Not Just a Family Business, a Family Lifestyle
In the past thirty years, Benchmark Developments has grown from one to ten employees, with a team of others in construction and building maintenance. Together, this group of companies owns and manages numerous residential units, several residential subdivisions and thousands of square feet of commercial space throughout Nova Scotia, serving as both a tight-knit family and a good steward of positive community development.
Numerous studies have been conducted to discern how life experiences influence and determine career goals. The consensus is that early circumstances can and do alter an individual’s career aspirations and ambitions in adult life. In essence, these events affect us striving for that ‘dream job’ that is the ultimate expression of who we are as individuals.
For Ken Eisner, president of family-owned Benchmark Developments Limited, headquartered in Truro – the centrally located ‘Hubtown’ of Nova Scotia – this was indisputably the case. Since he had a father and other family members involved in construction, both carpentry and business piqued Eisner’s interest from an early age. A proficiency in math and sciences led to an engineering degree and, eventually, to the establishment of the company in 1985.
Starting out as a residential land developer throughout Truro and area, Ken Eisner and his team gradually extended his company’s reach into construction, renovation, building management, maintenance and real estate development in both residential and commercial markets.
Benchmark functions as the management firm for six associated Truro-based companies. The investment group includes Annex Investments Limited which provides commercial leasing and management; Truro Centre Limited, the owner and operator of Truro Centre Mall; VC Investments and Wolfville Court Holdings which function as owners and operators of residential property in Truro and nearby Wolfville; Saywood Developments; and Saywood & Groves Holdings, both residential land developers.
“There are not a lot of us in the community that are doing what I’m doing,” notes Eisner. He has worked closely with the Truro and District Chamber of Commerce, the Colchester Regional Hospital Foundation and projects associated with Truro’s downtown development, and it is through these strong relationships that Benchmark Developments Limited has thrived. However, that was not always the case. When Eisner first established the company, he spent five years working alone, without any financial backing.
He had the ideas but admits he was limited in scope, contacts and cash flow. He was approached by a couple of local business people from outside the industry seeking suggestions as to what could be done for the betterment of the community. Upon hearing his ideas, they offered Eisner the financial backing he required. He explains that, “the partnerships that I have developed are probably the single greatest contributor to my business success… We have worked on those partnerships and developed various companies through these partnerships for twenty-five years.”
Working in tandem with long-time investors, business owners and mentors toward a common vision for the community “allows us to have a sounding board,” Eisner shares. “It allows us to discuss and consider direction. We work as a small business community to get projects started, designed and finished.” Indeed, these partners have become an extension of the Eisner family, and are both solid business partners and true life-long friends.
It was through the contacts established that the management aspect of Benchmark Developments became a “natural progression,” says Eisner. “Now we have quite a large management group within the company that is running a lot of the projects that we continue to own. So yes, partnerships are the single most important aspect of my total plan, model and success.”
Speaking of the technological advances in the industry, Eisner shares that, “My business is part way between construction, development and management,” and he relies on his children, also involved in the business to “provide that tactical support behind me… We in the industry – and all industries – are getting so much more done in such a short time. It is unbelievable to see how productive we really are now given the tools that we have around us.” Ken’s daughter Erin focuses on the commercial leasing side of the business and his son Darcy handles construction of new projects. Betsy, Ken’s wife, is also involved, working behind the scenes in sales and marketing.
Alongside strong relationships, a diversification of services has also been instrumental in Benchmark Developments Limited’s growth and sustainability. “The markets dictate the direction that our business takes. When the markets change – and they have changed many and several times – you change with them.” He also notes that years of professional operation have enabled clients to appreciate the company’s strengths, leading to repeat business.
“You are given a second, third, fourth opportunity,” Eisner says. “You make changes and improvements because you have the experience behind you.” These developments have led the company to develop a defined process from strategic planning to execution, not to mention exceptional customer service – the differentiators that set a business apart from the competition.
Certainly, with any prosperous business, there are those projects that stand apart from the rest regarding skill requirements. Eisner relates that his most memorable construction project was the building of a 192-room modular hotel in Sydney, Nova Scotia. The hotel, known as Keddy’s Motor Inn, was built for Don Keddy, a successful businessman born in Detroit, Michigan and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At the time, Eisner was the plant manager and chief engineer for Kent Homes, a member of the family-owned J.D. Irving group of companies and the largest homebuilder in Atlantic Canada. The project was the first of its kind in the Maritimes, he says.
The hotel was designed and built in the factory, shipped to Sydney and assembled on site, all within a six month period. “It was quite a project,” says Eisner. “To bring that in on time and on budget was quite a relief the day it was done because it was a pressure cooker from day one.”
Another project of which Eisner is particularly proud to have been a part is Arlington Place, located on Truro’s main street and owned and operated by Annex Investments. It had been built in 1957 as a post office and was purchased from the federal government in 1998 and completely refurbished, a boon to the close-knit community of Truro. “It is now a good-looking, functional building that was going to be torn down at tremendous expense to the taxpayer.”
Benchmark Developments and its associated companies own three additional buildings on the main street including the Bank of Montreal building, the Sun Professional Building and the recently-completed building for vision care specialist FYidoctors.
Various criteria will determine the outcome of any given construction project. Scheduling, scope, budget and level of customer satisfaction are just some of the variables that will inevitably come into play. “The real tool that I have used is a proper budget – both time and effort – going into a project. Construction is relatively simple; it can be broken down into small segments, regardless of how big the job,” Eisner says. “As your project starts, you must follow that budget. When you fall behind, you must pick it up.”
He says that, for him, it is a simple formula that is composed of good planning, hard work and “making adjustments when adjustments are necessary – quickly, before you are too late to make those adjustments.”
Certainly, having a talented team driving Benchmark Developments Limited forward is important to Eisner. He believes in hiring qualified employees who have a genuine interest in the business and in “keeping them trained and keeping them productive on down time… even if it’s at the expense of profits and cash flow.” The company believes that paying all employees fairly and treating them with respect is a good retention strategy that fosters a sense of belonging, and this approach has paid dividends in the unparalleled dedication and passion the Benchmark Developments team brings to the table day in and day out.
“For the people who work in our company, I hope and believe that they feel they are part of what we’re doing. This is a team.” Certainly, for members of the Eisner family, working for the company is not only a job, but a lifestyle. At the same time, the inverse is also true; even though the family members live and breathe their work, they are mindful to create a healthy work/life balance as well, never talking work around the dinner table, says Erin Eisner Melanson, Commercial Leasing.
It takes both strategy and innovation for a business to outshine its competition, and this requires insight, according to a 2014 article in Chief Executive Magazine. Insight enables unique and efficient decisions that address solutions to problems in a creative way, something Eisner has incorporated into his own business model.
“I am still using property management software that I developed – basically myself – on old spreadsheets. I have those spreadsheets into programs now and consider them my most valuable tool in the trade. The thing that maybe gives me the greatest edge on the competition is that I have numbers and spreadsheets on everything.”
Asked about his plans for expansion beyond the Truro and area market, Eisner explains that, “When you start travelling outside of your area of control, your costs go up. You have to make a fairly large step into a new market, or you are not going to be financially successful… It’s a hands-on business. If the company continues to another generation, there will be expansion, but, in my generation, it is working now within the communities that we are already established in. You have to grow in size for the right reason.”
Being a family-owned business is not something Ken Eisner takes lightly. The past thirty years of business success is Benchmark Developments Limited’s testament to the positive workplace atmosphere it is built, and to the strength and resilience of the broader community. The fact that the Benchmark name is associated with projects is important. “The fact that your name and your family name is in that discussion means something to me and it means something to my children,” he says. “It’s not just a family business; it’s a family lifestyle. One of the key to the success of our business, I’m sure, is that we work hard. We care about what we’re doing and we put the extra effort in.”