Successful Entrepreneurs of Calgary: Cal Wenzel

By: Roy Zhang

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Mr. Wenzel and the author.

A good business is often defined by its revenue, its products, or, in the case of Shane Homes, its reputation. Shane Homes is currently one of the biggest homebuilders in Calgary, with operations in Airdrie and Okotoks, and is well known throughout Southern Alberta as a flexible, punctual, and trustworthy company. Therefore, when I attempted to schedule an interview with Shane Homes’ founder and CEO, Mr. Cal Wenzel, I had expected the company to be far too busy to respond to an interview request from a (relatively) unknown tenth-grade student. My expectations turned out to be wrong, as I received a very timely response to my email on the very next day, informing me that Mr. Wenzel was indeed available for an interview. I was pleasantly surprised, and after a couple more emails back and forth, we had arranged an interview for Tuesday, September 30th.

I arrived at the Shane Homes head office at 8:25 AM on September 30th. In the front lobby, I was greeted by a very friendly receptionist. She informed me that Mr. Wenzel was not in yet, and offered me hot beverages. After a little while, Mr. Wenzel came in through the front doors, and I introduced myself, receiving a very firm handshake in return. Mr. Wenzel then led me to his office on the second floor, where a large window and door overlooked a balcony and the street below.

We started the interview by talking about Mr. Wenzel’s early life. Although he came from Saskatchewan, Mr. Wenzel completed the majority of his education in Medicine Hat, having moved there at a young age. He did not, however, complete any post-secondary education, choosing instead to sit in at business lectures at Mount Royal University where he learnt valuable business and marketing information, but not how to be successful. “What I didn’t learn, though, was how to be successful. There is no guide to success.”

When asked about his motivation for starting Shane Homes, Mr. Wenzel paused, and proceeded to summarize it with one word. “Survival!” He had been heavily involved with the mobile home industry as a director of marketing. But although the penetration of the mobile home market was rising, the overall numbers of mobile homes within Western Canada were going down dramatically, and his company was recommended to close. ”It was simply a matter of the fact that there was no basis to even be in business.”

After Mr. Wenzel’s mobile home company was sold, he decided to step into the homebuilding industry, establishing Shane Homes with a partner in 1975, with support from his family. For the founding of Shane Homes, Mr. Wenzel drew inspiration from his father, who was both a licenced mechanic and a licenced carpenter. He had taught both Mr. Wenzel and his brother the art of homebuilding. Mr. Wenzel’s first construction projects were granaries and barns, being guided by his father on site. By the time Mr. Wenzel was a young man, he had possessed the skills and the know-how to build homes from the ground up, utilizing skills from multiple trades, such as cement mixing and siding in one project. “So, when people ask: do I know how to build a house? The answer is yes. Yes, I do.”

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Shane Homes, New Brighton

In their first year of operation, Shane Homes built three homes. Mr. Wenzel and his partner were responsible of the whole process, from planning, to construction, to sales. He recounts this period with a lot of nostalgia. “…it was fun, back then. More fun than it is today.” Around the construction of their fiftieth home, Shane Homes hired their first staff, adding to a rapidly expanding company.

As a growing company, Shane Homes faced many challenges. The Calgary housing market has always been characterized by an unending shortage of lots and a massive demand for newly built homes. Therefore, lot brokering was quite common, with brokers making anywhere from five to ten thousand dollars of profit on the resale of a single lot. This made the acquisition of lots by a newly founded homebuilder very difficult, as they had to get on good terms with developers and brokers to even get a chance to purchase lots. The 1983-84 recession, however, proved to be a major turnaround. While causing the collapse of numerous corporations and businesses, the recession decreased the price of lots in Calgary massively, fueling the growth of Shane Homes. “As much as it hurt and destroyed a lot of good friends I came to know in the industry, it did help us grow quite dramatically. Sometimes, you do need the bad times.”

Today, Shane Homes is one of the most successful homebuilders in the Calgary region. In regards to Shane Home’s success, Mr. Wenzel cites loyalty as one of the most important necessities. “We’re loyal to our staff, we’re loyal to our trades, and we’re loyal to our customers. We have quite a list of company principles. One of them is that we pay our bills on time.” Shane Homes has worked with the same staff, and the same suppliers, for 20 years. “We have made deals with the same suppliers for 20 years, and we generally won’t change, even if the prices are better.” Another important distinction is efficiency and punctuality. “Most people want to know if they’ve got a deal, the sooner the better. Yet, some of my competitors take upwards of two weeks to get back to the customer. For us, we have systems that allow us to approve a deal, and get back to our customers, almost instantly.”

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Shane Homes, Skyview Ranch

On the topic of Entrepreneurship, Mr. Wenzel regards former mentor and friend Jimmy Pattison very highly. “Jimmy is one of the best salespeople I’ve ever run across in my life. He’s also one of the smartest, surest businesspeople I’ve ever run across, too.” Mr. Pattison, who happens to be the owner of the Jim Pattison Group and one of the richest people in Canada, was a tremendous influence on Mr. Wenzel’s ways of business. “Jimmy always told us: never look at accounting as an evil, but as a necessity. If you didn’t know your figures and your numbers, you didn’t know your business.”

Mr. Wenzel even recalls the events of his 60th birthday. “My wife arranged for Jimmy to come to my 60th birthday, which was 10 years ago. He came, which was a total surprise, because I hadn’t worked with him for 25 years. I asked him then; ‘do you still have that yellow felt marker that you used to have?’ You see, back then, he always used to have quarterly meetings with every division he had, and he would sit there. If there was something (undesirable) that we were saying, like how the margin wasn’t high enough, or something like that. If that yellow felt marker came out, you remembered where you were, because he’s going to ask you a question. Jimmy never said anything, nothing, during the meetings, except for that yellow felt marker. Then, at the end, he would say: well, you said this, why is that? And ask all of the questions. Well, he still has his yellow felt marker in his jacket, 25 years later! And I said; ‘do you still have all of your statements?’ And he said: ‘Yes.’ He’s got all of that, even after all these years.”

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Shane Homes, Nolan Hill

To Mr. Wenzel, a good entrepreneur is defined not by their wealth, but by their reputation. He stresses the importance of relations. “People are a necessity. I can’t ever foresee a machine being able to do what we do. If you can’t get along with people, you can’t roll.” Integrity is also important to Mr. Wenzel. ”Jimmy once told me, many years ago, that selling is simply satisfying the customer’s needs in a professional and courteous manner. We try do that, even within our company. I wouldn’t want anybody’s money if we had to lie to get it. And I’d give it back if I ever found that any of my salespeople did that. We’re very serious about it, and fortunately, so is my family. If you want to stay around, you have to work on the basis of your honesty and integrity. There will be some people that slide ahead of you for a while, because they lie, cheat, and deceive. I don’t know how the hell these people sleep at night. For me, I like to go home at night, and say that I did business in a good, fair, honest manner, and that we were successful, or that today was a tough day, that I can accept. But if we have to cheat to win, then it’s not worth winning.”

Finally, Mr. Wenzel left us with some advice for aspiring young entrepreneurs. “Work hard! Again, I’ll go back to what Jimmy told us years ago, and I’ve worked at a similar attitude: If you think you only have enough to do for 8 hours a day, then find something else to do! To accomplish anything, I don’t think 8 hours is enough. You’ve got to do your research, and study your information if you want to move ahead. There’s a lot of information on computers, and there’s a lot of publications that come out. As well, there is a lot of work involved with entrepreneurship, and that can be difficult sometimes, with family. Fortunately, my wife picked up the reins when I started Shane Homes, and I learned to share my time, with the kids, with work, with everything. But my main advice? You’re going to have to work hard. Because there will be other people that will be out there too, going against you. And from my experience, the people that worked a little harder, and smarter, got ahead. If you expect to roll into office at 10, and out at 4, you likely won’t succeed. Also, you’ve got to be patient! It’s not just up and up. There are some that rise like a shooting star, and die out like one. There’s nothing wrong with taking it a little slower.”

Author’s notes: Hey! Thanks for taking the time to read my article! It is my first article, so I ask for your forgiveness in advance for any language and phrasing faults. If you liked this article, and want to see more like it, please let me know, either through the comment system, or in person!

-Roy Z

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