Mike Holmes wants to fix the world

And he figures he’s got just 13 years left

A rhetorical question needs no answer, but sometimes it’s better to be safe than sorry. “Am I full of crap?” Mike Holmes barks from the stage, pausing just long enough to flash a teeth-baring smile. “No, I know I’m not.”

Even if they disagree, the teenagers before him—Aboriginal youth from across southwestern Ontario, brought together for a career fair at which the burly contractor is the keynote speaker—are unlikely to say it out loud. They’ve seen him on TV. He’s famous. Or at least recognizable enough that a bunch of 16-year-olds want to take his picture with their cellphones. At their age, Canada’s second most trusted man—trailing only David Suzuki in an April survey by Reader’s Digest—was a dropout, working full-time as a renovator, and living alone in a Toronto apartment where he wired the TV, stereo and all the lights to a panel attached to his armchair. Now he’s standing there, jabbing his finger in the air like Apollo Creed in Rocky, and pulling out every trick in the motivational bag to convince them to stay in school, and preferably pick up a skilled trade. There’s the scare: “If you quit, what the hell are you going to do? Work at McDonald’s?” Blandishment: “There’s so much opportunity. In 10 years, we’re going to be a million tradespeople short.” Even the potential for hookups: “I have met some of the hottest female electricians, welders and plumbers . . .”

But it’s the appeals to a higher purpose that seem to really capture their attention. Working construction isn’t just about throwing up ticky-tacky boxes in the suburbs, it’s blazing a path to change, Holmes promises. Energy efficient homes that can be “heated with a candle, and cooled with an ice cube.” Eliminating mouldy attics and basements so that kids don’t develop asthma. Saving the planet from evils as diverse as oil dependency to prescription meds entering the water supply via our toilets.

On a crisp fall day, beneath a blue and white striped tent in a field outside Brantford, Ont., Holmes is preaching the eco-gospel with fervour. He talks about the subdivision he’s planning in Okotoks, Alta., envisioned as the “greenest community in North America.” He mentions his stint last year as an official adviser to Canada’s delegation at the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change, and a new pilot project with the Assembly of First Nations to design and construct sustainable housing for Canada’s native reserves. He pledges that sometime in 2011, there will be a relief mission to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, one that will mirror his successful New Orleans project in the wake of hurricane Katrina. (“Haiti’s not quite ready for me,” he tells the teens.) It’s the “Make it Right” philosophy he’s been expounding on TV since 2003, and more recently in a newspaper column, books, and an eponymous magazine, writ far larger than fixing somebody’s leaky basement. The revolution is coming, and the crew-cut 47-year-old with the bib overalls and Popeye forearms is nominating himself as its leader. “I’ve taken on the world,” Mike Holmes proclaims. “I’m the guy who throws the bricks and blocks through the windows. I’m the guy who makes things happen.”

The story of Mike is a well-polished monologue. It begins with his father Jim, a “jack of all trades, master of none,” who begat a repair prodigy. At six, Holmes will tell you, he helped rewire the family home in Toronto’s east end. At 12, he refinished his first basement. At 19, he was running a contracting company with 13 employees. By 21, he owned his own firm. The family, which includes an older sister and younger brother, was poor—“Kraft Dinner and hot dogs on a daily basis”—but happy. “Doing things right the first time” was the Holmes way.

The stuff that usually gets left out of the spiel are the grittier details. How he left school in Grade 11 after clashing with his teachers. How he married at 19, became a father at 21, and had two more kids by his mid-20s. How the last big economic downturn in the early 1990s practically wiped him out. As the reno market tilted toward the “bottom-feeders,” Holmes had to sell his company building, then lay off all his employees, and finally sell his car. His marriage imploded. And then, about a month after he and his wife separated, his father died at age 55.

“My dad went down to the basement one night, missed the top step, fell down the stairs and broke his neck,” Holmes says quietly. We’re sitting in the backyard of a split-level in North York. Out front his crew are getting ready to drill holes for a geothermal heating system, a project that will be part of the upcoming season of his new show Holmes Inspection.

His mother Shirley died a few years later at age 56—she had a heart condition, but it was the medication that killed her, says Holmes. The losses have left Canada’s favourite contractor with a rather morbid outlook. “Even when I was younger, I said that I’d never make it to 60,” he says. That’s why he’s in a hurry to break ground on his first Holmes Community in Okotoks, start fixing the reserves, build the business and a legacy for his own kids. (All three work for him, although the eldest, Amanda, is on maternity leave, having recently made him a grandfather.) “It’s a different focus. It means that I’ve got to accomplish everything I want to accomplish by that age. I’ve got 13 years left.”

The TV stardom that fuels those grand ambitions came about through serendipity. A decade ago, Holmes took on a side project building sets for an HGTV how-to show, Just Ask Jon Eakes. Michael Quast, then the director of studio programming for Alliance Atlantis, now the Holmes Group CEO operations, figured the stagehand was a star-in-waiting. “He came in with veins popping out on his neck, and diarrhea of the mouth, talking about how he was sick and tired of seeing people get screwed by contractors. I said, that’s a great concept for a television show and you should host it.”

It took more than a year to get Holmes on Homes off the ground. Pete Kettlewell, who started off doing sound for the show, moved on to be the director, and is now CEO media for Holmes’s company, recalls the particular challenge of finding reno victims. “Nobody wanted anything to do with Mike. We couldn’t get into anybody’s house to film.” In desperation, they snapped a picture of their electrician, Frank Cozzolino, bent over on the job, and plastered his plumber’s butt on flyers asking consumers if they were “tired of getting a bum deal.” Holmes himself handed them out along busy Toronto sidewalks and in Home Depot parking lots.

Most people thought the home makeover trend had already peaked when the show finally premiered in the spring of 2003. But Holmes’s version offered some new twists. “You’re in trouble, and we’re going to save your ass, and you still get the kitchen,” says Kettlewell. “The hero and the villain. It’s the best story arc there is.” And then, there were Mike’s surprising talents in front of the camera: passion combined with an almost comical anger. The “reveal”—the entirely unscripted moment where Holmes peels back the wall and explodes at what lies underneath—quickly became his trademark. “He’s a natural,” says his former director. “I would just say one word, like ‘kids,’ and he’d go on a tirade, ‘Jesus Christ, that’s right! There are kids in this house!’ ” Holmes’s frequent malapropisms like “escape goat,” (or, as he tells the native teens in reference to the dinosaurs, “mass distinctions”) were also part of the charm. Soon, the show was drawing more than 300,000 viewers, 10 times HGTV’s usual audience.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. In 2005, just after the fourth season wrapped, there was an acrimonious break with the show’s co-creator and original producer, Scott Clark McNeil. It’s one of the few things the loquacious Holmes isn’t keen to discuss, although he makes it clear that hard feelings still persist. “I’ve learned in my life that a virus is a bad thing and you want to get rid of it.” Kettlewell, who was a long-time friend to both men, likens it to a high school power struggle. In the end, McNeil was bought out, Kettlewell stayed, Quast came in, and Holmes became the unquestioned master of his destiny.

There were some obvious ways to grow: finding more foreign markets for the show, expanding into books and the magazine. But the real challenge was identifying a more lasting way to make money. “You can’t build a sustained business on television,” says Quast. “My vision has always been that the television pieces should ultimately be construed as advertising for the primary business.” The answer was that they wouldn’t just fix homes—they would start designing, building and inspecting them.

Quast foresees a time—perhaps as soon as 2016—when his star no longer does series TV, just big-time specials like his 2009 Gemini-award-winning Holmes in New Orleans, which would suit the contractor just fine. One of the prime motivations for wrapping production on Holmes on Homes last year, after seven seasons, was to free up Mike’s time. As the reno-rescues got progressively larger and more complex, Holmes was shackled to the job site by a concept that demanded he be in almost every shot. In the new show, Holmes Inspection, which premiered in October 2009, he’s more of a foreman, leaving the grunt work to his crew. (This past summer, he took a vacation for the first time in years, and spent weekends cruising Georgian Bay on his new 30-foot Bayliner, dubbed Wake it Right.) Although there has already been some job-creep as the show enters its second season, as Kettlewell is fond of saying, “Mike’s sweat is gold.”

With the foundation poured, Holmes and his partners think they’re primed to really start capitalizing on his celebrity. In July, the Holmes Group struck a deal with Time Warner to distribute his magazine across the U.S. (The first 200,000 copies hit newsstands on Nov. 16.) A new distribution deal has just been struck with BBC World, putting the shows into northern Europe and the Middle East. (It’s already available in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the U.K. and South Africa.) Revenues are up 35 per cent for 2010, and the company recently hired a CFO and a director of human resources in anticipation of rapid expansion. There are plans to push the Holmes Inspection business into the U.S. by the end of 2011. And Holmes is even talking about building his homes in China.

However, getting over the first hurdle is proving a lot more difficult that Holmes ever envisioned. Wind Walk, the company’s prototype green development 20 km south of Calgary—ultra-energy efficient homes, geothermal heating, waste and grey water recycling—has been in a holding pattern for months. Officials in Okotoks (the town boundary is across the road from the proposed 457-home site) have raised questions about traffic, water use and density, and have tied the project up in appeals to the province. Holmes doesn’t mince words about his opponents. “The truth is that it’s simply the bigger dick syndrome. There were a few council members that didn’t like me telling them no.” The real issue, says the TV star, is his refusal to hook into the town’s water and sewage system, denying the town the ability to levy taxes on the development. “All I had to do was cave and I would be building it now,” he says. “It’s something I didn’t expect, but once the first one is done I won’t have these problems.”

Holmes is confident that he will prevail sooner or later. And given his immense popularity, it’s hard to imagine he’s wrong. His 2006 book Make it Right: Inside Home Renovations, recently became HarperCollins’s second-best-ever-selling Canadian title, surpassing Wayne Gretzky’s 1990 autobiography. A grip and grin photo op with Holmes is coveted by politicians of all stripes (see his trip to Copenhagen). And his reputation as a no-nonsense straight shooter has even translated into entreaties to run for office. “I have been tempted, but I wouldn’t do it,” says Holmes. He declines to identify the party, but in the next breath expresses his personal admiration for Stephen Harper.

Of course, not everyone is a fan. It doesn’t take much poking around the Internet to find anti-Mike postings by contractors and, more recently, home inspectors, outraged by his perceived blackening of their professions. (By Holmes’s estimate, only about 20 per cent of people in the business qualify as “good guys.”) When he’s out filming in the Toronto area, his former competitors occasionally have unkind words to share as they drive by in their pickups. And that home in the countryside west of Toronto, that he shares with Anna, his girlfriend of eight years, now has a high fence and security cameras—although that has more to do with people who like him a little too much.

Holmes’s partners, having helped build a brand that stands on the integrity of one man, openly worry about somebody with an axe to grind trying to take him down. “Everybody’s not as nice as he thinks they are. He trusts everyone,” says Kettlewell. These days, Holmes uses a driver, especially for nighttime functions. And he’s been repeatedly warned to steer an extra-wide berth from the women who show up at his hotel, hoping to engage his sympathy, or something else. So far, the press has been kind, but they could turn at any moment. “We know what the cycle is,” says Kettlewell. “They want to burn you, and have you rise out of the ashes again. But that burning hurts.”

The letters and thick packages of documents come in at a clip of about 20 per day, enough to necessitate a daily trip to the post office. The emails rise and fall with the seasons and broadcast schedule. Five hundred per week during the summer, 1,000 in the fall, closer to 1,500 near Christmas. Since Holmes on Homes started appearing on the U.S. version of HGTV last April—all seven seasons, in high rotation—the majority of pleas for assistance are now from south of the border. Like the Illinois family left with a half-finished addition when the builder walked away with their last $20,000. Or the Pennsylvania woman writing on behalf of her mother, a double-breast cancer survivor, whose drafty house needs a new roof, porch and insulation in the attic. “Mr. Holmes, please help make it right in this lifetime for her.”

Amanda Heath, the Holmes Group communications coordinator, who spends much of her time triaging the requests, sums them up thusly: “Everyone has cancer. They’re unemployed. And they have mould in their mobile homes. It’s actually pretty demoralizing to read them.”

Most supplicants don’t understand the reality of a TV show, especially a Canadian one. The job sites are almost invariably within easy driving distance of Toronto. (Any time the shows have travelled, it was planned out months in advance.) There’s an emphasis on new and interesting screw-ups. And the victims need to be both articulate and telegenic. Those whose tales of woe make the short list get interviewed on videotape by story producers. The case gets pitched to Mike. The problem is researched, preliminary plans and budgets are drawn up. Then the network gives it a thumbs up or down. The process often takes months.

These days Holmes tries to insulate himself from the emotional turmoil. “The hardest thing I’ve had to experience since all this started is reading all of these stories,” he says. He’s stopped going to homes between shoots and offering free advice like he did during the first seasons. Although he knows that any time he makes a public appearance there will be at least one family there literally crying for his help. “These people are in desperate trouble. They are in financial trouble. And that hurts because I can’t help,” he says. “My staff tries to protect me from myself. Protect me from all this hardship. That weighs heavy, believe me.”

The desire to fix everything has slowly given way to a wish to lead by example. Build the sturdiest, greenest homes possible. And then set up programs to teach others how to do the same. The reserve rebuild will serve as a pilot project not just for Canada, he hopes, but for struggling communities around the world.

The idea came about in Copenhagen, during a conversation with another member of the Canadian delegation, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo. “I’m like a lot of men,” says Atleo. “My wife’s a big Mike Holmes fan.” With an estimated 80,000 new homes needed in Aboriginal communities across Canada, the pilot build—probably about 10 houses, with the host reserve to be announced later this month—is modest, but the goals are lofty. Plans and information from the project will be made available through a First Nations Centre of Excellence. And eventually, a training program focusing on green construction techniques and sustainable design. “It’s about building capacity,” says Atleo. “We’ve got to start somewhere.”

Holmes, in trademark fashion, is a little pissed about how long it’s all taking to get organized. He may cite the project as a big part of his legacy, but he’s approaching it just like any other reno, chomping at the bit to get his hands dirty. “Don’t just talk, walk,” he squawks across the quiet North York backyard. There are even bigger things in the pipeline, Holmes hints, something he won’t be able to talk about until March. The to-do list stored on the iPhone in his pocket is three pages long, he tells me. And the clock is ticking.