January/February 2023Leadership ProfilePrevious Issues

Leadership Profile: Building Dreams into Reality

How Hickory Dickory Decks founder Tom Jacques turned his summer job into a million-dollar franchise

By Roma Ihnatowycz

While its name may have been inspired by a children’s rhyme, Hickory Dickory Decks has little to do with child’s play. On the contrary, the company’s founder Tom Jacques had big business firmly on his mind from the moment he started the company as a young man in his twenties.

Jacques was determined to grow his deck-building business into a large franchise chain, and, despite initial scepticism from sideline observers, he achieved his goal. Today there are 82 Hickory Dickory Decks franchises across Canada, plus a location south of the border in Bangor, Maine, and the number is still growing.

“Franchising was the idea, right from the start,” says Jacques, who launched the company in 1987 with a partner who subsequently left after a few months. “Many people told me it couldn’t be done, that you couldn’t franchise a custom-made, highly skilled product.”

More than 35,000 decks later, Jacques has proved his naysayers wrong. To those who know him, it comes as no surprise. An eternal optimist, with a strong entrepreneurial bent, Jacques was already embarking on business ventures at a young age—and succeeding in turning a healthy profit.

As a business student at McMaster University, Jacques started a new retail business with a close friend, selling Safe Home fire extinguishers door to door. “It’s something everybody needed but nobody had,” explains Jacques. “We were importing the number one fire extinguisher, Kidde, into Canada, and we soon had 45 people working for us.”

While successful, Jacques viewed the fire extinguisher venture as a “university gig,” and was determined for more. Jacques saw the potential in the local housing market and started buying homes in and around Hamilton, renovating them and renting them out to other students. Short on cash but big on ideas, he financed his first house purchase on his credit cards.

“I basically cashed out all my credit cards for a down payment and had 30 days to renovate the house,” says Jacques. “I didn’t even know how to renovate! And back then there was no Google—I learned from Reader’s Digest Home Improvement. I ended up selling half of my first house to my brother for more than I paid for it.”

His real estate holdings grew to seven houses, and with his appetite whetted, he was eyeing executive positions at big firms as his next career move. With his Bachelor of Commerce degree in hand, he signed on for a fulltime position with IBM, attending the tech company’s one-year sales training course to start. When IBM cancelled the course seven months in, Jacques left to start Hickory Dickory Decks.

Niche down, scale up

The idea of a decking business appealed to the young entrepreneur on multiple fronts. “One, it was about working outside; two, it was quite creative; and three, nobody was doing it,” says Jacques. “There was no specialist company in the deck-building business. Back in the 1980s, it was mainly general contractors and landscapers who were building the odd deck.”

Initially, Jacques ran the business out of one of his rental properties in downtown Hamilton and built many of the decks himself. He constructed his first deck in early August in his first year, and by Christmas, he was already turning a profit. “I made the same amount of money by then as twice my annual salary at IBM,” he says. “I had two employees in the first year and 17 in the second, so it was gangbusters right out of the gate.”

Business soon stretched out to Burlington, Mississauga, and other nearby municipalities, and Jacques moved the headquarters to Flamborough, Ontario on “an industrial property with an old farmhouse,” where he set up his own supply company specializing in cedar and clear cedar decking material, and by 1996, composite decking.

Today, low-maintenance decks comprise the bulk of the brand’s business, and Hickory Dickory Decks remains the largest decking business in Canada specializing in the hardy, composite material, says Jacques. “When we first started, manufacturers didn’t even have installation manuals, and we were inventing as we went along,” he recalls. “We have now become the largest installer of low-maintenance decks in the world.”

Jacques also had the astute business sense to embrace the internet early on, purchasing the decks.ca web address for just $100 dollars. It would prove to be a marketing windfall, turning the site into a go-to destination for anyone scrolling the web for decking information. By 1999, Hickory Dickory Decks had 30 employees and was generating around $4.4 million in annual sales. Finally, the time was right for Jacques to fulfil his dream of franchising the business.

The beginning of a franchising empire

While it took a bit longer than some would expect, Jacques reasons he wanted to lay the necessary groundwork before taking the plunge. “We were good salespeople and there was lots of demand, but it was a question of managing to get people to follow the proper systems.

The more we looked into it, the more we realized there is more to it. We had to make sure that all our franchises were not only doing the same quality of work and treating the customers and employees the same, it had to be duplicatable,” explains Jacques.

Hickory Dickory Decks veers from the typical franchise brand in that it doesn’t have a standardized product that is uniform across all its franchises. It’s not about building “cookie-cutter” decks, Jacques stresses. Each project is developed in line with the homeowner’s aspirations and needs, as well as the size and shape of their property and scope of their budget. The company website provides customers with thousands of photos of finished decks, allowing them to visualize all the possibilities, and guiding the company in creating the perfect custom deck for their needs.

The franchising component of the business began slowly. Jacques sold just one franchise the first year, in Whitby, Ontario. But things picked up speed, and today Hickory Dickory Decks franchising in its home province of Ontario is almost at capacity, with some franchise opportunities still available in northern cities like Sudbury and Thunder Bay. The balance of provinces still have plenty of room for growth, and in 2023, the company will start franchising in Quebec for the first time. Jacques also has plans to spread further into the U.S. (The housing crash in 2008 halted earlier expansion plans for the region.)

While prospective franchisees don’t need a background in construction or business—the company provides the necessary training—they do need to be highly customer oriented, with a strong focus on keeping their clients happy. The business can be run from their home; a branded pick-up truck and hauler for storing equipment is all that’s needed. The set-up, says Jacques, allows for great work-life balance, and many franchisees have teamed up with their partners to run their decking business.

Thanks to the internet and an increasingly global marketplace, Jacques says he’s fielding calls from interested parties from far and wide. He recently sold a franchise to someone in South Africa who will be moving his family to Canada and is in talks with others in Vietnam and India intent on doing the same thing. “We’re now getting leads from all over the world,” says Jacques. “I never imagined 37 years ago that I’d be selling a franchise to a guy in South Africa!”

Times have certainly changed since Jacques built his first deck as a young man with big dreams and energy to spare. For starters, he’s picking up a hammer a lot less these days as he devotes his time to growing his successful franchise brand across Canada and beyond. But he still has it in him. Just this past fall, Jacques picked up his tools and helped his son and one of his team leaders build a deck at the cottage. “I was pretty sore the next day,” he says with a laugh.

No less determined and goal-oriented than he was when he was young, Jacques accomplished what he set out to do over that November weekend, just as he’s done with Hickory Dickory Decks. Through his vision and leadership, he has defied the odds and built what many said couldn’t be done: Canada’s largest custom deckbuilding franchise business.

His big dreams paid off.