It was an eventful summer job for Ralph Scurfield. Fresh from one year of teaching, with a pedagogical career stretching out ahead of him, he found himself filling in the summer months laboring for 85 cents an hour on an Alberta construction site, sweltering in the heat and building a coal chute. As the job wore on, he began to notice that the foreman never seemed to be around. So Scurfield struck a deal, one of the biggest deals he was ever to make in his life: he would do the supervising if the foreman would elevate him to official carpenter status. He never went back. Scurfield liked his new trade so well that he realized his classroom days were over. In 1951, he stowed his carpenters’ tools in the trunk of an ancient Austin and headed to Edmonton to make his fortune in the Alberta building boom which was just then showing the faintest signs of starting.
That was 29 years ago. Late last month, Scurfield celebrated his 52nd birthday by announcing that Nu-West Development Corporation Ltd., the huge building empire over which he now presides—with assets last year of more than $1 billion— had become so vast that he was splitting it into several units. Even 10 years ago, Nu-West con-
sidered itself almost gargantuan when it built and sold 615 homes. By last year that number had jumped tenfold, to 6,204 houses sold in a dozen Canadian and U.S. cities. Based on its real estate activities alone, Nu-West last year ranked as Canada’s fourth-largest development company. Now the company is being re-formed as Nu-West Group Limited—The Group, for short—to handle its diverse activities, with Scurfield as the over-all head, the foreman in charge of the future. The Group is the holding company for three separate corporations, each with its own president and board of directors. Nu-West Development Corporation will handle Canadian real estate operations, Nu-West Inc. takes over the U.S. real estate, and Voyageur Petroleums Ltd. will carry on separately as the company’s oil and gas arm, after last year’s take-over of this independent Canadian petroleum firm.
Scurfield has found his share of opportunities since 1957 when he sold his home, moved to Calgary and borrowed from the bank to buy a 25-per-cent interest in Nu-West, then a small, privately owned local house-building company. The company had a book value of $60,000 then but its assets turned out to be largely unsold houses and unpaid bills. Not normally a man for platitudes, Scurfield blandly explains Nu-
West’s subsequent success by the old axiom of “Satisfy Your Customer”: “If you design well, build well, you sell well. When you please your customers, business simply tends to grow.”
In fact, Scurfield’s magic has been his talent for making opportunities happen through diversification at the right moment. When the company went public in 1969, Nu-West used the $3 million raised to expand beyond Calgary into the Edmonton and Vancouver markets. Its later entry into U.S. markets—making it one of the first and most successful Canadian developers in the U.S. —has also given the company a huge boost. In fact, one of the few areas where Nu-West has been less than successful has been its attempt to crack the housing market in the Toronto area, a locale already saturated with success stories of its own. Later diversification came in the form of commercial and industrial rental properties. Then, in a
complete and novel departure, in the late ’70s, when anti-inflation controls froze house prices and rent controls weighed in as well, Nu-West took a look at its slipping profits and branched into oil and gas with its $198-million takeover of Voyageur. And along the way, Nu-West also acquired a 48-per-cent interest in Carma Developers Ltd., a builders’ co-op responsible for assembling land for its members to develop.
Scurfield’s goal is to divide Nu-West’s assets equally among oil and gas, Canadian real estate, American land and housing and commercial developments. With Voyageur, he is already near his goal: oil and gas assets now account for 20 per cent of Nu-West’s $1,175,000,000 total assets.
Scurfield expects housing to go in new directions, too, particularly with continuing declines in housing starts. From his office window in Nu-West’s flashy, 100,000-square-foot headquarters in Calgary, he can look out at a rabbits’ warren of townhouses. “Not the best example of our housing,” Scurfield admits. And not the wave of the future. Smaller families will demand—and get, from Nu-West—more exotic house trappings in less space in areas closer to their jobs than far-flung suburbs for which Calgary is particularly notorious.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.