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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 ...

From our archives. This article originally appeared in our Report on Small Business Magazine in 2009.

Mike Holmes is a big man. That much you can see on TV. His broad face, topped by a buzz cut, usually towers over the distraught homeowners looking to him for salvation from financial ruin. His bare, beefy biceps appear amply up to the job of tearing out waterlogged drywall or shoddily installed floorboards before his crew puts it all back together the way it should have been done in the first place.

But how big could Mike Holmes get? Could he, for example, become bigger than Wayne Gretzky? Make It Right: Inside Home Renovation , his 2006 bestseller, is close to breaking publisher HarperCollins Canada's sales record, held by Gretzky's 1990 autobiography. Holmes on Homes has for years been HGTV Canada's top-rated show. The white knight of renovation has beat out Canadian Idol wrangler Ben Mulroney and decor diva Debbie Travis for the Viewer's Choice Gemini Award, and been voted Canada's most trusted man. He was Brad Pitt's go-to guy for rebuilding Katrina-ravaged homes in New Orleans. On her show, Ellen DeGeneres asked him to marry her (he demurred).

This is the year, however, that the Holmes Group will find out how big and wide Mike Holmes can stretch. Holmes on Homes launched on the U.S. HGTV channel in late April, bringing Canada's working-class hero to nearly 100 million American households. The Toronto company's logo-those same beefy biceps folded across the chest-appears on workwear and boots now available in Canadian and U.S. stores. It's attached to an ambitious, ultra-green housing development in the Calgary area, slated to begin sales this fall. It's behind a nascent home-inspection business in Ontario and the upcoming Holmes Magazine, planned for a fall launch despite a calamitous advertising market.

Looking for a ceiling on the growth potential of a personality closely calibrated to the zeitgeist is tricky. Consider the career of one former model and caterer: "What Martha Stewart did is make homemaking a profession you could be proud of," says Alan Middleton, a marketing professor specializing in brand management at York University's Schulich School of Business. "What Mike Holmes is doing is taking an area where people aren't comfortable and providing them branded reassurance. That's possibly even more powerful."

Still, building a brand on the back of one man is risky, especially when that brand's fundamental selling point is integrity. The Holmes Group's ability to grow its revenues by an average of 160 per cent over the past three years has rested on consumers' belief that the crusading contractor is the real deal, not a media persona crafted by backroom Svengalis who saw a market niche and cast an appealing guy's guy to serve as its manifestation. As those biceps adorn ever more billboards, gear and spinoff services, it may become increasingly difficult to buy into the pitch that Mike Holmes's sole motivation is to "make it right™."

Where it all began

A curious thing about garages: They serve as birthplaces to an inordinate number of entrepreneurial ventures. So it was in one such brick shed that Mike Holmes metamorphosed from a builder moonlighting as a TV host into a media entrepreneur. Although his show had been on air since 2003, one night in early March, 2005, Holmes invited Michael Quast and Pete Kettlewell to his house in the countryside west of Toronto to discuss his future.

Quast had become interested in the craft of turning TV personalities into brands after working as vice-president of media at Lynda Reeves's Canadian House & Home mini-empire. That night, Quast told Holmes, "This could be bigger. This should be bigger already. There's so much potential here that isn't being used properly. You have a television show-and that's about it." The trio agreed it was time to extend the Holmes brand, though that wasn't Holmes's nomenclature. "He just wanted us to watch his back," says Quast.

Holmes had already been burned in the TV business. By all accounts, he stumbled into the industry via his big mouth. Quast first met him in 2001 while working as director of studio production for Alliance Atlantis specialty channels. One of Quast's shows provided home-repairs advice, and he needed a contractor to build some models for the set. Enter Holmes, sporting overalls and muscle shirt.

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