Every now and then you come across someone you immediately sense you can trust to give you the straight story. Jim Caruk is one of those guys. Father, television personality, business man and Master Contractor; this guy knows his stuff and he shoots straight from the hip.
If you want to engage Jim in conversation just ask him about his daughters. The word “pride” immediately comes to mind. “One of my daughters is married,” says Jim. [At the time of this interview she was expecting a baby in two weeks.] “She’s a nurse at the Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. When she was a baby herself we spent a lot of time with her at that hospital and now she’s working there. She works in the neonatal intensive care unit.” You can hear the anticipation and excitement in his voice. “There has been talk that when the baby is born I’m going to be called Papa Jim-Jim. What do you think of that? Papa Jim-Jim. Awesome, eh?”
Jim’s other daughter is very creative. She took the artistic route. “She’s an amazing designer. She’s into fashion design in Toronto.” When asked if she gets her creativity from him he replies, “Well, I did do a bit of acting a long, very long, time ago. In fact, I went to Los Angeles to see if I could make it. I lasted a couple of months and came home.”
Were you in anything that we might recognize?
“In 1984 when they first brought Miller Beer here I was the Miller Beer guy. I think you can even find that on Youtube,” laughs Jim. “Then I decided acting wasn’t for me. I picked up a hammer, and decided to make a living in the trades. That decision seems to have worked out okay for me.”
Jim did transition back to television eventually, and he did it by simply being himself. Television and film studios need offices. Those offices have to be built by someone, or some company. In Toronto, in the mid nineties the offices of YTV were constructed by Jim and his crew. “There were a lot of television people around. We had to work all around them. They kept telling us that we needed our own show. That we should have some sort of construction show, or contracting show.”
The crew just kept working at what they knew best – putting in offices and making quality work environments. The contracts kept coming. Eventually the Life Network came into existence. Jim and his crew built their offices. Life Network became HGTV and Jim joined them. A Canadian television personality was born.
Real Renos was an edgy look inside real life construction projects. The humour was risque for the time, the projects didn’t always go as planned and the language was accurate down to the expletives. It was funny and educational and the Canadian public loved it. “I guess in a way we were pioneers. We were real reality TV without scripts and nobody was telling us where to stand or how to do things. What you saw was how it was. The good, the bad, and the ugly,” laughs Jim. The show certainly made its mark. “It would be great to do another show like that. I think we took everyone by surprise, and by the time they figured out just how real we were it was too late. People were watching it and loving it.”
With his trademark grey hair, and quick wit Jim has entertained audiences for years on television, while still maintaining legitimate skills in the trades. “I work on projects when I’m not being followed by TV cameras. I love what I do, and I have a company to keep running. I’ve been in this business for 40 years.”
Does he mind being recognized as a TV icon? “I don’t mind. I think the guys I work with sometimes find it a bit weird. I was just coming home for this interview tonight, and we were traveling with a bunch of the guys working on the project I have going. One of them kind of shook his head and said he’d never talked to anybody who’d been on TV before.”
Taking a year off from television Jim is concentrating on some fairly substantial projects. “One of the houses we are working on is over 13,000 square feet. Just a little place,” he says with a laugh. “Another is over 7000 square feet. Right now, I’m waiting to hear back on a bid we put in on another one. Let’s face it. If we didn’t have work lined up there wouldn’t be any show to film.”
Jim keeps himself busy with other trade related projects as well. His company The Caruk Group, started Build it Yourself Learning Centres – hands on classroom environments where contracting professionals teach people how to do their own renovations. Renovation Contractor Magazine is another creation of The Caruk Group. Designed to serve as a trade publication for construction professionals, it allows pros to share information with other pros to better serve consumers.
Advice this House Hunting Trip (HHT) season
This is the time of year military families are buying and selling homes all over the country. Some are building new homes, some are renovating new places. Jim has some advice to offer. “Everything you hear about kitchens and bathrooms is true. They do add value to your home if they are renovated and they do keep you from making money if they are outdated. Talk to your real estate agent too, but putting money in updating flooring and kitchen cupboards is a good way to go.”
Hiring the right person for the job can be difficult if you are not from the area and can’t secure recommendations from other military families. “Use your Home Builder’s Association,” says Jim. “Try to find someone who is registered online. A little research goes a long way. You can phone the Associations too. Try to talk directly with someone.” The best piece of advice; “You get what you pay for. If you have checked with Associations then don’t get cheap about it. Someone who charges $15 per hour is worth just that. If you pay $35 you’ll get what you pay for if they are in the Association. Follow your gut and the advice of your home inspector.”
Renos For Heroes
Not surprisingly Jim Caruk is the type of guy who likes to fix things – not just run down houses, or offices either. While driving across America Jim had a conversation with a man whose son had just come back from Afghanistan. “This guy’s kid had PTSD. I listened to his story and I listened to other people’s stories. I started thinking more and more about it all. The more I investigated the more I learned about the ones with PTSD, to the soldiers who lost limbs to the ones who gave it all.” It wasn’t easy information for a civilian to hear, but Jim continued to explore the different situations he found the returning soldiers facing.
“I talked to one soldier in particular. He told me his story, about how difficult it was to get his life back after he came home. What struck me was how hard it was to get his house fixed up to accommodate his disabilities. That’s when I decided there was probably something I could do to help him and other people in his situation.” Not the type of person who enjoys getting caught up in red tape and bureaucracy, Jim relied heavily on his charm and sense of humour while navigating his way through the military system. It all worked out for the best, and Renos for Heroes was born.
“I want to start with the physically injured and the disabled. We’re going to be there to help out with accessible bathrooms and ramps. Wider doorways. Practical things that need to be taken care of.” Jim’s foundation raises money in a variety of ways. “We held a gala and we’re holding golf tournaments.” Who does he engage to help him out with the installation of bathrooms or any of the other projects Renos for Heroes takes on? “The Carpenter’s Union. These are my buddies and they are always willing to help out. The skilled tradespeople that I work with give their time too. It’s really amazing how many people have come forward. These soldiers deserve to be recognized and have that support.” The first Renos for Heroes Gala raised $50,000, and over 200 golfers participated in the Renos for Heroes Golf Tournament.
“You know, the real problem we’re having is getting soldiers to come forward to talk to us. We don’t care what their injury is, lost limb or PTSD, if they need a hand we’ll talk to them. It’s all about the renovations taking a little bit of their stress away. A bathroom, new front steps, a bedroom. We will consider it. But they have to come forward to us.” Jim is overwhelmed by the attitudes of the soldiers he meets. “They are so damned inspirational and their stories touch your heart.”
Jim Caruk has built his life on a foundation of good humour and good sense. He’s a proud father, a hard core business man, and a truly skilled contractor. Above all that he’s a guy with a passion for fixing what needs to be fixed. In fact, no one would disagree Jim Caruk is the type of guy who would give you the shirt off his back then turn around and build you a closet to hang it in.
By Vicki Morrison