– Story by Sean McIntyre Photography by Don Denton
Old pumpkins, a trebuchet and a man with an idea. Stu Hopewell of Alair Homes is all about building custom homes as well as community.
Stu’s neighbourhood has long been known as the place where Nanaimo residents discard unwanted pumpkins. In the days that follow Halloween, the pumpkins proliferate along the side of the road, creating an alluring seasonal attraction, until time and November rain take their toll.
“It’s nice, but generally ends up as a big greasy mess,” he says.
Always innovative and having a knack for practicality, Stu built a giant catapult to launch what he hopes will become an annual community tradition: The Great Pumpkin Toss. The inaugural event, undertaken in partnership with the Nanaimo Science and Sustainability Society, will see a few creative and fun ways to dispose of post-Halloween pumpkins. For a modest donation, Stu will load people’s old, unwanted pumpkins into the launcher and send the sad squash soaring high through the sky and into a field behind the East Wellington Fire Hall on Jingle Pot Road.
“Depending on the weight, we can usually launch them between 150 and 200 feet,” he says.
Funds raised from this year’s event were donated to the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Vancouver Island and the Nanaimo Science and Sustainability Society, whose members built a pumpkin cannon as part of the project.
The pumpkin toss is a whole lot of fun, but it’s also just one of the many ways the successful businessman and long-time builder has found a way to give back to his hometown and support local charities.
Stu hopes other companies will join the event in future years, helping to raise more funds for great causes that need ongoing support.
“The more participants, the bigger the event and the more dollars raised, which is our overall goal here.”
Last summer, Stu was part of the Alair Homes team that had a solid finish in the city’s annual Silly Boat Race. The team engineered a Jaws-themed shark boat that took a bite out of the competition and helped raise more than $100,000 for the Nanaimo Child Development Centre.
“My family moved to Canada from England in the late ‘70s, and the CDC helped me at that point by doing some speech therapy, so they’ve made a big difference in our lives,” he says.
Stu gave back by serving on the CDC’s board of directors, a position that showed him how much the organization helps disadvantaged and disabled kids in spite of a slim budget. Continual funding uncertainty, he says, means the CDC has a waiting list of anywhere between 300 and 400 children who need assistance at any given time.
“That, to me, just doesn’t make sense. If we can increase funding and decrease those waiting lists, then the kids that need help will get help much faster,” he says. “Just getting out in the community and giving back is important for me. It’s not about dollars and cents, it’s about making a difference while you’re here.”
Engaging in more community events is part of the company’s long-term strategy, he adds. Building annual traditions where residents can have fun and have an impact is a great way for him to increase the quality of life in the region that he and his family are proud to call home, he says.
Stu is in a place where he can make a difference. Back in 2011, tired of working for someone else, he decided to speak with fellow builder and friend Blair McDaniel about going into business. Within a decade, Stu had become the co-owner and chief operating officer of Alair Homes, North America’s largest custom home company. Starting out as a general labourer during summers at 14 years of age, Stu has risen to the top of his field. He now works with 60 employees out of the company’s home office in downtown Nanaimo and assists hundreds of the Alair franchisees in towns and cities across North America.
“We handle all of the back-end business in this office here,” he says. “Most builders are excellent with clients and the sub-trades, but they struggle with the paperwork like paying bills and processing their payroll. As a result, good builders have struggled to be successful.
“That’s where we can help, doing the payroll, HR, accounting, payables, receivables, operations, marketing and legal.This allows our builders to handle a much higher volume than on their own.”
Stu’s success and Alair’s expansion mean he arrives at work early, usually by 6 am, to coincide with business hours on the east coast.
“It’s hard work, but I enjoy myself,” he says. “If you love what you do, it’s not difficult to go to work.”
Making time for work and family means he’s had to reconsider some of his priorities.
Once a stalwart at Vancouver Island race tracks such as Saratoga and Western Speedway, Stu has shifted gears. Once an avid racer of the pint-sized and high-powered dwarf-series race cars, family and work responsibilities have encouraged Stu to grab the keys of his family car to wheel his two teenage children around the streets of Nanaimo.
“Now it’s really about chasing around my kids, dropping them off and picking them up,” he says. “There’s always a skating event, dance lesson or karate tournament.”
As Alair Homes expands, Stu has been racking up some hefty frequent flyer points by visiting new locations. One week he’ll be in Alberta or Ontario, while the next will see him travelling to Texas or Florida. As someone who has worked in the industry since his early teens, Stu is continually fascinated by the different approaches and building techniques he encounters in different regions.
Outside of work, he shares his desire for travel with his wife and two teenage kids. The family takes frequent trips overseas as a way to broaden their horizons and remember the triviality of “first-world problems.”
“We feel it’s important for us and our kids to see other parts of the world,” he says.
On a trip to Africa, the family was awed by the scale of the continent’s wilderness and wild creatures. They also visited an orphanage run by an Australian ex-pat with no government funding. Despite the challenges and poverty, he recalls, all the children had access to clean beds and regular meals, and had smiles on their faces.
“That was a life-changing trip for me,” he says.
It’s experiences like these, Stu adds, that remind him to be grateful for what he’s achieved and aware of how we can all make our communities, be they on Vancouver Island or overseas, healthier and happier places to live.
To find out more about Alair check out their Alair Homes website.