The biggest little man in low-cost housing
John Fienberg modestly admits that he builds more houses for less money than anybody else in Canada. Here’s how he puts them up, at $11,415 each, and sells them off, at the top of his voice
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
JOHN D. FIENBERG, a tough-talking, cigar-smoking, watchful little man in immaculate tailoring, is chairman of Consolidated Building Corporation Ltd., a Toronto firm that claims to be, and probably is, Canada’s biggest builder of low-cost houses. Since 1955, the corporation has developed subdivisions in the Toronto area at Ajax (Made for Mothers, reads one advertisement), Whitby (Yes, Dear. Your Dreams Will Come True), Scarboro (Be Kind and Wise to You and Yours), Richmond Hill (Go North. Young Man), Oakville (Further West and Still the Best), Beaumonde Heights (Ask Mrs. Wheeler — a reference to a satisfied Fienberg householder). Etobicoke (You Will Not Have to Spend One Cent More to Make Your Home a Castle), and Aurora (See the Roses of Regency Acres Bloom in the Cheeks of the Children).
Fienberg acts on the principle that if you get five thousand people out to a subdivision you're bound to sell houses to two hundred and fifty of them, and he hasn’t yet run out of ideas for getting them there. Once Consolidated announced that it would build a house in twenty-four hours. The project started with a salute by six twelve-inch mortars fired by an army sergeant-major in uniform; it proceeded to the accompaniment of a brass band playing the William Tell Overture, with one of the members of Consolidated Building Corporation standing on a platform, in a spotlight, directing the operations of a hundred and forty-five workmen in baseball uniforms. The director would indicate a few bricks here, some twoby-fours there, like a conductor calling for woodwinds.
Again, when George Pcarkes, the minister of national defense, suggested a do-it-yourself fallout shelter. Consolidated promptly began noisily doing it itself at its Beaumonde Heights subdivision. At Regency Acres in Aurora, Consolidated built a family fallout shelter and put a Toronto Telegram reporter and his wife in it for a week. Amid the solemn and portentous newspaper releases and headlines that read NO REFUGE FROM PERILS OF MIND; DESPONDENCY, DEPRESSION IN DARK, and SHELTER LEAKS AIR — A BRUSH WITH DEATH, the name of Consolidated Building Corporation (and its principal product. Regency Homes) kept appearing like a hotdog vendor at a summit conference.
Fienberg is a familiar figure in Toronto news columns and is frequently caught by the camera in the midst of stirring events, making deadpan, quotable statements such as “High-priced houses are a glut on the market,” or perhaps standing beside a building in some old established area in Toronto, nattily dressed and smoking a cigar, over some such cutline as “John Fienberg strikes the first blow for huge new reconstruction project.” If there’s no picture of him striking the second blow, it’s because Fienberg is by then busy on some other project just as newsworthy.
On one occasion he let it be known to the newspapers that he was dickering for mortgage money with the House of Rothschild which, according to the Toronto Star, planned to invest $500,000,000 in Canadian real estate. A Globe and Mail editor, dc-
ciding that Fienberg was appearing in the newspapers too often for coincidence, telephoned Rothschild officials in England. They said they’d never heard of Fienberg. When I mentioned this to Bill Hagon, Fienberg’s publicity man and his greatest admirer, Hagon politely pulled the rug out from under me by saying. "That’s quite possible.” He w'ent on to point out that not everybody in the House of Rothschild knew what Fienberg did, or, for that matter, what everyone else in the House of Rothschild did.
One time, musing on how to bring the bloom to the cheeks of more children, Fienberg called Hagon and asked him: “What would happen if I got myself accused of being a Communist, with a pipeline right to Moscow?”
Hagon told him that it would do just w'hat Fienberg thought it would do — sell a lot of houses — but advised against it. This was a somewhat surprising bit of advice coming from Hagon. a thin, bland, friendly man with a precise garden-party English accent, who has himself reached the public relations man’s state of Nirvana where reality and the press release are virtually indistinguishable.
One of Fienberg’s most memorable sorties into public life was his announcement, early in 1958, that Consolidated Building Corporation was going to buy the Maple Leaf hockey team and rechristen it the Regency Rockets. The effect in certain quarters of Toronto w'as as if somebody in Ottawa had suddenly decided to let the Royal Canadian Mounted Police sell Frostee Freeze. There w'as such a commotion among Leaf fans that Conn Smythe vehemently denied that the Leafs were up for sale or ever had been. Ficnberg’s reaction was a disarming admission that he wanted to buy the team for publicity purposes, along w'ith which he calmly squirted more oil on the fire: “Unless we can change the name, we wouldn’t want the Leafs if they were given to us.” His present attitude about the whole incident is one of Olympian unconcern, tinged with mild disappointment in Smythe’s son Stafford, with w'hom he claims he made a deal. “Our volume is about $50,000,000 a year,” Fienberg states around his cigar. “A million-dollar deal is nothing to raise a lot of hoopla about.”
Conn Smythe remains grim and silent about the whole thing. “It’s a dead issue as far as I’m concerned. It was a publicity gag from beginning to end. Anything I say w'ould just be more publicity for them.”
What must be disconcerting to those who doubt the authenticity of much of Fienberg’s publicity is the fact that Fienberg does build good houses and give good value. Consolidated Building Corporation’s subdivisions arc housing developments and no mistake; the twenty-four different designs look just like twenty-four different designs in a housing development. But in my own opinion and, I think, in Fienberg’s, this will always and necessarily be the case. But the houses (Consolidated has built 6,000) are roomy and good looking, can be bought for $949 dow n ($1 1,415 full price), and carry for $68 monthly payments. Regency homeowners show them with something more than satisfaction and feel that they got the best buy possible after, in many cases, a year
or more of searching the suburbs for a place to live.
I interviewed Fienberg in his huge, broadloomed office in his ten-story building on Toronto’s Avenue Road, next door to his hotel, Regency Towers. He was ready to fly to New York. His briefcase w'as on the floor beside his chair and everything was orderly in his great expanse of office. Fienberg had a secretary bring me coffee. At first he answered questions like a man who, if not exactly misrepresented, has had too much of one side of his character played up. He cut the end off his cigar, drew on it gingerly, watching me sidew'ays as if I’d just given it to him and he half expected it to explode. A couple of times he excused himself, stepped behind his huge bare desk and spoke over the phone in a low careful voice, holding the phone close to his chest. When showing me papers and photographs to illustrate what he was saying he reminded me of someone very skilled at card tricks. He chose his words slowly, deliberately and with hesitation, often with very formal results.
“I—feel—that—you—have—been—a—victim—of —unfair—reading—matter.” he said once. At another point he said, “This raises real fury within me.”
The first time I began to feel that he was relaxing a bit was when I asked him what he had to say about the monotony and uniformity of the modern low'cost housing development. His voice began to come w'ith more volume.
"A low-cost housing development is monotonous because of savings in cost. It’s easy to pretty up houses. It’s also easy to pretty up the cost. It’s nothing to spend $2,000 to $5,000 on the outside of a house. Nothing at all. I can build a bathroom for $500. Look at the amount of money going into a garage. You build a garage and put a heater in there to put your garden equipment in. We build a carport. But I hear six times a day — why don’t we build garages? The reason why is there’s a lack of interest in using garages. The women won’t even lift the damned door to start with. They w-on’t shut the door when they do put the car in. My own wife blocks the driveway.”
Fienberg’s voice moved up another notch when I asked him about the small lots that the houses of today’s developments are built on.
"I agree that the house would look better on a hundred-foot lot. Every house should be on an acre of ground. As far as I’m concerned you can have a hundred acres. Who the hell is going to pay for it? Mr. Allen, a writer, likes a hundred-foot lot. Can Mr. Allen, a writer, afford a hundred-foot lot? It’s all right for Mr. Architect. Each of these architects likes to have each one of these subdivisions as an edifice to himself. And it would be an edifice, too. 1 can’t market a house with all this jam on it. The day the architect starts buying the houses, we’ll worry about what they want. In the meantime, I am not excited,” Fienberg hollered, “because our customers aren’t excited. We’d have a utopia here if we could all buy the kind of houses the architect thinks we should buy. But even inclusive of Russia there is a question of economics, whether you’re paying in potatoes or dollars.”
CONTINUED ON RAGE 50
Continued from page 29
He set off for Japan with a $500 letter of credit and, to pay expenses, a suitcase of rabbits’ feet
Fienberg is forty-three, the son of Lithuanian immigrants. He was born and raised in a lower-class Jewish neighborhood in Toronto known as the Ward.
“In those days an immigrant was so grateful for the chance to live here he worshipped the country. He wanted to give it something. Today the attitude is 'Where’s the job?’ ”
While camping one summer at Jackson's Point on Lake Simcoe with some other youths, he spotted the first of a long line of business opportunities — a vacant hotdog stand. He and a school friend. Al Waxer, made a deal to rent it from the owner, an Italian named Battaglia. They had refreshments put in on consignment, and, the first summer, the two boys cleared $150. They talked Battaglia into building and equipping a bigger refreshment stand. In the next few years, they began clearing $1,000 each during their summer holidays from Harbord Collegiate, and Fienberg, still in his teens, started hitchhiking around nearby Toronto resort areas looking for more vacant hotdog stands. He opened up twelve. He got students to operate them for him at fifty percent of the profit.
“The hungriest students were the medical students. Eve got one of the highest records of sponsoring medicine in Canada. A lot of these people now rent offices in my building.
“I used to hitchhike around with a paper sack picking up the money. Monday morning I'd go to the Bank of Montreal at Manning and College streets. This is how I got established with the Bank of Montreal.”
Fienberg started hitchhiking to New York and Chicago to buy novelty merchandise for his stands — rabbits’ feet with key chains, postcards of Royal Canadian Mounted Police, souvenir cups and saucers. He stayed at the YMCA for fifty cents a night, paid cash in advance for his merchandise, and had it shipped to an office at Adelaide and Simcoe Streets in Toronto that he rented for $15 a month under the name of American Distributors and Importers. He also began
wondering why he was paying $1,000 to get $500 worth of Japanese-made merchandise from the United States into Canada, and decided it would be a lot smarter to buy it in Japan. One day he went to the Bank of Montreal and asked for $500 loan, got it without hesitation in the form of a letter of credit, packed a suitcase full of rabbits’ feet to pay expenses, and started hitchhiking in the general direction of Japan.
"I finished up at Banff Springs. How the hell I got up there I don't know. I spent a couple of days there swimming. It wouldn't have taken much to make me go into the hotel business.”
Part of Fienberg’s sales talk, when peddling his rabbits' feet to cigar-store operators, was that by buying from Fienberg who was already there with the rabbits’ feet the purchaser avoided freight charges. The argument seemed to work: when he hitchhiked the rest öf the way to Vancouver and boarded a collier to Japan, he still had his letter of credit intact. He claims that because of his experience in cooking hamburgers he got a berth on the freighter as short-order cook.
He went to Nagoya, an industrial city west of Tokyo, and found the kind of pottery shop he had in mind, but instead of buying $500 worth of merchandise he bought the shop, which was operated by one family. Fienberg still has a photograph of himself sitting on the floor in a kimono with a remarkably handsome Japanese family, and looking remarkably handsome himself. He showed it to me but when I reached for it, my fingers closed slowly on air and he was putting it away.
Back in Canada Fienberg, as the newly formed Oriental Importing Company, began importing not only pottery from his own pottery shop but also from other Japanese potters, and, as the newly formed Metropolitan Supplies, selling it to Wool worth's. In the meantime, he had done so well with his refreshment stand at Willcocks Lake that the owner asked him why he didn't buy the twelve adjoin-
ing cottages and country villa and pay for them through the rent he collected. Fienberg made the deal without having to put up any cash, and operated the cottages so successfully that the same man asked him how he’d like to buy an apartment house on Vaughan Road in Toronto on the same basis. Fienberg bought it for $100,000. He had added to his chain of refreshment stands by now; still in his early twenties, he owned: ( I ) American Distributors and Importers, (2) Metropolitan Supplies. (3) the Oriental Importing Company, (4) a country villa, (5) sixteen refreshment stands, (6) .a pottery in Japan, and (7) an apartment house.
“By this time I'd learned to do business in hundreds of thousands of dollars. I could sec that all it required was a little ambition. I bought another apartment house at Woodbine and Queen, for $ I ()(),()()(). I still have it. I keep it as a memento."
When the Liquor Control Board of
Ontario planned to move from the premises it rented at Church and Lombard streets in Toronto, Fienberg bought the building for $65,000 as a warehouse for his pottery. The Liquor Control Board changed its mind and decided to stay, and the original owner of the building, Fienberg says, offered him $150,000 for it. He sold it and later appeared at a hearing of the Income Tax Appeal Board, held in camera (“Which I didn't even know what was meant, in camera”), to appeal a tax ruling on his profits. Judge Fabio Monet, looking at the youthful Fienberg and listening to a recital of his acquisitions, said (according to Fienberg): “How the hell would someone give you a building for nothing? This story is getting more farfetched all the time." Nevertheless, Fienberg was successful in his appeal; the profit was ruled to be a capital gain, and he received a rebate cheque for $58,900.
By this time he had become interested in real estate. He took a correspondence
course in appraising, and when making appraisals for mortgage companies watched building operations. He paid particular attention to the inefficiency he saw on jobs.
“I'd speak to builders asking them why there was no pre-cut lumber. A carpenter takes a two-by-four ten feet long. All he needs is eight feet. He takes out his saw and cuts two feet off.”
Another thing Fienberg noticed was that although the owner shelled out for mortar, the bricklayer’s assistant mixed as much at four in the afternoon as he did at eight in the morning; when the whistle blew, he just dug a hole and buried what was left. About concrete blocks Fienberg says. “Water, whether you believe it or not. will try to find an opening and if it can't find one will create one. It will go through seams. I asked myself 'Why not make a block the length of the house?’ In Regency homes the whole basement is poured. You can’t ever get a wet basement. It costs $150
more than concrete block for each house, but it’s waterproof.”
By 1950 Fienberg had his own construction company, a fairly small operation named JDF Builders Ltd. Subsequently he bought Hollaway Construction Company Ltd., a business with a production of forty to eighty houses a year, and began trying out some of his economy ideas. In 1955 he joined three other construction companies in forming Consolidated Building Corporation.
Fienberg has endless theories about building. An inveterate traveler, he has notes in his head about the average size of lots in San Francisco, building methods in Tokyo and Madrid. He has an extraordinary memory, and can repeat whole conversations held at meetings (though he has a habit of getting people's names wrong). He is also a spellbinding salesman. Qnc time a real-estate agent who was handling properties for Consolidated at Richmond Hill made the excuse for a poor period of sales that it was Christmas time; Fienberg went out to the subdivision and sold twenty-seven houses himself. Part of the secret of his success as a salesman, according to those who know him, is that he feels he is doing his customer a good turn. One associate trying to analyze his technique said, "You don't feel that Fienberg is a rich guy. The poorer the customer is, the more humble Fienberg is. He sells himself to everyone, including himself.”
Although speaking to an audience makes him damp with nervous perspiration, he's an excellent speaker and a talented actor. When he unleashes his energy on a group of lagging real-estate agents, he reaches a level of sound and profanity that has anxious office workers running to close doors and windows. He insults his audience, asks them what he's doing there wasting his time on them, tells them the answer is simple, it's a weakness on his part. Then having reduced them to cowering bundles of guilt, he starts to rebuild them as salesmen. He tells of being out for a stroll with his children on a Sunday morning, of meeting a kindly cottager who invited him and his children in for a glass of milk, says you've never met such nice people, raises his voice to hurricane strength and yells, "Why shouldn't these nice people have nice homes?”
Once Hagon came into Fienberg's office at a time when Fienberg was trying to convince him how well Consolidated stood with the Canadian government. Fienberg looked up from what was ostensibly a long-distance call, beckoned Hagon to a seat and went on presumably chatting with the Prime Minister. In the ensuing conversation he turned down an appointment as Minister of Building, suggested Hagon for the job. smoked his cigar and carried on high-level negotiations for about twenty minutes. Hagon listened spellbound, almost, but not completely. convinced that Fienberg either had a shill on the other end of the line or had worked out some new way of holding down the phone hook.
At one point during my own interview,
I asked Fienberg why there was a certain amount of suspicion that some of the newspaper stories about him were calculated publicity releases. “If you get your head above the crowd,” he said, "there's a certain amount of animosity."
Whatever his enemies may say or think, Fienberg has built a lot of good houses and sold them to a lot of people who are happy about the deal. Fienberg told me, "I will personally give $100,000 on your behalf to any charity you name if you can disprove anything I've told you.” As far as I'm concerned, it's a safe bet. ★