Royal Homes president Pieter Venema talks 50 years in business, impact of COVID-19 virus
WINGHAM – The 1970s was a time of many things, but in the construction world it was the beginning of prefabricated homes. It is also when Royal Homes began what would become its 50-year business journey.
Royal Homes President Pieter Venema said prefabricated building originally started in the United States and Sweden as a way to efficiently produce long runs of the same type of house by saving on material waste and labour, while increasing the speed at which the homes could be built.
“In Ontario, when Royal Homes was founded, we started out that way as well,” Venema said.
Although that part of the business did not last long.
Venema said when the recession in the late 80s and early 90s came about, Royal Homes – like many other businesses – were left scrambling for work.
“At that time, I decided that rather than saying no to client’s requests for changes to the homes they had purchased, we said yes,” he said.
Royal Homes invested in developing the software, mentality, and skills to be able to produce custom homes.
“That is what helped us get out of the recession… we were able to sell more homes because we had that custom home ability,” Venema said. “We became a company that was not as production focused but moved towards being customer-focused.”
He further explained, “What we did was we said we are primarily a custom home builder first. We build with prefabricated because it is a better way to build with all the efficiencies that are available through prefabrication. However, if the project and the home require custom elements that cannot be done in the factory, we will build it on site. We have combined the elements of both ways of building prefabricated in the factory and on-site.”
This custom aspect of the business is what set Royal Homes apart from other businesses in Ontario, and they never looked back.
“Royal Homes was one of, if not the only to offer this aspect of customization in a prefabricated home at that time,” Venema said.
He said they were forced to make those changes, and in doing so it propelled the company forward.
“When we got good at it, and the recession was over, we thought why go back?” Venema said.
Over the years, the company has had to make several changes, one of which was the take on light-commercial projects such as cancer clinics, drug dispensaries, and lawyers firms to name a few.
When asked what the biggest hurdle the company has had to overcome, Venema said the cyclical aspect of the industry and the housing market has delivered some of the company’s hardest times.
“The business that we are in is cyclical, not only on an annual basis – even though we build in the factory all winter, there is less work in the winter – but the housing business is also cyclical,” Venema explained. “Every seven to 10 years it goes up and down.”
He said the worst part is when the company is forced to lay off staff.
“Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find other things to do when the economy is slow and the worst part about that is you end up having to lay off employees that have worked with you and we really have no other choice,” he said.
In the past, Royal Homes has taken on international projects to maintain a level of work to prevent layoffs.
“There was a time where we did a number of homes in Germany and Japan and these were shipped in containers,” Venema explained. “We did hundreds of homes in those countries.”
During a period of recession when Royal Homes was looking for work – in the early and mid-90s – a large number of earthquakes hit Japan.
“Because of the type of construction, there was a lot of damage,” Venema said. “They were looking for a different method of construction as they rebuilt.”
Royal Homes, as well as several other Canadian companies, built homes, shipped them to Japan in containers, and then sent crews to build them overseas.
“At the same time in Germany they were having a lot of difficulties getting housing for some of their government-owned community projects,” Venema said. “There was an opportunity there to provide some housing and so we did that also.”
Venema said right now Royal Homes is very busy and dealing with different kinds of challenges.
“We are thankful for all the business we have, we are really thankful that during these COVID times we have had so few people in our company and in our families have gotten sick,” he said.
One of the challenges Royal Homes has faced during this pandemic is the lumber shortage.
“We are subject to all the increases and shortages that are out there,” Venema said.
However, due to their size and long-standing relationships with their suppliers, they have not had to stop production.
He estimated that Royal Homes would be building 125 homes this year.
“We are busier right now, we think because of COVID times,” Venema said. “We think people are reassessing their lifestyles and what we are finding is that more people are leaving the GTA and looking at other areas.”
Royal Homes has built more than 7,500 homes in its 50 years of business.