It’s been a long-held belief by some that The Age of Aquarius means a global paradigm shift that sees the world becoming a more holistic, artistic, peaceful and integrated place. This shift is said to affect everything on the planet, from industry to art, from warfare to peacekeeping. Doug and his wife Marie were firm believers in this paradigm shift and devoted their lives to art and altruism; and this became the foundation of a fascinating company whose history winds through the lives of two artists who built a corporation.
“Doug was a second-generation builder,” says Marie. “His family built high rises, subdivisions, houses and apartment buildings – you name it. When we started our company, we wanted to take a different approach, even though we always had a construction project on the side. Our company was about creating art. It was about working together to create something bigger than the both of us. It was based on ideas that would make a difference in the lives of other people, including reaching our full potential as human beings and what that would that look like at the level of a corporation.”
Both Doug and Marie lived lives full of artistic pursuits and adventure. She left Canada in her 20s to teach in Compton, scoring the job on the same day as the famous tornado struck. He created beautiful paintings and sculptures. Together they created a series of peace-pot world globes, two of which reside in the Aquarian office today.
“The company started as a real ma and pa, his and her, company,” reminisces Marie. “We operated it out of our home. When we were doing our art work, we had shops where we manufactured our products. The renovation and construction part was done on the side.
“Between 1997 and 1998, we closed down our shop and set up the Aquarian office in our home. We operated out of our home until 2012. Then we moved here,” she notes of the sprawling office on Edmonton’s west side.
“Once we started getting busy with renovations,” Marie continues, “we hired staff. I was still working full time in my education career. Soon I couldn’t write more letters and do administration work, and Doug couldn’t do all the construction. We hired carpenters, a book keeper and an office administrator, and the company grew from there. We became involved with the Canadian Home Builders Association-Edmonton Region (CHBA ER), and we studied how other renovation companies grew and we learned. We hired a business coach and we worked hard to build and clarify our systems to make ensure our practices worked and the company evolved.”
And then a massive change rocked the couple, and the company, to the core. Doug was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
For two souls that were as intertwined as they, Marie couldn’t separate herself from the man, the dream and the business, even though fate was dictating otherwise.
“‘Where do we go from here?’ became the big question,” Marie says with tears in her eyes. “We had such a good group of people. We were able to manage – crisis management, really – for a good year while that process was in transition. The option to shut the company down was put out to me, but I could not do that. I took a leave of absence from my education work and it became clear I had to let my career or the company go. So, eventually, I took early retirement from the education system and fully immersed myself in the leadership of Aquarian.”
Carrying on the business, and life in general, without Doug stung Marie to her very core, but the lady brave enough to take on Compton teens when she was barely out of her teens herself, the woman that looked at the entire world as a place she wanted to heal and embrace, wasn’t about to let this speedbump change her trajectory.
She does admit, however, that there were some uphill battles to be won.
“Here comes the wife of the former business owner. Let’s see what she can do,” she smiles, recounting the uncertainty among the staff, clients and vendors when she took over the company. She quickly proved her staying power however, and the might of Aquarian. “We are doing alright. We are not going anywhere. We are here to stay.”
Marie and Doug had always channelled their vision of Aquarian into everything they did, and the renovation company is no exception.
“Through renovating, we are creating something beautiful. We are connecting people to their dreams and goals. We are growing people within the company and watching them realize their full potential. [Inside and outside of the company] we connect people with what’s possible, and we are getting results beyond what they can imagine. It’s beautiful. We celebrate our results.”
For example, one of the mandates of Aquarian is to help people “age in place.”
Aquarian sees homes as special places where families are nurtured, dreams are born and children are raised. The thought of leaving the walls that echo with the delighted laughter of children, where the meals were cooked and shared and where memories abound, is truly painful for many seniors. Yet, the thought of living in a home with dozens of steps and echoing, empty rooms is equally impractical.
Being a people company, Aquarian addresses these needs with beauty and practicality, introducing elevators, opening rooms to create libraries and studios, overhauling bathrooms for accessibility and reimagining spaces so that the occupants gets a full, second life out of their home – a home that has been completely redone to suit current needs while retaining each treasured memory.
In addition to professional renovations, Aquarian does custom home builds and works with a variety of high-end vendors to include all the elements (sculptures, marble, imported tile) that make up their client’s dream home.
“Aquarian is a company that is in the people business,” smiles Marie. “We solve problems, we listen to the dream people have for their home and living experience. We work with our clients to achieve the results they want. We are a family-focused company building relationships based on trust, results and problem solving. We build our ‘how can I help?’ attitude.”
They build community, too. Aquarian is heavily involved in charitable building projects in and around Edmonton. They donate. They volunteer. Marie brings a voice of the renovation and building industry to committee work with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s construction engineering program, and she is a founding member of the Women Presidents’ Organization’s (WPO) Edmonton chapter.
While many construction and renovation companies are feeling the pinch of the sluggish Alberta economy, Marie, ever the “how can we help” enthusiast, has a novel plan to keep her crews busy.
“I invest in properties, then build on them and sell them,” she admits. “If I see that we are going to be in a lull, I ensure I have a project on the go at all times, so if we don’t close a contract, we have other work for the guys. I look after my people. There is nothing more heartbreaking than not having enough work or having to let someone go.”
It’s this level of care internally and externally that has enabled Aquarian to grow steadily for 25 years.
“I brought roses for the staff today,” Marie says. “The card says, ‘have I told you lately how much I appreciate you?’” Seeing the company come up on 25 years was an emotional time for Marie. “I think, 25 years ago, we wouldn’t have imagined that I’d be here alone; but we created something that has value and helps people and moves lives forward. We contribute. We do our best. We are looking forward to the next 25 years! We celebrated our milestone anniversary in June with a party here at the office. We invited past clients, sub trades business friends and we even invited some competitors! It was a lovely night.”
The company leader has learned many lessons during her journey from then to now.
“Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. It’s a lot of work. To truly make an entrepreneurship work, you have to love what you are doing. A deep, deep sense of purpose has to be there.
“Leadership is also absolutely essential. I have a masters in educational administration, and leadership has been a personal passion of mine for a very long time. I’ve studied leadership. I follow the career paths of great leaders. Leadership is so important in this day and age and we lead primarily by example, then it’s important to hold others as able and allow them to grown into their own. Good leaders build other leaders.
“Teamwork is another essential. An entrepreneur must share the work with the team, learning what you are good at and what you are not so good at is a good place to start. Then build on the strengths of the individuals and make sure that your people are in the right or best roles for what they bring to the team. Synergy is far more likely to happen from that place and the team works well together and things get done.”
How does she balance it all? She doesn’t.
“Work/life balance? It’s not always there and I’m okay with that. My work has becomes my life and there is something beautiful about that. Kahlil Gibran wrote, ‘work is love made visible’ I love that quote. I have enough balance in my life…it just looks different perhaps!”
Marie also knows the company’s current success is due, in part, to the people, influences, experiences and organizations in which Aquarian immerses itself, along with the firm foundation Doug gave the company before his passing.
“Doug was so intent on creating a business that really worked on values, impeccable quality and a passion for creating beauty. He spent countless years developing systems that worked and set up a business that was in line with our vision.
“The Canadian Home Builders Association-Edmonton Region (CHBA-ER), and particularly the renovation committee, has also been instrumental in the growth, recognition and ongoing industry support for Aquarian. My active involvement with CHBA-ER and with the renovation committee and RenoMark have added a professional level of organization, quality and a network of outstanding companies in this industry. Together we all get better at what we do. The collaborative work supports the industry and the renovation companies that are a part of this organization. Ultimately, this supports the homeowners in our Edmonton community so that they know where to find reliable, trustworthy and professional contractors for their renovation projects. CHBA-ER is an essential element in the growth and sustainability of the new home construction and renovation industry and is an important factor in the Aquarian success story.”
Aquarian has won the renovator of the year award three times, in addition to dozens of awards and recognitions from CHBA, clients and industry partners. Marie also has awards from her teaching career, and the team is happy to display service and volunteer recognitions around the office.
“[Our awards] show the culmination of incredible teamwork and incredible clients,” smiles Marie. “These awards capture a small part of the character of who we are.”
The past 25 years have been both challenging and incredibly rewarding; its been a time of personal discovery and growth for Marie and a time of transition and, ultimately, success for the company.
“The name Aquarian is very deliberate,” closes Marie. “It’s a name Doug and I chose to guide the transformation of a paradigm about how to do business. We are in the people business. The future for Aquarian is to grow and sustain the company and to continuing demonstrating excellence in home renovation and new construction. We are developing a presence with infill, building leadership capacity in the staff and creating room for so much more.”
According to astronomers, the Age of Aquarius happens when the precession of the equinoxes causes the identity of the pole star to change over time. Simply put, that which seems fixed and eternal (the heavens) is actually shifting and moving all the time. While the change may be at times gradual (shifting pole stars) and at times rapid (comets), the end result is a massive change that affects the earth year over year, century over century.
Aquarian aims to have this effect on the staff, clients, community and every life it touches. Slow changes, fast changes, constantly evolving and always shifting to keep balance as the sands of time ebb and flow, Aquarian uses the talents and tools at its disposal to always be in the positon to answer the question, ‘how can I help.’ Whether it’s an elevator so an aging couple can stay in their home, or a team of carpenters donated to build a community gazebo, Aquarian will be a steady presence in Edmonton now, and will leave a legacy for future generations to enjoy.