Local Business

Building a Sturdy Nest

Steve and Carolyn Touhey build award-winning B&B and new lives in Union Bay.

If her high school classmates could see her now, Carolyn West’s friends would not be surprised to learn that she has become an award-winning marketing expert and co-owner of an extremely successful bed and breakfast enterprise called Two Eagles Lodge. A gregarious and energetic high achiever from an early age, USA-born West went on to earn multiple awards including being named one of the Top 100 Women in the state of Maryland in 1996, and Maryland’s Women in Business Advocate of the Year in 2000 from the US Small Business Administration. She taught marketing at both Loyola College and John Hopkins University, in addition to hundreds of entrepreneurial workshops; and, at the age of 25, started her own marketing consulting company in 1990—which is still going strong today. And those are just a few of her remarkable achievements!

What her classmates and colleagues might be shocked to learn is that at the age of 35, just 12 years into her marriage to Jeff Price, Carolyn became a widow. The massive heart attack that took her 40-year-old husband’s life came without warning.

“I was happily married, enjoying my life and career and then, suddenly… a widow,” she recalls. “No-one I knew had lost a spouse so early in life.  To say it was life-changing would be an understatement, but that experience is part of what inspired me to follow my heart when I discovered Canada.”

People who knew Carolyn when she was growing up would also be shocked to learn that she is telling me this story from her new home in Union Bay, British Columbia, thousands of miles and another world away from her old Maryland stomping grounds.

Carolyn’s second husband, Steve Touhey, is a fun-living, down-to-earth kind of guy who is most comfortable working outside or kicking back to relax with friends and enjoy good music.  When they first met, he loved motorcycles, boating and target shooting, while Carolyn was an avid horsewoman and a scuba diver. Initially, they may have had different interests but they shared the same strong work ethic and innate desire to excel. While Carolyn is a ‘wizard of words’, Steve is a master craftsman of construction and a veritable ‘wizard of wood.’

How the couple came to be a married and move from the USA to Canada could form the basis for a romance novel. While I arrived at Two Eagles Lodge in Union Bay prepared to take notes for an InFocus Magazine profile of a successful business, I soon found myself listening to a love story—not just love between two people, but love for their new country and Island life as well.

Carolyn had known of Steve for many years—he was a college classmate’s brother.  Six months after Jeff’s passing, she needed an escort for a friend’s wedding.  She asked her friend, Laura Touhey, if her brother was still single and would he consider being her escort?

“The chance to go out with a pretty girl and have a meal and free beer!  I was up for it,” Steve declares, followed by a hearty laugh.

That first date blossomed into romance and, in 2001, Steve and Carolyn married.  Carolyn became instant stepmom to Steve’s then nine-year-old daughter, Mary, and they began their lives together. Carolyn continued to run her home-based Maryland company, Impact Marketing, and Steve managed his construction company, which he had started in 1990.

Knowing full well that life is precious—and sometimes all too short—the Touheys talked endlessly about their dreams for the future.  The most frequent conversations focused on moving somewhere where the pace of life was slower.

“I watched people all around me continue to brag about 80-hour work weeks,” explains Carolyn.  “And I had spent years listening to my father say, ‘When I retire I will…’ and I listened to my mother, who was a diabetic, say, ‘When I feel better I will…’  My mom died in 1997.  She and dad were never able to do the things they dreamed of together.  And then there were all the plans that Jeff and I had made that never had a chance to happen.”

Together, the Touheys decided they wanted to live near water and mountains and they were seriously considering relocating to Arkansas or Montana, based on research they did on the website www.FindYourSpot.com. But their focus unexpectedly turned to Canada when Carolyn was invited to speak at a June 2004 conference in Vancouver and someone suggested she and Steve visit the Island.

“Honestly, I had to ask, ‘What island?’” recalls Carolyn.  “We weren’t that familiar with what Canada had to offer but we took our friend’s advice and boarded the ferry to Nanaimo.  As the ferry docked in the harbor Steve and I looked at each other with wide grins on our faces.  Now this was paradise!  We travelled around Vancouver Island to Tofino, Gold River and all the towns along the way and we fell in love with what we saw.  As an added incentive, the dollar was strong and it was easy for Americans to buy land in Canada, so we embarked on a mission to move here.”

Feeling “called to the Island”, the Touheys returned to Vancouver Island for another visit just two months later. After that trip, they did a lot of research and returned for a third visit in October 2004, when they embarked on a whirlwind tour of properties.  They considered more than 70 real estate listings in the Comox Valley area.

After four days of searching, they decided on a 12-acre parcel of heavily treed land overlooking the ocean in Union Bay. To add another romantic twist to their love story, they signed the offer to purchase the property on their third wedding anniversary.

The Touhey’s returned to the US to work on the immigration process and create conceptual designs for their new home, leaving a contractor with instructions to clear the land for development. During her research on immigration, Carolyn discovered a provincial program that encouraged entrepreneurs and new business start-ups.  It required jumping through a few hoops so they came up with a plan to add an extra wing to the home they would build, and turn it into a bed and breakfast.

With all of the immigration paperwork in order and construction on the house already underway, in March 2006, the Touheys packed up their Maryland home, loaded their five horses into a trailer, and made the pilgrimage to Canada.  In the middle of all the packing and preparation, Carolyn’s 84-year-old father passed away, so they also had to pack up the family home she had grown up in and prepare both houses for sale.

Once they arrived in Union Bay, the Touheys lived in a motor home for the first few months.  Carolyn continued to work for her clients via the internet.  Steve oversaw the construction of their new 3,000-square foot home while he personally built the barn, run-in shelters for the horses, all of the outbuildings and fencing, as well as all of the landscaping.

The home designed by this dynamic duo boasts a massive stone-clad centre peak flanked by two dormer windows, a sharp contrast against a backdrop of towering cedar trees.  A wide expanse of glass across the front of the home invites visitors to enjoy the panoramic view of Baynes Sound, Denman Island and the coastal mountains.  Their horses, quietly grazing in an adjacent field, add even more charm to the home’s rural ambiance.

As an added touch of romance, the large storm-water collection pond located on the property is shaped like a heart. (A surprise design, courtesy of their excavation contractor.)  A lovely handcrafted cedar chair, made locally by Bloomfield Flats, sits adjacent to the pond, inviting visitors to wander over with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine to sit and enjoy the ocean view.

In July 2006, the Touheys were finally able to move from the RV into their new home.  Two months later, Steve broke ground, laid the foundation and began construction of an adjoining wing for the B&B accommodations.  “We settled on the name ‘Two Eagles Lodge’ for our B&B because eagles mate for life and build a sturdy nest,” explains Carolyn.  “We wanted to incorporate the strength and majesty of the bald eagle in our branding.”

The B&B wing Steve built features two large main floor rooms and a luxurious 950-square-foot suite on the second storey. All rooms feature private baths, separate entrances and ocean view.  The interior décor showcases the work of Island artisans and the songs of local musicians can be enjoyed in the private rooms or the common area.  Not surprisingly, art and sculptures featuring two eagles are a common theme.

“Every piece of trim, square foot of flooring and coat of paint was done by Steve, and he did it so beautifully, especially considering that we were under tremendous immigration deadlines to have our first guests within eight months of breaking ground!” says Carolyn.

After months of hard work, everything was completed and Two Eagles Lodge welcomed its first guests in May 2007. Since then, they have been a ‘home away from home’ for hundreds of visitors from around the world and they have earned a reputation as true ambassadors for the Valley.

Carolyn says most guests are “just friends we didn’t have a week earlier,” and they “come in with a handshake and leave with a hug.”  A stay at Two Eagles usually includes evening chats around the fire with roasted marshmallows, wine and chocolate.  They even cook crabs ‘Maryland style’ for guests—living up to their marketing that says they are not a typical B&B.

Although not part of the original plan, Two Eagles Lodge eventually started hosting community fundraisers and became a venue for various group meetings, workshops, and even holiday parties for businesses and local groups.  They are now annual sponsors of the Vancouver Island Music Business Conference.  Ever generous community supporters, the Touheys have also donated more than 100 gift certificates for one- or two-night stays and breakfasts to more than 50 organizations.

After only four years of operation, a quick peek at the guest page on their website or a review of TripAdvisor.com shows that the couple’s commitment to making people feel at home is much appreciated.  Their genuine desire to please and knack for hospitality has not gone unnoticed.  Last year, Two Eagles Lodge was presented with the Vancouver Island Better Business Bureau’s 2010 Torch Award for Hospitality (they are finalists for the 2011 award as well).  And, in January 2011, they were named the 2011 Tourism/Hospitality Business of the Year as recipients of a Vancouver Island Business Excellence Award.

“We are so honored to win these prestigious island-wide awards. To have them in a place of honor on our mantle leaves us a bit speechless when you think about how many tourism businesses are on the Island, including businesses much, much bigger than ours,” says Carolyn.  “We are so pleased to be ambassadors for Vancouver Island in general, and for the Comox Valley in particular.  We are happy that guests recognize our efforts and our sincere desire to turn their vacations into incredible memories, living true to our motto—where new friends and great memories are made in paradise.”

With the B&B in full operation and the confidence that their decision to immigrate to Canada had been a good one, in 2008, Carolyn transitioned ownership of her 18-year-old US marketing business to a former student of hers and launched SmartBiz Strategy in the Comox Valley.

In typical style, she hit the ground running.  She was acknowledged for her marketing savvy with another award. SmartBiz was named the Comox Valley Home-Based Business Association’s 2010 Business of the Year.  Most recently, in March 2011, Carolyn received Honorable Mention in the Enterprising Women Magazine’s “Women of the Year” awards—she was one of only a handful of women from around the world to be recognized.

While it may sound like life is all work and no play for the Touheys, that is not the case.  What once may have been separate interests are now shared passions.  The couple spends time with their horses and scuba dive together, they enjoy skiing at Mount Washington and they learned to kayak and enjoy the island’s great hiking. As they explore Vancouver Island together they make mental notes about great places for day trips and picnics, and they make a point of getting to know local shopkeepers and businesses so that they can provide guests with first-hand knowledge of things to see and do around the island.

This summer, the Touheys should be eligible to become Canadian citizens and they will attend the citizenship ceremonies with glowing hearts and wide grins.  We still love America,” Carolyn says, “but our home is here, and our heart is here.  Why wouldn’t we be citizens?”   Without a doubt, these ‘Two Eagles’ have built a sturdy nest and they are here to stay.