More than a decade after leaving Iceland to come to Canada, Volundur Thorbjornsson is constructing quite a legacy in eastern Ontario.
By Paul Park
Mr. Thorbjornsson – known as “Wally” to many of his Canadian friends who find his real name difficult to pronounce – left his home in Húsavík, a small town on the Nordic island nation’s northern coast, in 2001.
Since then, he has made his name by building residential housing and erecting industrial parks in Carleton Place, Almonte, Perth, Ottawa and Ogdensburg, N.Y. He continues to scout new territory and is developing new sites that should be open in the next year or so.
One such development is a proposed industrial park at the “Postyard,” a piece of property just off Highway 15 in Carleton Place.
The 11-acre lot should be ready by next spring. The site is currently being graded, with construction to follow shortly.
“It’s cheaper if you start with the bedrock,” explains Mr. Thorbjornsson, who began by building townhouses in the area in 2004.
Home construction soon became a binational venture for him. For several years after arriving in Canada, he designed prefab houses that he shipped back to Iceland. Workers there were able to put them together easily and they sold quickly in the burgeoning Icelandic real estate market. When the worldwide financial crisis hit the island hard in 2008, leading to the institution of capital controls, Mr. Thorbjornsson decided it was time to exit the market and focus on North America.
He is currently working to erect a 202-unit development in the Jackson Ridge district of Carleton Place, a plan that calls for 12 to 16 apartments in each building. The stacked townhouses will feature such amenities as bike storage spaces, a fitness centre, guest rooms and a park.
Mr. Thorbjornsson plans to rent the units for the first two or three years, selling off a few each year. His partner in the venture is Thomas Cavanagh Construction, a well-known firm in the area.
“You need deep pockets for something like that,” he jokes, explaining why he brought another company into the mix.
He prefers to work with his clients to see how they want to develop their properties. His commercial units typically rent on five-year leases.
“I’m an easy-going landlord,” Mr. Thorbjornsson says.
His work has not gone unnoticed. In 2013, he was named Business Person of the Year in Carleton Place for his work in revitalizing the downtown sector of the city.
“I believe in giving back to the community that has given to you,” he explains.
He sees a bright future for his adopted hometown. Carleton Place’s population has remained fairly stable at around 10,000, but new businesses and residences are popping up everywhere. Mr. Thorbjornsson attributes the boom to the expansion of Highway 7 from two lanes to four in 2006.
The local chamber of commerce is hoping the Department of National Defence’s pending takeover of the former Nortel site in Kanata next year will spur more families to consider living in Carleton Place. Mr. Thorbjornsson also thinks DND’s move west will give the community a boost and speaks highly of civic officials who, while protecting environmental and other considerations, are eager to assist developers in improving the region.
Meanwhile, the homebuilder not only promotes his own business, but also helps others get started.
Mr. Thorbjornsson is an investor in Mehoe Enterprise, a startup that has designed a fire-extinguishing system called Haven that uses dry powder rather than water to douse flames. CEO Matthew Perry was originally a firefighter, while COO Michael McManus worked in the construction industry.
Plans call for the devices to be manufactured at a plant in Renfrew. Pre-orders from the website mean the firm’s first six months’ worth of production has already been sold.
Among Mr. Thorbjornsson’s future projects are a 282-unit residential development that he hopes to have on the market by 2017 and another industrial park on six acres of land he has purchased.
All of this makes him an active employer in the region. Because the work may be seasonal or of limited duration, his payroll varies from 15 to 47 workers, depending on the time of year.
Mr. Thorbjornsson oversees this mini-empire from a nondescript building in one of his industrial parks. His office is on the second floor of a walk-up building, where one wall is covered with inspirational business mottoes in English and Icelandic such as, “When opportunity knocks, most people complain about the noise.”
He and his wife Daja Kjartansdóttir, who also works at the company, live outside of Perth with their four children on riverfront property. Mr. Thorbjornsson stresses the importance of his children’s education, given his experience as a high school dropout who began working on fishing boats in Iceland at 15.
A thousand years ago, explorers from Iceland arrived in Canada, settled here briefly and then left.
But Volundur Thorbjornsson is one Icelander who has stayed and left his mark on his adopted community.