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Success and struggles in 60-year career

Maurice Rollins, the owner of Carriage House Retirement Residence on the corner of Bond and Mary Streets in Oshawa, shares his thoughts about a 60-year entrepreneurial career. (Photo courtesy of Maurice Rollins Collection)

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

When looking for an example of a ‘self-made man’, one can look directly to Maurice Rollins.

The 91-year-old entrepreneur has been involved in the construction business for more than 60 years.

About 20 years ago, Rollins expanded his resume in the industry by developing a number of retirement residences.

Perhaps his crowning achievement is The Carriage House Retirement Residence, which sits at the corner of Bond and Mary streets in Oshawa’s downtown.

The Carriage House offers a variety of suite designs and layouts to chose from, each featuring controllable heat and air conditioning. The building also features state-of-the-art emergency and life safety systems, including heat, smoke detector, and sprinkler systems.

But for Rollins, an enjoyable retirement lifestyle goes beyond the aesthetics of a building itself.

“My main booster is good food and happy people. We need to entertain these people, they just can’t sit in their room,” he states.

Carriage House offers various physical, mental and cognitive programs to help keep residents active.

These include exercise activities, a walking club, shopping trips, picnics, and movie and theatre outings, just to name a few.

Other recreational activities include crafts, painting, cards, bingo and shuffleboard.

Independent living is held in high regard at the Carriage House but highly-trained staff are available 24 hours a day for emergency situations.

A variety of services are available from respite and short-term, operative and recuperative care.

The Carriage House also offers assisted daily living, personal laundry and linen services, medication administration and management, dietary advice and special diets upon request.

When it comes to dining, the residence can please all appetites with freshly prepared, nutritious meals.

Tray service is accommodated upon request, and the on-site Horseshoe Cafe is open throughout the day and evening to provide refreshments when family and friends visit.

Although it would be very difficult to have a close relationship with all the residents, Rollins ensures that he calls them every year on their birthday.

“First thing in the morning, I phone them. Sometimes they remember me from the year before,” he says with a laugh. “I say ‘Happy Birthday’ and have a little talk with them. I don’t think anyone else does that.”

Rollins freely admits the Carriage House was not an overnight success.

“When we opened up, we didn’t realize we had druggies next door, and down the street. We planted evergreens, and they would tear them up, we had an awful time,” he recalls. “We couldn’t get anybody in. Nobody wanted to walk out on the street.”

With time, that has changed.

“We have no trouble, people can go out and walk around the streets; We’re in a good location.”

The Carriage House just recently became a profitable business for Rollins.

“The building here is just starting to make money after 20 years. I’ve got about $13 million in this building, and I was losing money every year.”

However, he notes he realized there are risks to the retirement home game and doesn’t believe it is different for most owners.

“Anyone who builds one, it takes a while to make a profit,” he says, adding he doesn’t plan on building any more retirement residences.

The Belleville-native credits the City of Oshawa for being an accommodating partner.

“It was very easy to work with the city, a lot easier than in my hometown of Belleville. I remember going to a meeting, and I thought I’d be speaking with one person about one thing, and they had five or so people in the room, and we settled it all there.”

The tale of Rollins journey into construction began in 1955.

“I had no money. I started from nothing,” he says.

He built his reputation by starting off with semi-detached houses and apartments.

“I did a lot of commercial work as well, such as schools and government buildings.”

Over time, his company Maurice H. Rollins Construction Ltd. became one of the most reputable and lively builders in the province.

“We were averaging 300 or something houses a year. Not a lot of builders were doing that I can tell you,” he says.

At his peak, Rollins was not only active in Ontario but also in European countries such as England and France.

He incorporated some groundbreaking ideas into his building practices at the time.

“I was the first or second one to do wall sections. All of the houses when they went out on the site, the walls were already on the truck, so you didn’t have to fool around with putting 2x4s on the sub floor.”

The Canadian government caught wind of this technique and asked him to showcase it at an annual conference at London’s Crystal Place.

“Princess Margaret was there. I didn’t know whether I should shake her hand or bow. But builders from other countries became interested in what we were doing.”

This experience opened a whole new chain of opportunities for Rollins, but ultimately, it became too much for him.

“Finally, I just stopped it and said I’m not doing it anymore. In 1980, when I sold all my land. I had Belleville tied up. I don’t think anyone could build a house in Belleville, except for on a private lot,” he recalls.

His focus then shifted to hotels and motels.

“The reason I got into the hotel business is when you rent something out you get paid by the month, but in the hotel business, you get paid every day. It seemed to be a quicker return.”

In 1978, he founded the Journey’s End hotel chain, building the original location in Belleville.

The chain would expand to nearly 140 across Canada and northern U.S.

According to Rollins, the company once built 18 in a single year.

“We built them all and managed them all. I had about 3,500 employees. Between 1984 and 1990, we were the largest hotel company in Canada, bigger than Holiday Inn and everybody else.”

The recession of the early-1990s hit many business owners hard, and Rollins was not impervious to the effects.

He took the company public in 1987. Stocks began at $10 a share, later reaching a high of $21 per share.

However, the price plunged down to $1.50 per share in the early 90s, before rebounding to $7 a share when the chain was sold off in 1999.

“Things were a little bit shaky I can tell you that,” Rollins states.

Strife is nothing new to Rollins either as he struggled with mental health issues for a good part of his life.

“I had very serious depression which started off in the last year of high school,” he says.

Although he was one of the top students in his class, the depression made him very unsure about his future.

“They said you could be an engineer, you could do this or do that, but I just couldn’t do it.”

Even as his construction company was flourishing, his depression lingered.

“I had shock treatments in the Kingston Hospital at various times over the years. I remember one time I had the shock treatments, I drove back to my office, and I didn’t remember anybody,” Rollins explains. “I had people come in who I’d known for years, and I didn’t know who the hell they were.”

When the depression would become too much to handle, Rollins says he would often rid himself of any “emotional or mental work.”

“I had to get rid off that all together for two or three weeks by physically working, and then I’d come around.”

Rollins would document his struggles with depression in a biography written by Belleville-area historian Orland French several years ago.

He made the fitting decision to donate all revenue from book sales to the local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Philanthropy has been a significant part of Rollins’ life.

“The biggest one I do is the United Way of Hastings and Prince Edward. I’ve been matching up to $100,000 each year for quite some time,” he says. “I like United Way because they cover about 70 different organizations when they give the money out.”

He has also made significant contributions to hospitals in Oshawa, Trenton, and Belleville.

And while most 91-year-olds are not getting up for work in the morning, Rollins is in the office by 7:30 a.m. every day.

“I’ve always done it, and I just want to keep it up,” he explains.

Although he doesn’t have plans to slow down too much, he revealed he recently sold his 10,000 sq. ft. house he built himself 33 years ago.

He shared the house with his wife, Marilyn, who sadly passed away in April.

Rollins plans on moving into a condominium, which has a bit of personal story attached to it.

“This is the best building in Belleville. It’s 87 units, it’s on the water, and has been there for 40 years,” he states. “It took other builders 30 years to come down and build in the same area. Crazily enough 40 years ago, I built this building, and now I’m moving in.”

Earlier this year, Rollins was officially recognized by the province, receiving an Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship.

The award is Ontario’s second-highest honour after the Order of Ontario and recognizes individuals “for their exceptional long-term efforts and outstanding contributions to the well-being of their communities.”

It was a great honour for Rollins.

“It was quite an occasion. They do everything up so extravagantly. I was quite impressed with it.”

Asked if he has any advice for someone getting into the construction business, he notes nobody is “doing it the easy way.”

“Putting up 2x4s on a sub floor. They’re not doing the way we did. I don’t understand that,” he jokes.

On a serious note, Rollins says he is unsure if nowadays it is possible to build a company from the ground up like he did.

“The biggest problem would be that the land is all tied up with the big builders. I don’t know how a guy would really get started today.”