You’ve known Ian and have worked with Westbank for over a dozen years. In that time, what do you feel has set this ﬁrm apart in Vancouver, a city of developers?
There are a thousand things that set Westbank apart in the city and in the industry. But in particular, the people at Westbank are creative beyond belief, and they also know how to execute. It’s one thing to come up with a concept, but it’s another to make it a reality. Ian and his team have the creativity and delivery, and there’s also an edge that makes them different.
For example, most developers will hire an architect. Ian will practically live with the architect during a project. I remember one time when they were working on the Fairmont and Ian and the architect stayed up long into the night just to ﬁgure out exactly where the washroom windows would go.
Ian also has the ability to develop something that is sustainable, not just sustainable from an environmental or economic perspective, but sustainable for the community. There are a lot of people developing properties and buildings and then selling them as merchant developers, but that’s not sustainable real estate from an economic, physical and aesthetic perspective.
What drives that desire for sustainability?
Ultimately Ian has to make something that a community will be proud of. Others may start with that vision, but very few people actually deliver it. That’s why Westbank is the go-to ﬁrm.
For example, there are people in Canada who have the best land left in the country and they will come to this small company with a limited staff in Vancouver and ask for help, because Westbank brings to the table elements that other ﬁrms don’t possess (or they think they possess but they can’t execute). Most developers are proﬁcient in a few elements, but Westbank will get as many checkmarks as the best-of-breed developers in North America, Europe or Asia. When people walk into the Westbank office they are surprised because it’s so small, only 5000 square feet. How can this small company execute that many millions of square feet of development in so many market areas and different geographic jurisdictions and pull it all off?
The reality is that some people are in the development business exclusively for the money. Are the economics important to Westbank? Absolutely, yes. But that does not have 90% of the weighting. Proﬁt is given equal weighting with the quality of product and sustainability. If Ian totally wasn’t in it for the money, he would have built things that were not acceptable to the market and that does not make you a good developer. Ian is ahead of his time, but he still has an economic model that works within his time.
And what about Westbank’s future?
For the Westbank brand to grow, there will need to be a continued osmosis of Ian’s energy, creativity and talent; a transfer to the generation of people that will execute and do things on their own for Westbank. Fortunately, Ian has some of the most wonderful staff in the industry. He’s got great conﬁdence in his people, and he’s getting better at letting go of responsibilities. It’s well known that sometimes it’s better not to ask Ian a question, just go do it.
Put it this way, if a young person wants to get ten years worth of experience in three to ﬁve years, Ian’s the one to work with. He is going to give you access to different asset classes residential, hotel, retail, office, mixed-use, industrial – he’s involved in them all. And in different geographies, whether it’s Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto. He’s going to force you to think outside the box because the next project is always better than the last one and that makes for a creative environment where people learn more in a shorter period of time.
What Ian is doing for the market is providing the next generation of people who will take the baton and give better service to the community over time. That’s why you work at Westbank. You don’t work at Westbank to have a balanced lifestyle. You don’t work at Westbank if you think you are going to go to Whistler 50 weekends of the year or golf twice a week. You work there because you can’t get enough.
Has working alongside Westbank taught you anything about development?
I have learned so much from Ian about risk, responsibility and trust, particularly in the last 10 years. When you do a development you take on so much risk; ﬁnancing risk, construction risk, human resources risk, legal risk, market risk. There are very few people who can live that way, and that’s why there are very few successful developers in North America. But Ian manages the pressure. And he’s trustworthy.
The world thinks developers are greedy, self-centred money-hungry egoists who gain their wealth too easily. The reality is, it’s one of the toughest businesses in the world. Because without the developer – without the Ian – productivity of our city would go down considerably. Consider one deal or project and the amount of legal, appraisal, consulting, engineering, construction, accounting, supplies and jobs involved. If that deal didn’t happen, a million job hours would be lost.
I’ve learned that if you want to test someone’s loyalty and trust, do a development together.