Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tridel had nowhere to go but up

When Jack DelZotto landed in Canada in 1927, transforming the face of Toronto probably wasn’t among his concerns.

Nevertheless, the company he started in the 1930s as DelZotto Homes, renamed Tridel in the 1970s, has contributed more than 70,000 residences to the GTA.

Last May, his sons — Angelo, Elvio and Leo, who made the firm into the leading condo builder in Canada — received a lifetime achievement award from the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), the association representing the building industry in the GTA.

That night Tridel also took the prize for Highrise Green Builder of the Year — the fourth time in five years. Since 2005, all Tridel properties have pursued Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

Leo DelZotto, the youngest of the brothers and Tridel’s president, speaks of his long-deceased father with obvious affection.

“He was highly principled, soft-spoken and led by example rather than lecture,” DelZotto says.

Jack DelZotto was a stonemason from Friuli, a province in Northern Italy squeezed between Austria and Yugoslavia. He went to work in the mines of Timmins, Ont., soon after arriving in Canada, but moved to Toronto after several years.

“He felt if he could find an opportunity to practice his trade he would stay,” DelZotto says, sitting in his spacious office at Tridel headquarters, a modest two-storey structure at Dufferin St. near Finch Ave. W.

When DelZotto Sr. moved to Toronto, the city was prospering. Its inhabitants numbered more than 500,000 and the suburbs of Forest Hill and York had started to take shape.

Union Station had opened in 1927, and across the street work on the luxurious Royal York Hotel was well underway. The Canadian Bank of Commerce Building (now Commerce Court North), completed in 1930, took pride of place as the tallest building in the British Empire until the 1960s.

But the shock of the Great Depression lurked around the corner.

Luck, however, gave the young immigrant a little help. DelZotto found himself at Bay St. and Bloor St. W. — considered North Toronto at the time — where the Park Plaza Hotel (now the Park Hyatt) was under construction. He overheard some the bricklayers speaking his Italian dialect and asked for a job.

Within a year, the wife he had left behind in Italy stood at his side.

A couple of years later, fortune struck again: a friend offered him a lot on Lappin Ave. in the Bloor-Dufferin area. The man had bought it to build storage for his banana business but discovered the land was zoned for residential.

DelZotto built a house on the lot, bartering for the materials, and paid for the land after he sold the property.

“From there he developed a crew of bricklayers and had his own guys working for him,” DelZotto says.

But real progress for the company came with the building boom following World War II, DelZotto says.

“The opportunity was there for anybody who had a work ethic, ambition, drive, commitment,” he says.

By the early 1950s, DelZotto had built a few stores, a few income properties, a few walk-up apartment buildings, some of which Tridel still owns.

The eldest son, Angelo, Tridel’s CEO and chairman of the board, was already involved in the family business. Elvio, Tridel’s deputy chairman, was headed to law school, and Leo jumped in right after high school in 1958.

They built single family houses, townhouses, rental buildings, and even a shopping plaza. They also did contract jobs, constructing investment rental buildings and social housing.

In the second half of the 1960s two things happened to alter the company’s direction: interest rates went sky high, curtailing the rental construction market, and Ontario introduced condominium legislation.

“We had the expertise to build highrise so the transition (to condominiums) was natural — although we were going into a business that had no history,” DelZotto says.

The company’s first highrise condo came on the market in 1969, Arbour Glen on Kerr St. in Oakville.

“Nobody wanted to buy it,” DelZotto recalls. “Nobody understood what a condo was and so we rented out most of the suites. It took years to get them sold.”

Tridel got a big boost in the early 1970s when Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (then called Central Mortgage and Housing Corp.) introduced the Assisted Home Ownership Program, designed to help low-income people attain home ownership.

“We were selling units and we were building them by the thousands,” DelZotto says.

At that point the company decided to focus on condominium construction. In the years that followed, Tridel introduced many innovations in highrise technology and marketing that are industry standards today.

Tridel worked with the steel industry to develop steel channels and door frames so they could use drywall, which hadn’t been possible in highrise construction until then.

In a joint venture with Alcan Aluminum, Aluma Systems Corp., they devised an extruded aluminum form for pouring concrete that could “fly” intact from floor to floor — a system now widely used.

“(That) had the ability to produce the buildings at a much faster rate,” DelZotto says.

Tridel bought out Alcan’s share in Aluma in the early 1970s, but the move later landed the company in financial difficulties.

DelZotto explains the events this way: “The sad part is we took (the system) to the world, the economy went off the cliff and that got the company into trouble.”

For several years bankruptcy threatened. But in 1998, Tridel forged a conclusive restructuring plan with lenders — just in time to take remarkable advantage of Toronto’s imminent condo explosion.

“We weren’t geniuses,” says DelZotto. “(But) it was very competitive — not with other builders but against single-family homes and resistance to the (idea) of condominiums.”

In fact, Tridel had been chipping away at that resistance since the 1970s with innovative marketing. They introduced elaborate sales offices, had film presentations and built model suites.

To further distinguish condo suites from rental apartments, Tridel’s floor plans offered second bathrooms and in-suite washers and dryers. Its buildings featured amenities such as recreation centres, gymnasiums and swimming pools. Later came the front desk concierge and other security features.

Intent on making sure to deliver what it promised the purchaser, DelZotto says the company decided it had to control every phase of the process from buying the land to selling the properties.

“If you know there’s a better way of doing things, you have to go for it,” he says. “And that’s created other businesses.”

Today Tridel has a fistful of spinoff operations that manage everything from land development and construction to condo buildings and condo rentals to energy management for residential properties.

“The purchasers were where the great ideas come from,” DelZotto says. “The customer tells you if you’re willing to listen.”

Star Contest

In 1977, the first New in Homes section appeared in the Toronto Star.

Back then, most new homes were detached and built in the suburbs; today, condos have overtaken new home sales, both in the city and the 905 regions, according to a recent report by RealNet Canada.

Here at the Star, we’re celebrating a special anniversary of 35 Years of New in Homes with special new features, including a contest.

The Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) is offering a hefty $35,000 toward the purchase of a new home or renovation to help us celebrate. All you have to do to enter is go to and tell us what a new home or renovation means to you.

Aside from the contest, we’d love to have your feedback on what you think makes a great community, what you love about your home and your neighbourhood. We will post the best online at — and perhaps even print a few in the paper.

Send your submissions to and put “35 years” in the subject line.

You can also read all the profiles of our Industry Innovators at

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