in Toronto with a global urban design firm before returning to her hometown in 2010 to join her family’s well-regarded business: Taggart Group of Companies.
You’d have to be living under a bulldozer to never have heard of the Taggarts, their philanthropic contributions to this city or the range of land development work they do in eastern Ontario, from infrastructure, homebuilding and commercial development to property management and general contracting.
“The best and most obvious way for me to make a difference was to work for the company, and to help my family take it in new directions and make it more green,” says Taggart, 37, during an interview at Cardinal Creek Village in Orléans, where subsidiary company Tamarack Homes is developing a 3,000-residence, energy star-equipped community that uses less energy due to improvements in components such as windows and insulation.
“The best and most obvious way for me to make a difference was to work for the company, and to help my family take it in new directions and make it
The new development gets its inspiration from the area’s history as a mill site. It features old-fashioned light posts and fencing, pathways and parks and will eventually include a main street with stores.
Green initiatives, such as building net-zero homes that produce as much energy as they consume, are a priority for the Taggarts.
“We love building homes for people. My favourite part about my work is walking through a neighbourhood that we built and seeing kids on their bikes, people in their gardens, healthy trees on front lawns of beautiful homes, and knowing that we started with an empty field, a vision and some hand sketches,” says Taggart, who joined the company as a planner but is now responsible for land development, planning approvals and project management.
Climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro
Taggart likes trash talk – of the literal kind. She’s been working for years with her father Ian and cousin Jeff Parkes to get a recycling plant built in the rural east end on Boundary Road. It has received approval from the province and the city. The new facility will recycle three to four times more commercial waste than the current provincial average of only 13 per cent.
Taggart – who spent her honeymoon climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro – is driven. She is working toward partnership in the Taggart Group.
One of the greatest challenges of her career, however, has been finding the balance between ambitious career woman and doting wife and mother.
As an aspiring partner in the business, Michelle didn’t want to slow down when she had kids with her husband, Alex Wilson. She worked part-time within weeks of the birth of each of her three daughters.
“At home, my Margot is only one-and-a-half, and some mornings when I’m leaving, she is tugging on my skirt and crying. I want to be a strong role model for my daughters, and I know that for me, being a business leader is part of that. But it’s still hard.”
Taggart Group goes back three generations to her grandfather, Harold Taggart. He built a few dozen homes in the Westboro area for returning war veterans and, recognizing an opportunity in servicing the land, went out and bought the biggest shovel he could find to start an infrastructure company, Taggart Construction, in 1948.
He and his wife, Muriel, raised their seven children in one of the homes Harold had built in those early days. The kids grew up involved in the family business, and many went on to join it.
Harold and Muriel made sure to instil a strong sense of family.
“They always said, ‘Family first,’” says Taggart, who was 10 when her grampy – or “grumpy” as his nickname came to be – passed away.
Today, Taggart Group generates about $350 million in annual revenues, employs more than 500 people in Ottawa and Kingston and enjoys one of the lowest worker turnover rates in the industry. Its subsidiary companies are Taggart Construction, Tamarack Homes, Taggart Realty and Doran Contractors.
“The funny thing is, though, in many ways we still think and act like a small family business. We still make decisions informally, sitting around the boardroom table,” says Taggart, who loves working with her uncles, cousins and her sister as well as her father. “There are politics involved, but we’re best friends and we have fun.”
So tight is the Taggart and Parkes clan that they tend to travel in packs, whether it’s skiing, cottaging or going to charity events together.
“There’s never one; there’s always a group of us,” jokes Taggart.
Thinking back to her first day on the job eight years ago, she remembers giving everyone hugs. They were, after all, her family. Older cousin Scott Parkes broke it to her gently: “Uh, Miche, we don’t usually hug at the office.”
Never mind. She still gives them hugs – just maybe not at work.
Five things to know about Michelle Taggart:
- She and her family live in one of the original Westboro-area homes her grandfather built. She was not aware of the connection the first time she viewed the house when it was for sale, but when she told her father about the listing, he knew right away. Taggart and her husband added on to the home as their family grew, while preserving the original character and features.
- Taggart’s biggest inspiration is her father Ian, retired president of Taggart Construction. “He’s very practical and level-headed,” she said while giving him credit for expanding the company with his brother Jim and brother-in-law, David Parkes. “They were always a little conservative, but that worked because they grew it slowly, and it has continued on growing.”
- She is a mentor for young mothers at the Youville Centre.
- Taggart plays guitar, bass
andpiano. She and her husband have a studio set up in the basement for jamming with friends and family.
- Taggart grew up as one of three daughters and has gone on to have three daughters herself: Lucy, 6, Vivia, 5, and Margot, 18 months.