How did you ﬁrst come to know Ian and begin acquiring property for Westbank?
I’ve worked with Westbank for the last eight or nine years. Originally Ian needed someone who was well known in the real estate market and I’d been a broker, developer, pension fund guy and had worked for some of the largest buyers of real estate in Western Canada.
So I was his acquisitions guy but I didn’t get paid a salary, I took a percentage of ownership and would put up my cash proportionately. That was a way for him to get a senior guy in the real estate business, not pay a salary and still have it work for both parties. There were some disappointments through that timeframe but overall it was a win-win.
What is most memorable from the early days?
We were sitting in Abbey Woods’ boardroom on a Saturday at 3pm in the middle of July, 1998. And they turned off the air conditioning at noon so it was 100 degrees in there and we looked over at each other and said, “What in the hell are we doing?” We were doing a business plan and making a list of what sites we should look at and just discussing philosophies.
In that original business plan, we had 12 dream properties on the list. And so far Westbank has built at least four or ﬁve of them, including Fairmont Paciﬁc Rim, Shangri-La and Shaw Tower.
Where Shaw Tower is today was basically a piece of land that nobody wanted. It was a great big hole in the ground and full of drudge and no one could understand it. Plus the previous owner had put all of the block’s covenants on one property daycare, public parking and all these things but with commercial zoning. What put Ian on the map was Shaw Tower. We knew that rezoning and selling residential on top of an office building would make it work. We bought it for $25 million, which was a great price in hindsight, but at the time it was just a big hole.
Were there any dark days?
During my time there, Westbank got swallowed up by the Bellevue project. Ian used to sit in his corner office and you’d hardly see him. He refused to give up and he just kept grinding it out and he never showed weakness. He always conferred strength to the guys in America and eventually they bought him out and he got all his money out, or at least all the money he had invested. I wouldn’t even know how much, all I know is that it consumed him for four years. For Ian those deﬁnitely seemed like the darkest days.
Early on, what I realized and Ian did as well, is that the bigger the project is, the less risk involved. When you get into a size/value with a quality mass project, there’s always an exit strategy. Ian knows that the more quality you build in, the better the project will do as it reduces the risk of actually developing the asset. It takes out the fear of “what happens if.” Because as a developer, if you start thinking “what happens if” you’ll never build anything.