Opinion: Ottawa’s OakWood building strong reputation

Family-owned Ottawa home renovation firm nails down coveted endorsement from key industry player, Bruce Firestone reports


I think it’s fair to say that Ottawa is not exactly renowned for having a plethora of great companies. So imagine my surprise when I walked into OakWood founder John Liptak’s gigantic design centre in east-end Ottawa to learn that his $10-million building is Canada’s highest LEED-certified structure stuffed with more than 7,500 high-end products – everything from fantabulous kitchens and bathrooms to safe rooms hidden behind false walls.

In addition to the in-house inventory, OakWood offers another 150,000 products via QR codes, which are everywhere.

John runs the business with his wife, Debbie. His two daughters, Patricia Liptak-Satov and Angela Liptak, are also active in the organization. It is the largest home renovation company in Ottawa, doing 485 jobs last year ranging from in size from $20,000 to $6 million.

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Recently, I sat down with Mr. Liptak to find out more about this remarkable company. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

BF: How many employees do you currently have and how many do you think you will have by the end of 2017?

JL: We currently have 59 in our main construction company, not including all the other areas. We also work with over 650 trade partners and suppliers. We expect to have around 27 per cent controlled growth in 2017.

BF: What’s the fastest-growing part of your business and why?

JL: Our new HandyManPRO service, which was launched in February 2016, is technically the fastest-growing division of OakWood, but the fastest-growing division financially is our investment property division.

BF: How difficult is it to transition to the next generation?

JL: For me it is truly easy. When you run a construction company, business is personal and personal life is mixed in with business, so our children were always immersed in the business world. Both Patricia and Angela have been working with my wife Debbie and me since they played with their dolls and teddy bears. During university, we encouraged both girls to experience other work – always trusting our instincts that someday they would return with new added experiences. That is exactly what happened. We are truly blessed that we all get along so well and have a common vision.

BF: What role does Angela play?

JL: Angela is the CFO who guides our finances within our group of companies and divisions. Being a CMA, she has professional insight and knowledge that makes our family businesses even stronger. Angela oversees all accounting and manages our finances.

BF: And Debbie?

JL: It started out with Debbie doing all accounting and then transitioned into Debbie helping with the accounting to now Debbie providing childcare for our four wonderful grandchildren and also helping with the accounting. Debbie is my soulmate, and she is the primary reason that I am not living in a tent because I would not even know what size clothes I wear. She is the quiet person in the background that always takes care of business.

BF: How hard is it to train your subcontractors and bring them up to your standard?

JL: Employee and trade partner training are a large part of what we spend a huge amount of company resources on. First of all, interviewing and finding the best employees and trade partners is enormously time-consuming to do properly. We want the best trades and employees that we can find. Truly talented trades are very hard to find, and we are hopeful that the next generation coming out of our colleges will be better trained. We are also hopeful that the age of “entitled to their entitlements” is over and the next generation will once again be a hard-working one. We weigh ethics and attitude almost 50 per cent in interviews. When a trade has a great attitude, then we have very little issue establishing higher expectations and asking them to improve their skill set. We lead the way. There are many other ways to entice a trade to meet your expectations, and one method is to reward trades that work well with more work and early payment. OakWood has a trade partner rating system where we rate different aspects of each trade partner … and being in first place gives first dibs on the next project.

BF: Is the Ottawa market sufficiently quality conscious or is everyone just looking for the lowest price?

JL: This is difficult to answer, as it is yet to be determined. We definitely are increasing our market share, but do not yet know where it will top out. Canada and specifically Ottawa have nowhere near the level of quality consciousness of Europe or specifically Germany, where supply and service is much more of a priority in terms of quality and longevity. For example, in Germany families invest and make decisions about their homes for generations and expect to pass the family home down to their children and grandchildren.

BF: How has Google or Facebook changed OakWood?

JL: OakWood changed the way we market ourselves in the late ’90s and much more dramatically in the last five years. Google and Facebook are very important to OakWood, but, having said this, there is still a big demand in our marketplace to actually touch and feel the products. Since we opened our new by-appointment-only design centre, our success rate (closing rate) has gone way up – from one out of every six proposals to one out of every 2.5. People are still very visual for the most part, and that is also why we are investing heavily in new hologram technologies.

Mr. Liptak is very proud of his German heritage, and he feels that attention to detail is one of the fundamental reasons why the firm has achieved success – that and creating a top-rated brand are the two “secrets” that Mr. Liptak credits for the growth of the business.

He also mentions that his firm is the only one hard-charging Mike Holmes has endorsed in Ottawa; he went out of his way to show me the spacious and well-appointed office that is exclusively reserved for the media sensation when he visits OakWood monthly.

Mr. Liptak also says the firm is very picky when it comes to hiring – OakWood accepts just one out of every 111 applicants who apply. He expects the firm’s head office headcount to reach 75 employees this year, with room in the building for 45 more. The total number of contracts it will put through this year will top 500 in what Mr. Liptak says will be more “controlled growth” for the company.

Control is very important to Mr. Liptak, lest anything tarnish the OakWood brand.

Bruce M. Firestone is a founder of the Ottawa Senators, a Century 21 Explorer Realty broker, real estate investor and business coach. Follow him on twitter @ProfBruce or e-mail him at bruce.firestone@century21.ca.

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