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The Belleville Chamber of Commerce presents their Lifetime Achievement Award a member who has contributed to the growth of a business and demonstrated vision, mentorship and citizenship. These are considered the cornerstones of lifetime achievement and hence the individual awards acknowledge them under these categories as part of our annual President’s Dinner.
Through a lifetime in business, people wear many hats – as founders, visionaries, mentors and outstanding citizens. Being able to do all those things separates those who spend a lifetime achieving in business from those who merely spend a lifetime in business.
Peter Knudsen has achieved much and is this year’s recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award.
Born in Belleville and educated in Ottawa (Carleton University, Economics) and Kingston (MBA from Queen’s), Knudsen returned to Belleville in 1978 after some stints on hydro dams and as a stockbroker to work for K. Knudsen Construction Ltd., founded by his father, Karl, in 1971 as a handyman business. He would come home during the summer and work with his father, something he enjoyed and he didn’t hesitate to return to Belleville when it was time to work in the family business.
The company always focused on commercial, industrial and institutional construction. He finds the work challenging and interesting, especially the municipal or city government side of things. While the company has built “a few really big houses,” for the most part those are “one-offs.”
Peter explained that he never felt the need to get involved with residential work and acknowledged, “we have some good developers here who know what they are doing.”
That being said, the company has done a lot of multi-residential work, including Quinte Gardens and the Arabella building. They have also done “pretty much every car dealership in town,” Tim Horton’s stores, McDonalds stores, bank renovations, the Town Suites by Marriott Hotel and Century Village. Their website includes photos of many other recognizable buildings stretched across Eastern Ontario.
And they also keep it close to home, currently working on the Maze Mall in downtown Belleville which is similar to what happened with Century Village with commercial on the lower levels and residential above. Peter notes there are “probably 50” residential units that will be coming on stream in the near future in the Downtown District, just in the older buildings being redone.
“Working with old buildings is something we like to do,” he said, “Understanding how to work with old buildings is something that is a bit of a challenge. I think old buildings and old architecture need to be respected rather than just torn down.”
Peter noted that K. Knudsen built the first commercial LEED platinum building in the region, for Fifth Town Cheese in Prince Edward County. LEED provides a framework for healthy, efficient, carbon and cost-saving green buildings and LEED certification is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement. He also acknowledged that he still remembers the day they placed the fighter jet in front of the hotel along the 401, and even though they’d planned it to the millimeter, watching the crane reaching across from the highway to put it in place was a moment he won’t forget.
But, he adds, success in business goes beyond what is built or sold or constructed: it also means being involved in the community. For Knudsen, that has meant being involved in a variety of causes, many of them related to children.
Over the years he has been involved with the Kiwanis Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters, The Children’s Foundation, Bay of Quinte Yacht Club, the Children’s Aid Society, the Belleville General Hospital Foundation and the Three Oaks Foundation.
He has been awarded a Paul Harris Fellowship, and been named both Philanthropist of the Year in Kingston and a Guardian Angel by The Children’s Foundation.
“I have always liked kids’ causes, (so) the Angel is one of the awards that has meant the most,” he said. “Doing that kind of work is rewarding but you don’t do it to be rewarded. You do it because you can see what you do.”
He notes that these days the need in the community seems much more pronounced than it did when he grew up, with stories about poverty prevalent everywhere, including things like kids going to school without breakfast every day.
He says that these kinds of situations might have been happening when he was a kid – “likely were happening -- but you didn’t hear about it very often”. And he realizes that his upbringing – “Beaver Cleaver” with a professional father, house, cottage – may not be the case as much any more.
“Government can only do so much,” he said. “And I would sooner give voluntarily and control where the money is going… giving to great community groups like the United Way that does so much for so many.”
“You give to the community or raise money for the hospital because it’s a great thing to do. Out of that comes good: it’s good for the soul but it doesn’t hurt you in business either. That’s not why I do it at all, but people recognize that you put time and money into things.”
He notes that he has over the years been inspired, first by his father and later by community leaders like Ross McDougall and John Williams, who always seemed willing to give of their time and money to help make the community a better place.
Ed Lehtinen and Bob Doyle have also inspired by their example, he added.
“A guy like Ross McDougall can write you a cheque any day of the week but he will [also] give you time any time all the time,” he noted. “I have always respected people like Ross and John Williams.
“There are people who have done well here. And unless you won the lottery you have made your living in and around this municipality. So in my opinion you are obligated to try to give something back. It’s so important to give back and not just take all the time.”
He recognizes he likely has served as an example to other people in the same way he has been inspired by other, but it’s not something he had deliberately tried to do.
Rather he has just tried to live the best life he could, treat people the best way he could, and do as much as he could to help out where it was needed. That includes in the workplace where he has worked hard to treat his people the best he can.
He says one key has been to keep his people working, “and keep your good people working even if it costs you a bit of money.” As well, you have to be openminded to what they know, and be willing to accept their fresh thoughts and fresh ideas.
He says that builds trust and loyalty, noting he has guys who have been with them since the 70s and never worked for anyone else.
“It’s pretty hard to go through life and not have some influence on some people,” he said. “But I haven’t really tried to do that other than to try to be generous with my time as much as I can and in other ways as well.”
“If there is any lesson, it’s “stick to it”. That and having the right people around and trusting them. You hire somebody, you try to mentor them, you try to impart to them what you think is the right thing.”
These days, Knudsen is pulling back. He has already named Chris Lawday, who has been there for nearly 3 decades, as the company’s new president and turned much of the operation over to him, although he still remains involved a fair bit – and still prefers to take a meeting in person.
“Obviously over the years you make many contacts and people tend to like to know if you are around, for many reasons,” he said. “We all have our best before date and I’m a little beyond that to be honest.
“But I enjoy driving around town and looking at something we have built and knowing it’s going to be there maybe 100 years from today. You can take pride in the fact you made something tangible. It gives one a great deal of fulfilment to be part of something like that.
“It’s nice to have put in 40 plus years and have someone notice that you tried to do the right thing most of the time. I like that I’ve done this in Belleville, because I do think you can have a greater impact in a smaller community and see the results.”