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Contractor Mike Holmes (Jaime Hogge/Jaime Hogge)

Contractor Mike Holmes

(Jaime Hogge/Jaime Hogge)

The making of Mike Holmes Add to ...

Holmes was being approached constantly about sponsorships and endorsements. Up until then, he had endorsed only a few professional products. For example, he'd raved about spray-foam insulation on his show, and when the manufacturer got in touch, Holmes agreed to attach his name to a more eco-friendly version. Quast wanted to move out into the consumer arena, and Home Depot became the company's first major deal. In September, 2005, Holmes signed on as spokesman for the retailer's professional installation services arm. Holmes has always preached against DIY and in favour of hiring pros. So when the retailer tried to present him as a pitchman for the broader chain, tensions arose. The three-year contract was not renewed. Quast is philosophical: "We've learned from every deal we've done."

Then, in 2006, Nestlé Canada called. It was launching a new brand of Nescafé instant coffee and wanted to market it around trust and integrity. The company had commissioned a poll asking Canadians-without suggesting any names-whom they most trusted. When Holmes came out on top, many Nestlé staffers had no clue who he was. Quast was intrigued by the opportunity-a major brand whose commercials would take Holmes beyond the specialty channel and onto the networks-but it would be Holmes's first non-construction product, and Quast wasn't sure he'd go for it. He knew Holmes drank coffee, so Quast asked him what kind. His answer: Nescafé instant. "It's the God's honest truth," says Quast, "and it's what clinched the whole thing."

Quast concedes that instant coffee was a stretch for the brand. What does a building contractor know about the calibre of coffee? Ken Hardy, professor emeritus of entrepreneurial marketing at University of Western Ontario's Ivey School of Business, says the credibility of beloved personalities extends only so far-cross that boundary and you invite accusations of a sellout. "Nescafé is about as far as the Holmes brand reaches," he says. For their parts, both Nestlé and the Holmes Group say the partnership has been a big success, and the deal has been renewed three times.

A big-budget, national advertising campaign is a great way to raise profile and earn endorsement revenue-both of which, Quast insists, are mere tools to help homeowners and improve the industry. He points out, for example, that until last season, Holmes was dipping into his own pocket to cover reno costs on the jobs featured on his show, as the budget of $60,000 to $150,000 per episode, funded by the broadcast licence fees, wasn't enough. As well, 10 per cent of net profits from Web sales go to the Holmes Foundation, which funds scholarships for skilled-trades students. "Mike's spent hundreds of thousands of dollars helping people," says Quast. "He's not perfect, but he is hands-down the most sincere and generous person that I've ever met." Every staffer at the company extends similar reassurance: Wait till you meet him, and you'll know he is the same earnest do-gooder as you see on TV.

'I don't feel like a celebrity'

Mike Holmes is seething. It's a low boil, and he tries to suppress it, ignore it, tell himself it doesn't matter. But it does, damn it! "They call me a millionaire contractor!" he exclaims, pointing to the April issue of Canadian Home Workshop magazine on his desk, his own mug smirking from the cover. "I'm not a millionaire," he insists. "I see it as an insult."

Unsanctioned coverage is one of the crosses celebrities must learn to bear, but Holmes resists it. "I don't feel like a celebrity," he says. "I'm a contractor." (Actually, his construction company is no longer a commercial business; it only does projects for the show.) Holmes's image is literally larger than life: In person, even at six feet, he looks smaller than he does on TV. Other things are the same, though: the piercing stare, his trademark "keep smiling" sign-off, the tendency to run off at the mouth.

Seated in his messy and well-lived-in office in the west Toronto building he bought to house his company, Holmes, dressed in a khaki shirt from his own workwear line, needs little encouragement to recite how it all began-how he learned construction from his father; how, even at 21, he was so appalled at the botched work he saw that he imprinted his business cards with "The F-Up Fixer"; how he could only do TV if there were no scripts because he's no damn actor. "I care and I want to make a difference," he says. "It's not about making a lot of money. But, I knew at the beginning that nothing would change in the industry unless I did something. So I focused on what I could do in the next five years to reach a certain goal."

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