A Stable Relationship: Dutch Masters Construction Services
Gary van Bolderen carved out an exceptional niche in the equestrian business. Now his son is taking over the reins – and Gary couldn’t be happier.
Builder Gary van Bolderen, who has constructed dozens of high-end stables throughout Headwaters and beyond, is about to celebrate a milestone. For him, 2015 won’t just be the 25th anniversary of his business, or the year many of his equestrian customers are abuzz about the Pan Am Games. It is the year his son Greg will officially take over his company, Dutch Masters Construction Services.
“Our only business is designing and building horse farm properties,” Gary says. But within that simple statement is a barn full of service offerings: anything and everything that can transform his clients’ dreams of equestrian havens into reality.
Greg was just six years old when Gary started the business. The farm building company he was working for had decided to pull out of the area, leaving a partially completed project and a property owner, out of the country at the time, hanging in uncertainty. When the owner returned, Gary keenly agreed to complete the job, and within a week had another client waiting. The equestrian community is a close one – and it didn’t take long for word to spread about an honest, quality builder who could be trusted with every detail of construction, from planning to completion.
Going into business and committing to 18-hour days was something Gary could not have done without the support of his late wife, Kerry. At the time the couple had three young children and their eldest, Graham, required constant care following an early childhood illness. Though Greg says he never felt any pressure from his dad to join the business, his decision in 2010 to leave his job with a civil engineering firm to work for his dad as a project co-ordinator was influenced by troubles at home. Within the preceding year, Graham had died of complications from pneumonia, Kerry had been diagnosed with leukemia, and a purchaser who had convinced a reluctant Gary to sell the company had reneged on the deal.
Now Greg, 29, who holds a diploma in civil engineering technology as well as a B.Eng. from Lakehead University, is both committed to and excited about the company’s future. “I always wanted to be in construction,” says the man who as a boy used to tag along with his dad to job sites.
As for Gary, even after all his years in the business of building horse barns, he admits he still feels like “a farmer boy.” His fatherly advice to Greg on running a successful company is, “Nothing is free. There are no shortcuts. As long as you are honest, most people will give you the benefit of the doubt.”
But Gary also acknowledges that the building industry has changed over the last quarter century. In a much more complex and restrictive regulatory environment, it is no longer just about handshake agreements and erecting high-quality structures.
So in addition to designing and managing project construction, Dutch Masters takes on the role of agent, wading through building permit applications, conservation authority approvals, site plan agreements, structural engineering drawings, ventilation design, storm water management, nutrient management compliance, and every other hurdle that could stand between an idea and an award-winning building. As a matter of fact, that is one area where Gary is confident that Greg will “be a lot more successful in business than I was.”
That’s no small praise from a man held in such high esteem by clients and industry insiders alike. Under Gary’s leadership, Dutch Masters has been consistently recognized by its peers within the farm construction industry as a leader in the equestrian category. Among the company’s many awards, it has received the prestigious Canadian Farm Builders Association Project of the Year award for an unrivalled seven times in a decade.
The awards are “an honour and a privilege” that Gary says he gladly shares with his clients.
“The one comment we hear most often is that we have really nice designs. But I can’t take credit for them. We work closely with the clients to make sure that the designs reflect their ideas as much as our own.”
A visit to the company website reveals an expansive gallery of their projects. Many are new and palatial stables, others are historically sensitive renovations of existing barns. Most are private and often hidden from the road. A commercial exception is Running Fox, a fine English tack and apparel store in Mono Mills. There, after demolishing a decrepit building, Dutch Masters erected a 6,000-square-foot, timber-frame retail space that includes such details as a leather-inlaid store counter, a cathedral ceiling, a tongue-and-groove ash floor and a stone fireplace, with a custom cupola on the roof.
Even after next year’s change in ownership, neither Greg nor Gary are ready to stop working together. “He has to succeed in order for me to have a good retirement. So I have a vested interest in him doing well – besides, I enjoy it,” says Gary, who now lives in Caledon East and has remarried.
That dedication and strong work ethic is something that can be traced back to the family’s farming background. Gary came to Canada from Holland at age four with his parents. His father always wanted to own a greenhouse, but was never able to afford one. Instead, he ran someone else’s dairy farm and vineyard near St. Catharines. As an adolescent, while his friends opted for drunken weekends in Buffalo, Gary happily worked the farm with his father.
After graduating from the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, Gary wanted to buy a farm but couldn’t afford one and ended up selling barns for Beaver Lumber. “They must have seen something in me that I didn’t,” recalls Gary. To convince him to join the company, they had a sales manager drive down to St. Catharines from Barrie.
“I’m expecting somebody with the flashy pants and car. Instead I get an old farmer who lost his arm in a farm accident. He caught me off guard. He was this nice old guy with one arm, a plaid suit and a cardigan. None of this white-belt stuff,” chuckles Gary. “I say to him, ‘I cannot talk people into buying something they don’t want.’ And he says, ‘Oh, that’s not what your job is. You’ll never make a living if you do that. Your job is to find a better solution for a customer’s needs than anyone else.’ I always thought that was something.”
To this day, Greg remembers his mentor’s words each time he sees a customer. “I think, what is the best thing I would do if this was my property or my horses, and how would I do it?”
For 25 years Gary has successfully carved, as he puts it, “a niche inside a niche market” by answering that question as fully and honestly as he can. And is best advice to Greg is to do the same.