Leadership ProfileNovember/December 2022Previous Issues

Leadership Profile: The Pillars of Success

Dan Steward gleans expertise from his previous career experiences in his role as president and CEO of Pillar To Post Home Inspectors

By Roma Ihnatowycz

As a young man, Dan Steward, president and CEO of Pillar To Post Home Inspectors, was given a valuable piece of advice by his father that has stayed with him throughout his lengthy and successful business career.

“Just remember you always work for Dan Steward, Inc.,” reflects Steward on the prudent guidance his father shared with him so many years ago. “You always work for yourself, regardless of who is signing the cheque. So do the things you like to do and what you can be proud of.”

Steward heeded that advice, most recently as the driving force behind the Pillar To Post franchise brand – a successful home inspection business with operations spread across North America. His decision to join the Canadian company was the crowning moment of a professional career climb that saw him work for a range of businesses, from Fortune 500 companies to small, family-run businesses, both in his home country and abroad.

While it may be simplistic to refer to his progression as a “master plan,” Steward’s career path honed his skills at a diverse group of companies, resulting in a broad base of expertise and business acumen. He even worked on an assembly line when he was still a student, an experience he says gave him his first valuable business lesson: the importance of collaboration.

“It’s about certain things coming in at one end of the factory, and the finished product coming out the other that somebody will buy, and in that process, you have to have collaboration between people,” says Steward. “There needs to be a collective ‘we.’”

As a young business graduate, Steward felt drawn to experiencing a business at all levels. While his fellow grads made beelines to big firms, Steward opted for more hands-on experience at Sternson, a family-owned chemical manufacturing business, despite the lower salary. “It was an opportunity to see from the front door to the back door, to see how products got made, and how customers were taken care of,” he says. “I learned a lot about business there.”

While employed by Sternson, Steward also had the opportunity to work overseas as its managing director for Europe and North Africa. Based out of London, U.K., he regularly visited construction sites across the European continent, as well as distant locales like Nigeria, Egypt, and Kuwait.

Following that extraordinary experience, Steward completed a Master of Business Administration and decided to diversify his skill set by joining a large Fortune 500 company, Laidlaw, where he held a number of leadership posts. He then moved to the franchise-based Shred-It Group, where he held the position of executive vice president and COO, before moving on to Iron Mountain as a regional VP for the information management services company.

Shortly after, the opportunity to lead Pillar To Post materialized, and Steward knew a good fit when he saw it. “I’d worked in small- and medium-sized companies, and in big companies, and I knew that I liked small and medium better,” he says. “So now I feel like I’m actually where I intended to be – a smaller business, working with small business owners, and helping businesses do well in a very personal way.”

While Pillar To Post may be smaller in scale than some of the big global firms Steward has worked for, it’s hardly small by most people’s standards, and has grown substantially under his leadership. When he joined the franchise as its president in 2004, the company had 220 franchise units; today, that number has more than doubled to 550. There are Pillar To Post franchises across nine provinces and 47 U.S. states. (Ninety per cent of the Canadian company’s business is now U.S. based.) As well, Pillar To Post units are doing double the volume of work and sales from when Steward first came on board.

The recent softening of Canada’s housing market – with declining prices and fewer bidding wars – has benefitted the business further, as buyers once more insist on home inspections. “What was happening [earlier] was home inspections were getting waived,” explains Steward. “Now, even though the overall market is smaller, we are actually seeing a pickup in home inspections.”

Introducing upscale inspections

Pillar To Post was a very different operation when Steward first came on as president. It had recently been purchased by FirstService Brands from its original owner, an entrepreneur who had launched the company with the intent to sell, rather than operate it himself over the long term.

As a result, says Steward, “I came in and found out that there wasn’t much substance in the business. We didn’t have a strong brand or brand experience. People in one part of the country were doing things one way, and in another part of the country, another. Some people would produce an eight-page home inspection report and others, an 80-page report. We had a collection of individuals who had taken our brand name, but with no real standards around what that meant.”

Steward rolled up his sleeves and got straight to work. He focused on building Pillar To Post into the leading home inspection brand in North America, redesigning brand visuals and investing in improved training for franchisees. Then, when the recession hit in 2008, he made a couple of radical decisions.

First, the company switched from small, exclusive franchise territories to large, non-exclusive territories. It then introduced a tiered mix of home inspections, something unheard of in the industry at the time, but copied by many competitors since. “We began offering Premium and Prestige home inspections,” explains Steward. “Some people said we couldn’t do it. But customers loved having choices, and our franchisees were making more money, [which] enabled them to hire more staff.”

Earlier this year, the company took things one step further and launched what it calls the Ultimate Home Inspection – the Rolls-Royce of home inspections that takes the inspection to a whole different level. It provides measured floor plans, 360-degree views of each room, embedded comments, and the ability to zoom into key areas. It also includes photos of appliance manufacturer plates with information about their projected lifespan, access to their operations manuals, and even the estimated cost of replacement where necessary. “It’s a complete immersive experience,” says Steward. 

The Pillar To Post CEO also spearheaded a move to bring in more young talent, lowering the franchise fee from $40,000 to a bargain price of $15,000. “We realized we had a lot of really good people who were coming to us who were younger, but they didn’t have the capital to get into the business and fund their start. Our business is all about the people, so we changed our franchise fee. We took it as low as we could, to what was essentially our break-even point.”

Steward aims to find franchisees who get pleasure out of helping people and enjoy building and nurturing relationships. They also need to be committed to continuous improvement because, as he points out, “there’s always more to learn.”

The company provides an initial eight-week training program, followed by 12 weeks of assistance post-launch. Included in the training are the nuts and bolts of running a successful business and conducting a home inspection. New franchisees then have a start-up team that coaches them through their first year of business.

Steward’s energy and enthusiasm for Pillar To Post and its business model is palpable, as is his ongoing passion for innovation and new ideas. Eighteen years into his role at the helm of the franchise, he shows no sign of slowing down. After a lengthy career honed at a varied mix of businesses, Steward is right where he wants to be.

“In leadership, you need to know yourself well, what you’re cut out for, what you’re good at, and what you want to avoid,” he says. “All of that helped me to know that Pillar To Post is exactly what I am looking for at this point in my career.”