Building on Customer Service

Brookfield Residential has high standards beyond its bricks and mortar

By Tracy Hanes
Special To The Star

If a customer calls Brookfield Residential head office in Markham and wants to speak to the president, Sid Kerrigan is prepared to listen.

“Customers still want to talk to real people and have personal contact. If any customer calls, I answer my phone. We have a 24 hour return call policy and that includes me,” says Kerrigan.

Maintaining a high level of customer service “keeps us on our toes,” and has helped differentiate Brookfield from its competitors long before customer satisfaction surveys became part of the new home industry.

Since beginning in 1956, Brookfield Residential has built more than 20,000 homes across Ontario, in communities including Georgetown, Brantford, Oshawa, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Maple, Whitby, Uxbridge, Bradford, Toronto and Markham. Brookfield has received numerous local, provincial and national awards for everything from customer service to community design.

It started as Costain Homes, later became known as Coscan Homes, and finally Brookfield in the 1990s. Today, it’s part of Brookfield Residential Properties, a North American land developer and home builder, and a public company listed on the New York and Toronto stock exchanges as BRP.

“Within Toronto, we are the only public company (other than Monarch). Most of our competitors are family-owned, which is a different dynamic. Our branding has not just been built locally. Like it or not, when we open a new community, a higher standard is expected of us and we don’t shy away from that,” says Kerrigan.

Paramount to that is realizing that the customer comes first.

“We face the same challenges as any other builder with weather and the trades but we do everything we can to manage the expectations of the customer,” says Kerrigan. “We totally understand it’s about connecting with them. They are way more satisfied when we focus on the softer issues.

“It’s more about people than bricks and mortar. With Tarion and the building code requirements, there is a quality of construction for most new homes today. What separates us is how we engage not just with our homebuyers, but all of our stakeholders, including trades, banks, insurance companies and municipal staff.”

Brookfield uses social media to engage with its buyers to inform them about new openings, new releases and upcoming events. It also has a web portal that allows homebuyers to log in and see every step of the construction process of their home as it is documented photographically.

And Brookfield staff members live in its communities and are receptive to any feedback their neighbours have to offer.

While many other large builders have branched out to highrise building, Brookfield has chosen to stick to its core business of master-planned greenfield development.

“We have intentionally stayed away from condos, despite our affiliation with the Brookfield (property management) name in Toronto. We weren’t in the highrise business 10 years ago, which is when anyone who is a major player today got into it,” says Kerrigan.

“Our concern is that the condo market is dominated by investors and that takes us away from our core philosophy of connecting with customers. It gives us no ability to do what we’re good at.”

Every year, Kerrigan holds a townhall meeting with his 65 employees to explain current strategy, risks and opportunities. At the recent session, Kerrigan told his staff affordability is a market risk and Brookfield will probably have to evolve into the infill side eventually.

“We admit and accept that land in the Toronto area is incredibly constrained and you have to be willing to build a range of products, and have to react to what’s available,” says Kerrigan. “The town hall creates great dialogue from the employees about where we are heading in the future.”

Brookfield’s business plan is to build 500 homes a year and some of those will be in communities where Brookfield doesn’t control the product form but is building to another developer’s vision, Kerrigan says.

“One of our key objectives is to be the builder partner of choice,” he says.

One new project he’s excited about — where Brookfield will be one of two builder partners — is Treetops, a master-planned, 700-acre community being built by the family that owns Nottawasaga Resort, near Alliston. The development will connect to the resort.

As a developer-builder, Brookfield has ventured into municipalities where other large builders have hesitated to go. One example is Oshawa, where Brookfield recently closed out its Harrowsmith community after 30 years. Oshawa home prices have typically been the lowest in the GTA.“The reality is there is a house for everybody and you can create value. Oshawa is a very vibrant community,” says Kerrigan.

Brookfield also took a chance on Bradford, north of the Oak Ridges Moraine, where 800 of a planned 1,000 homes have been built at its Grand Central site.
“Eight to 10 years ago, due to the lack of land, we created the first master-planned community above the moraine,” recalls Kerrigan. “We built a big sales centre — we needed a destination as there was nowhere to go — and we wanted people to come in and have a coffee and talk about the homes. It’s less than an hour commute to the Toronto airport employment lands and we are catering to the car-based buyer. When the market got too expensive in Vaughan and Richmond Hills, those people didn’t have any issue going 20 minutes farther north. It’s been very successful.”

One of Brookfield’s most distinctive developments is The Village in Niagara-on-the-Lake, a New Urbanism community geared to empty nesters that has won several awards. It’s characterized by narrow, winding streets, a town centre and homes featuring a mix of architectural styles and rear-lane garages. While most people tend to dwell on the architectural features, Kerrigan says one of the most important aspects of New Urbanism is neighbours engaging with each other and the design of the community facilitates that.
Kerrigan says while Brookfield “will always be true to its greenfield business,” the homebuilding industry will be moving to more varied forms of intensification “and Brookfield intends to be a leader in that.”

BROOKFIELD’S PHILOSOPHY ON INTENSIFICATION
“Although we have decided to skip the current highrise cycle, the province has spoken and intensification is the way to go and we will become involved in more urban built forms,” Kerrigan says. “But builders will need more tools and those tools aren’t available yet. They will be necessary to bring on the numbers and varied form of infill product that will be needed to go to a more balanced market.

“We’ve got to find the middle road, as currently highrise or townhouses are the only choices. Builders have vast constraints — development charges, the building code, the inability to convert from low-value employment lands to residential, and neighbour resistance. There is lots of land within the core ripe for revitalization but builders don’t have tools to maximize on that.”

ON BEING A PUBLIC CORPORATION
“People like the brand recognition and our access to capital. One challenge is you still have to be entrepreneurial and not get lost in corporate speak. We maintain transparency and act like a small company,” Kerrigan says. “My managers and I treat each other like partners and treat it like it’s our own company. We are competing in a very entrepreneurial world and you have to have a strong work ethic, not be afraid to take risks, stay humble and stay cost efficient.”

ON NEW TECHNOLOGY
“I now have an iPad and I want to make sure our superintendents on site have them,” Kerrigan says. “If they have tablets, they don’t have to carry stacks of plans or print off maps or drawings. We’ll get that on side over the next six months.”

ON SUSTAINABILITY
“We build Energy Star now. It (green building) is constantly evolving and maybe next it’s about using less water and reusing rainwater and builders have to respond to that,” Kerrigan says. “Within Brookfield Residential, there is a sustainability co-ordinator and we are mandated to comply with the parent company’s philosophy (of minimizing adverse effects on the environment and promoting energy efficiency).”

ON AWARDS
“We have won every conceivable award but I never get that excited when we win them because I expect we should. If you do a good job and stick to your principles, you will win awards. It’s not what you do in one year, but every year. Culture is what we do when people aren’t watching.”

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