Prolific builder behind Berwick retirement homes passes the torch

Gordon Denford has joked often that he should be living in one of his retirement homes instead of building them. But don’t expect the energetic 86-year-old to be heading to a Berwick House anytime soon.

Retirement is not really in the cards for a man who has had a hand in building Victoria out since 1953.

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However, Denford has decided to hand over the titles of president and CEO of Berwick Retirement Communities to his son, Christopher. Just don’t call it retirement.

“I don’t think I’ll ever retire ... it’s not in me,” Denford said after making the handover official on Thursday. “I’d be bored stiff.”

But he did agree it’s time to hand over the reins of the company, which is in the midst of building its fifth retirement community, Berwick By the Sea in Campbell River. Construction is scheduled to be complete by September 2014.

The 135-unit, independent and assisted-living community will join the original Berwick House and Berwick Royal Oak in Victoria, Berwick on the Lake in Nanaimo, Berwick Comox Valley and Berwick on the Park in Kamloops.

“I’ll still be around,” said Denford. “But there comes a time you get to a certain point and you want to take some time off.”

The elder Denford said he’s leaving the company, which employs more than 520 people, in very good hands. “Chris is really great and through the years he’s proved to be very capable and it’s time he took over. He will be really good at it,” Denford said, adding after working side by side for 25 years the transition for the company will be seamless.

“He’s very much in the same mould as me, and there’s a certain culture we have that allows autonomy for the general managers of each [facility]. Chris is the same. He recognizes if you have good people with the ability to run things, then let them do it.”

The new CEO said he has learned well from his father. “We have a great team that we have been building over the last few years ... everyone in this office will make the transition fairly easy,” he said. “I will continue the same way my dad did. He taught me at an early age to make sure you have people around you that are smarter than you or the best person to do the job they’ve been hired for.

“That makes the job of president so much easier.”

And as for input from the old man, Chris said his advice and insight will be available whenever needed. “I think he might actually retire when he’s 100,” he said with a laugh.

Gordon Denford has certainly made a impression on the region both as a builder — he and Chris are the majority owners of Denford Construction Management — and through work on various boards and causes around the city.

Denford has offered his time and expertise to the Victoria Airport Authority, Peninsula Co-op, Tourism Victoria and the Urban Development institute and has been recognized by the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce with the Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

For Denford, it’s been about being part of a community he grew to love.

“The best move I made was coming to Victoria from Vancouver,” said Denford, who travelled to the coast from Winnipeg.

Denford was evacuated from Bristol, England, as a 13-year-old in 1940 and grew up and went to university in Winnipeg.

In the spring of 1953, he left a soggy Vancouver for the drier climes of the Island and set up an electrical heating distribution business.

That would become an electrical contracting company and eventually a development firm.

He built his first apartment building in James Bay in 1964. There would be dozens of buildings to follow in Victoria and well beyond, but Denford said the focus on building and creating retirement communities, which started in 1989, has been the most rewarding of his career.

“And that’s shared with Chris and everyone here,” he said. “There’s something magical about the relationships you establish with residents. It spurs you to make it better for them.”

He knew at some point his hand would turn to that kind of construction, and establishing residences that would comfort and not just house seniors after seeing the way residents were being treated in a cold institution in the 1960s.

“They had people sitting in wheelchairs in the lobby staring into space,” Denford said, noting one of those residents was his mother, who was suffering from Parkinson’s. “I had her out of there in 24 hours and back [into the kind of care] I thought she deserved.

“I never forgot that. I didn’t like seeing the way seniors were being warehoused.”

Denford said that reality led people to fear “the old folks home” and he wanted to change that. “We try for a sense of harmony, comfort and familiarity so the transition is a pleasant one and not one to be afraid of,” he said.

Not unlike the transition at the company, as both Denfords point out: it’s business as usual.

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