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PROFILE: Orillia entrepreneur finds fulfillment in 'building hope'

'It became a passion to see Orillia become an example for other people to see how we take care of the vulnerable' in our community, says Glenn Wagner
Glenn Wagner
Glenn Wagner is one of the driving forces behind the Building Hope campaign that has raised $14.5 million for the new Lighthouse shelter and community hub on Queen Street.

From junior hockey star to one of the driving forces behind the Building Hope Campaign, Glenn Wagner is a man who has worn many hats in his life.

Wagner, now 63, was born and raised in Toronto. He grew up playing rep level minor hockey in the Toronto Marlboros organization and was eventually drafted by Hockey Hall of Famer Roger Neilson to play for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey Association.

“It was a great experience. I moved away from home for it when I just turned 17, it was a big challenge but a lot of fun,” Wagner said.

The left-winger netted 66 points in just 56 games in his final junior year, earning him an invite to the Detroit Red Wings rookie camp in Kalamazoo, Mich.. After being sent home from camp, Wagner decided that competitive hockey was no longer for him.

“I never had the drive to play professional hockey; it wasn’t the lifestyle or the environment that I felt I wanted to live,” he said.

“I might have been able to play for a few more years, but the type of style I played, and the game back then was really rough and tough, so I think I realized my limitations and decided it wasn’t really what I wanted.”

After studying economic geography at York University, Wagner found his footing in the corporate world. He was responsible for eight offices across Canada for a major publishing company that owned many newspapers across the country. Wagner was just 35 and making great money, but he felt like there had to be something more fulfilling in life.

“I just got to a level in the company where I just wasn’t comfortable with the environment. My Christian faith was challenged, so I felt it was time to leave and try something different,” Wagner said.

After a 15-year career in the corporate world, Wagner took a risk and moved his family north to Orillia with the goal of following in the footsteps of his father-in-law and working in the lawn care business.

“It was a risk in the sense that cash flow dwindled to nothing, but our faith played a big part in that. We thought a small town would allow us to really get involved with the community,” Wagner said.

Wagner and his wife, Kristy, started Wagner Lawn Care in 1993 from scratch, working long hours, and making very little profit.

“As a typical entrepreneur, I did everything. I remember going and knocking on doors in the evenings trying to get customers ... we started with nothing, it was a lot of hard work, but also a lot of fun,” Wagner said.

“Initially we couldn’t even go for lunch after church because we didn’t have any money. We had a mortgage to pay and a business to run, and it made things very tight, but when you set your mind to something you make it work, you write your own story," he said.

After a number of years, Wagner’s business grew into a franchise with locations in Orillia, Barrie, and Bracebridge, with more than 3,000 customers. In 2008 a cosmetic pesticides ban took away Wagner’s best weed killer and reduced business by over 70% which folded all locations except for Orillia.

However, Wagner’s family business is still running strong today, and it employs six people during the lawn care season. Despite all his hard work over the years, Wagner credits his staff for their long-time success.  

“It all starts with how you treat your customers: honesty and integrity are things you need to have in not only the owner of the company but the people you hire. You want to have people who will do the properties like your own,” he said.

“You can go with a company that is cheaper, but you certainly won’t get the service that we provide,” he explained.

Wagner Lawn Care is also a proud partner of the community it serves. Every year, Wagner’s business gives to charity organizations such as The Lighthouse Soup Kitchen and Shelter, the Building Hope campaign, and a local men’s slo-pitch team.

Spring is a busy time of year for Wagner as he is also the driving force behind the Simcoe Spring Home & Cottage Show, which he started 29 years ago.

“When I was in the corporate world, I did trade shows, so when I moved to Orillia and noticed there wasn’t a decent home show around, I wanted to get one started and organized,” Wagner explained.

Wagner says the show offers an opportunity for small local businesses to come together and meet with potential customers face to face.

“It also gives an opportunity for relationship building which is really important, especially in a local community,” he said.

Although Wagner is involved with many projects in town, the one closest to his heart is his involvement with the Building Hope campaign.

Ten years ago Wagner took on a board role with The Lighthouse Soup Kitchen and Shelter. Shortly after, he had a vision of creating an emergency shelter with 40 beds for men, women, youth, and families who are hungry, homeless, and hurting. The current shelter has 14 beds.

“With The Lighthouse being in an old run-down century home on Peter Street, I saw the need to serve the community in a much more significant way,” Wagner said.

“It became a passion to see Orillia become an example for other people to see how we take care of the vulnerable, and we still believe that is a part of our mission,” he said.

The new Lighthouse shelter and community hub on Queen Street is currently under construction, and the $14.5 million fund-raising campaign needed for the project is just $800,000 away from being completed.

“It’s amazing. I always thought it could be done despite there being people who said we couldn’t do it, even from different levels of government and people in the community who asked how could we raise that much money? How could we build that? To see it come to fruition is humbling,” Wagner says.

The Building Hope campaign was able to raise the majority of funds through government grants, corporate and individual donations, and the annual charity event, Coldest Night of the Year.

The inaugural Coldest Night of the Year event took place in 2014 when Wagner gathered a group of people to help organize the walk. The first event raised $30,000. Since then, the event has raised almost $600,000 for The Lighthouse.

“It’s huge, not just for the money raised that day for the vulnerable, but it also spreads community awareness and helps us open the eyes of the community toward those who need our help,” Wagner said.

“We get people who participate in the walk who become volunteers for the Building Hope campaign, and have become regular donors, it’s really a signature event for us.”

Last year, 600 community members walked in the event, making it the largest single-day fundraising event Orillia. The event raised over $130,000.

“It shows the heart of the people who live here in Orillia that have grasped onto The Lighthouse and the vulnerable people in the city,” Wagner said.

This year’s virtual event takes place on Feb. 20. Already, donations are up 50% from this time last year, with $83,494 raised.

For Wagner, the Building Hope campaign, Wagner Lawn Care, and many of his other local projects have given him the fulfilment he sought out during his time as a hockey player and corporate businessman. 

He vows to continue spreading awareness for homelessness and creating supports for people before they get to the emergency state of having to be sheltered. Wagner also hopes to be a driving force behind making sure programs are in place to help sheltered people return to the community while continuing to be supported.

Away from his many projects, Wagner hopes to one day retire from the lawn care business and spend more time with his wife, their two children and their partners and six grandchildren. 

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Tyler Evans

About the Author: Tyler Evans

Tyler Evans got his start in the news business when he was just 15-years-old and now serves as a video producer and reporter with OrilliaMatters
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