Looking Back – Moving Forward, A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN TOELLE
Story by Annette Yourk
I sat down with John Toelle to talk about the construction business, but according to John, “It’s all about the people who have been part of it.” Perfect – where there are people, there are stories. John came to Read Island from Seattle at age 17 (1972) after falling in love with this area at his parents’ summer home on Quadra. Read became home for the next ten years. “I learned a lot living on the islands. I taught myself to be a carpenter, building summer cabins and buildings in logging camps. I also learned some important lessons.
“My neighbor, Jim Shaw, got a contract on Rendezvous Island, building roads when it was newly subdivided. He negotiated my first fixed-price contract to house shallow wells. Ann and I gathered the materials and towed them up. It was late November. The weather was horrid. Ann nearly sank a boat moving lumber from a float to the beach. We set camp and I told Jim that none of the conditions were what we’d expected. Nothing was right. I was demoralized and wanted to leave the materials and walk. “You can’t quit,” Jim said. “He was right. We were both broke. So we skidded the lumber up from the beach, built cradles out of deadfall cedars, and then the sun came out. Ann and I had a fantastic time building those well houses. We walked away with $700 and that got us through the winter. I’ve never considered quitting on anything since.”
John was passionate about building at a young age. He loved his first construction job and saw building as a great way to survive in the world. “In the early days of the business I was a one-man-show. Remember, there were no cell phones, computers, internet, or faxes. I was on the phone all evening with suppliers and sub-trades people, handwriting invoices at my desk; then up at 6am, loading trucks so the crew could start at 8am sharp. It was harder on Read – no phones and everything boated in. You had to be super organized to get anything done.
“Mom stepped in and offered to do my bookkeeping, which was a shoeboxof receipts then. Her help changed everything.” Betty was highly organized, smart about business, and progressive; becoming the first one in the company to learn computer skills and the first to bookkeep electronically. Eight years later she was ready to retire, so I approached our friend, Karen Dunn, to take over. Mom trained her in Simply Accounting and Karen is still with us, taking on a considerably larger role as Office Manager and keeping us all together.
Bill and Mary Pirie’s home was John’s first genuine, custom-designed house project. “Paul Mortimer and I worked together then; a two-man crew that occasionally hired help. At the same time we landed a framing job for Mitch Lukinuck and a house building contract for Peter Dirse. Paul and I were building the forms at Mitch’s when I severely ruptured a disc in my back and landed in the hospital. By the time the walls were framed, I was out of hospital, limping around the site, and swinging a hammer. I ended up having emergency back surgery, but the Pirie project did a lot for my reputation and experience. I definitely grew from it.”
“Those were incredibly intense years. We were all raising families then. I was building a business. There was a lot of pressure. Building opportunities seemed endless. John was on his motorbike returning from a jobsite down a long logging road at dusk when a bat got scooped into his helmet. While trying to pull his helmet off, he dumped his bike, broke his ankle, ruptured another disk, and spent most of that year on his back.
“At the time, I was building houses for Bill and Susan Kolker, Dave and Eileen Nord, Nancy Cook and Tracy Tomlinson, and Todd and Lily Scharf. Kent O’Neill worked with me then and he picked up the ball and ran with it. Kent was a big part of the company for many years.”
In the last year John has been taking a back seat in the company, paving the way for Matt Griswold and Marshall Toelle to eventually assume ownership. “I’m still behind them to consult with on aspects of construction and advise on important decisions, but the daily organization of crews and work, and 90% of client communications are done by them.”
“Matt started for us when he was 16, first at Steve and Mary Burnett’s house pushing broom. He became one of my first apprentices. He was a journeyman carpenter in four years and began supervising jobs at age 25. In the last two years Matt managed a number of large projects at Hakai Pass, Calvert Island, for the Tula Foundation. Materials are barged in monthly. Matt arrives with a ten-man crew and has limited time for specific work. Everything has to be there and everything has to click. The logistics of this job have really honed his organizational skills.
Marshall was on construction sites as a teen and had his journeyman’s ticket at 24. He has worked alongside some of Quadra’s best carpenters. Marshall studied Construction Management at BCIT and he’s been supervising jobs for over four years. He built our first two certified Built GreenTM energy-rated houses. Marshall is a great people person with excellent communication skills. Both Matt and Marshall know how important the communication piece is in this business. They built in lots of lead time for clients and talk them through decisions. I couldn't ask for better men to provide management at this time. "At their age, I was motivated to get things done, and I was direct about it: ' just tell me what you want and I'll do it.'
"When I was working on Rob and Diana McKerracher's house I saw Diana in Campbell River. I pulled over, jumped out and started asking her questions about things they hadn't made decisions on. Diana was overwhelmed. Fortunately, she still calls me a friend. I understand now how difficult it is to build your own house."
"This company's success has always relied on the motivation of the people who work in it. When I was asked to meet John PatKau, the architect for Tula house in Hyacinthe Bay, I sat down, looked at the plans, and questions if I should take the job on. It was so detailed and so complex and ultra-modern. Could we pull it off? I called a meeting with our project supervisors. "What do you think?" I asked, and Guy Holmes said, "We have to do this job." We won the bid and Guy became project manager for six years. It is the most amazing thing we've built, with everything done to the smallest detail. I take huge pride in the workmanship and ingenuity of our crew to pull it off. Their work is unsurpassed in my experience.
Looking ahead, I'd like to see JToelle Construction carry on as an employer and a place of opportunity for people to make a good living as a craftsman, carpenters, supervisors, administrators and leaders as they continue to build for our valued clients.