Blaise McDonald’s winding path to MAC Renovations

Moving from marine electrician to construction management

  • Apr. 15, 2019 1:30 p.m.

– Story by Tess van Straaten Photography by Don Denton

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

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Blaise McDonald grew up with MAC Renovations. He started helping his dad out on job sites around Victoria when he was just 12 years old, but never thought he’d actually go into the family business.

“As a teenager, almost all my friends had dug a ditch for MAC Renovations,” says Blaise, who is now co-owner and operations manager. “But when I graduated high school, I wanted to do a business degree.”

Blaise soon found that wasn’t his calling, either, and he went to work for his uncle who runs an electrical company. He did an apprenticeship and was then hired at the Dockyard, working as an electrician on industrial marine and navy ships.

“I ended up working on the submarine project for five years, and I worked on a super yacht build in Hong Kong,” the 38-year-old says.

It was work he loved, but a serious wakeboarding accident on Shawnigan Lake a decade ago brought it to a crushing end — literally.

“I snapped my leg and was off work about six months because I couldn’t climb down into the engine room,” Blaise explains. “I dislocated my knee, tore all ligaments and was on crutches.”

His dad, MAC Reno founder Ed McDonald — better known as “Big Mac” to friends — asked Blaise to come into the office and watch the phones for a week. And it was a game-changer.

“I realized it was an interesting business,” says Blaise. “I’d only ever worked on the tool end of it so I learned a lot.”

After returning to the Dockyard, but to an office this time since he still couldn’t climb into the ships, Blaise soon realized he needed to do something else. He tried sales and then decided to do a Bachelor degree in construction management at the B.C. Institute of Technology.

“I fast-tracked the program, right through summer and on breaks, and I’d come to the (MAC) office and work on stuff,” Blaise recalls. “Then in 2011, I came back on as operations manager.”

Blaise hasn’t looked back, helping to drive the company to new levels of success. The size of the business has tripled in just the last eight years, which is no easy feat.

“It was a ‘BHAG’— a big, hairy, audacious goal,” laughs Blaise. “It seems so lofty but when you sit down every three months and look at it, re-focus and ask yourself what you need to get there, you can do it.”

He admits it was a bit of a rollercoaster ride, but by regularly re-focussing and re-evaluating, they were able to achieve their goal about two years ahead of schedule. Blaise says a big part of that was being in the right place at the right time with the right tools.

“We had two places, a warehouse and an office, and it was really hard to manage both,” he explains. “In our office, we had almost 40 people working and being dispatched out of 1,000 square feet. It was crowded and people got grumpy. It was terrible”

But finding the right space in Greater Victoria, with parking, and close to major roads to easily reach all 13 municipalities, was no easy task. In the end, it took about three years to find the right location and it involved a major renovation.

“There were a few more problems with the building when we opened it up and we had to take it right to the ground,” says Blaise. “Once you get into it, you just don’t know. It’s hard to see what someone’s done in the ground.”

It’s a renovation lesson Blaise knows all too well. You always have to have a contingency and, he says, the biggest mistake people make is not taking the adequate time to plan.

“You need to take the time at the front to go through the design and know what the specifications are,” Blaise advises. “A lot of reno problems come from not planning properly and it also affects pricing. People always say ‘get three prices,’ but unless you have very detailed specifications, someone is just giving you a best guess and you’re not comparing apples to apples. A better approach is to interview three companies, do your research, and work with who you are most comfortable with.”

Blaise says the most rewarding part of his work is the people. He gets a lot of personal satisfaction from the impact they make on their clients’ homes and lives. But he says the most challenging part of the job is also the people.

“Our business isn’t a factory in a field — it’s customer service,” explains Blaise. “You go from building things to managing things to building people and it took a long time to figure that out.”

That also includes building the right team and recruiting and retaining the right people. In such a tight labour market, Blaise says the biggest challenge facing the industry is manpower.

“A few years ago, I’d post an ad on Craigslist for a carpenter and I’d get 70 applications,” he says. “Now we’ll run ads on several different platforms and maybe get a couple of responses a month.”

Over the years, Blaise says he’s learned a lot — and he admits he’s made a lot of mistakes. But he says the biggest lesson has been communication, and the need for face-to-face conversations to avoid misunderstandings.

“With email, when there’s emotion in it, it may not be what the person is trying to say and you might be reading into something that isn’t there,” Blaise explains. “If I’m having difficulty writing it, that’s usually a sign. There are some things that should just be discussed, not even over the phone, but face-to-face.”

Blaise says the best advice he’s received is to treat every interaction like you can learn something — from conversations with employees to calls from customers who might not be the right fit.

“If you’re not approaching every situation with an open mind, you’re selling yourself short,” Blaise says. “You’re not giving yourself the chance to learn something or gather information.”

As MAC Renovations gets ready to celebrate 40 years in business next year, Blaise says they’re focussed on oiling the machine and finding efficiencies.

And if it hadn’t have been for that wakeboarding accident?

“Life deals you a hand and it changes the course,” he says. “Sometimes what feels like a bad thing can actually turn into something better — it just comes down to how you approach it. It opened a door I didn’t even consider.”

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