Money & Career

For nonagenarian Martha Zenker, what rests gets rusted

This 92-year-old property developer is No. 69 on this year's PROFIT/Chatelaine W100 ranking of the country's top female entrepreneurs.

martha zenker lisagar development

Photo, Roberto Caruso. Hair and makeup, Jodi Urichuk for Tresemmé hair care/M.A.C. cosmetics/Plutino Group.

W100 Ranking: No. 69

Age: 92
Location: Oakville, Ont.
Position: President and founder, Lisagar Development
2013 revenue: $8–$12 million
Employees: 15 full-time
Why we love her: She’s a nonagenarian with no plans for retirement.
Best advice: “What rests gets rusted.”

Martha Zenker started her first construction company in 1956 in Oakville, Ont. The town was booming, thanks to the new Ford plant, and the demand for new homes far outstripped the supply. Over half a century — and hundreds of homes — later, the 92-year-old is the city’s grande dame of property management and development, famous for never having had a single building code infraction.

While Martha was training as an architect in her native Germany, she never imagined she would spend her life building homes in Canada. In 1951, Martha and her husband, Gerhard, left Austria, fearful of a Russian occupation. The couple, who travelled by boat, wrote and signed a contract with each other on the ship’s stationery: “We are, in the best interests of our children, willing to leave behind our homeland, very good living conditions, family and friends, not knowing what the new country has in store for us. Knowing that we will never really feel at home, never speak the language perfectly, that we will possibly have to step down from our present standard of living, but that with this step we will give our children all possibilities for a better life and future! By keeping a strong bond and working together we will have success. Never give up. May God bless our plan.”

Soon after arriving in Canada, Gerhard took a job in the U.S. Martha stayed in Oakville with the children and began building homes with her sister and brother-in-law. Running her own company gave her the freedom to raise her family and work on her own schedule. Martha began most days at six in the morning, ensuring her building sites had everything they needed, and ended them in the middle of the night, falling asleep at the table while drawing up plans.

Martha credits her success to always treating workers with respect, using only quality products and adhering, with religious reverence, to the building code. She didn’t use a realtor, instead selling directly to families. With every house she sold, she guaranteed the move-in date, vowing to pay for a hotel room if she defaulted — and she never once had to follow through. A shift in the ’90s to managing commercial properties meant a slightly less taxing workload for Martha, who still goes into the office three days a week and works from home the other days. “As long as I can keep working, I will,” she says. “Even though my husband died almost 30 years ago, I’m still following the contract we signed to this day.”

PROFIT and Chatelaine magazines present the 2014 W100 ranking of the country’s top 100 female entrepreneurs. Collectively, they contribute $1.7 billion annually to Canada’s economy. And whether they are talking about state-of-the-art technology, work-life balance, or taking charge in a male-dominated field, these women inspire and motivate. Join the W100 winners on Nov. 26 at the W100 Idea ExchangeHosted by editors of PROFIT and Chatelaine, it is a unique opportunity for all women entrepreneurs to come together and share best practices, to learn from management experts about today’s key business opportunities and challenges, and to create personal connections that can last a lifetime.