How entrepreneur's work brought new life into Homewood
Claude Gendreau is not a golfer. But that didn't stop him from buying the Ravisloe Country Club in Homewood for about $3.5 million several years ago.
The golf course needed massive repairs, and all told, Genreau sank in about $8.7 million of his personal cash when he made the purchase in 2009.
"I looked at it and just loved it," said Gendreau, 75. "It was a parklike property and I wanted to preserve it. It was closed down and if I had not done what I did, it would be a cow pasture now. No developers had shown any interest in it at a time when development had come to a screeching halt."
Genreau's massive overhaul of the century-old Ravisloe during the recession, along with building the new La Banque Hotel and La Voute Bistro restaurant in downtown Homewood, have enriched the south suburb so much that more businesses arrived. His vision, and millions of dollars, have added life to an otherwise stagnant suburb. That work was honored recently at the 17th Annual Entrepreneurial Excellence Awards, hosted by the Business Ledger, where Genreau, of Riverwoods, was honored for Regional Spirit.
Genreau's love of the outdoors and his mission to help others can be traced to Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada, where he was born and raised. His father, Lionel Gendreau, a veterinarian to farm animals throughout the rural area, became his guiding light.
Claude Gendreau followed in his father's footsteps to become a veterinarian, but he aimed to work with smaller animals instead of large farm animals. He graduated from the University of Montreal and did his post graduate work at the Ontario Veterinary College. He then spent six years at an animal surgery service at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.
A mentor asked Gendreau to partner with him in Champaign. After his partner left, Gendreau continued to work for a while, but decided to help with a case in the Chicago area.
A veterinarian in Northbrook said a female client didn't want to travel to Champaign to have her dog's kneecap surgically repaired. So Gendreau offered to make the two-hour drive to her. Gendreau didn't want to drive up just for one surgery, so the Northbrook veterinarian lined up a few more.
Gendreau did six surgeries on that first trip to Chicago. He was then called back a few weeks later to do more. He continued to travel back-and-forth for months until he decided to settle his practice in the northern suburb.
He also practiced in Glenview and went to Riverwoods. After 18 years in Riverwoods, he decided to build the Veterinary Specialty Center in Buffalo Grove.
While he continued with his successful veterinary practice, he began to make other investments, including the Claude Gendreau Stable Inc., with about 60 horses on about 270 acres north of Libertyville in Lake County, where horses are bred and trained for harness racing at Hawthorne Race Course and elsewhere.
He also has a business with a nephew based in St. Augustine, Florida, called Veterinary Orthopedic Implants Inc. He designs, manufactures and distributes orthopedic implants used to repair fractures in dogs and cats.
Gendreau has also purchased land without a connection to animals, including in Idaho and Illinois, such as in Peotone and Frankfort. When he was acquiring the land in Frankfort, someone had suggested he look at Ravisloe Country Club. Being a lover of the outdoors, he immediately loved the golf course, despite its disrepair.
Homewood Mayor Rich Hofeld first met Gendreau when he was interested in buying the country club. Hofeld isn't a golfer either.
"Since then, he has enhanced it in immeasurable ways by restoring the clubhouse and planting trees. It is a showplace," the mayor said.
Gendreau also rehabbed the banquet rooms, drainage, irrigation and landscaping around the grounds. He invested millions more over the next couple of years, and realized it would be a while before he would see a return on his investment. But that wasn't a concern.
"It was about saving the property and helping the community and raising its profile," Gendreau said.
Then when the clubhouse and banquet rooms began booking events, such as weddings, Gendreau realized the guests needed somewhere close to stay. Gendreau began planning a hotel and a restaurant.
That's when Hofeld and Gendreau drove around town together looking at different sites. When the bank became available, Hofeld introduced Gendreau to the bank's owner and they worked out a deal. The village assisted with incentives, and the town later converted the adjacent Martin Avenue, north of Ridge, into a pedestrian plaza.
"That plaza now buzzes with activity and is the location of our Saturday farmers market," Hofeld said. "I remember him saying, 'I may be a million dollars over budget, but it's only money.'"
The golf course, hotel and bistro, which now employ about 110 people, became magnets for other businesses, including Bottle and Bottega, the Blind Tiger martini bar, the Vice District brewing facility and taproom, and Grape and Grain.
"I see many other entertainment and dining venues coming to our downtown in the future, due to the presence of La Banque and La Voute," Hofeld said.
Still, Gendreau said his veterinary practice is what really defines him. He loves to help animals and do surgery.
"I could do that 12 hours a day and never feel bored or tired," Gendreau said.
Gendreau said he wants more projects, like Ravisloe, something that could keep him busy for the next 25 years.
"I may die next week, but in case I don't, I want something to do. I don't want to sit in front of a TV."