You pursued working at Westbank while still in university, correct?
In my fourth year, I asked Ian if I could come and work here. He didn’t know too much about me, but he knew my father from UBC and they had some mutual friends. So I got in to see him but he said, “No, I’m not interested; I don’t think you know enough.”
You ended up in real estate in Vancouver, as a broker, right?
Yes, and most of my sales were in Westbank’s buildings, so Ian and I then got to know each other through doing the big deals together.
What ultimately led you to being hired?
Ian approached me during the ﬁrst or second quarter of 2010 and said that they needed someone in house to basically manage the sales and marketing for the projects.
What’s it like working here?
The thing that is so obvious about Westbank is that there is so much going on. There is ever more to do so you can take on as much as you like. You can get involved in everything from the legal side to construction side and it’s just endless. There’s very little hierarchy here. The organization is designed to assist Ian and he sets the tone for Westbank. Building the best body of work is that tone. It’s about forever doing more.
What inspires you here?
The culture here is about continuous improvement. In business courses you study these top organizations like Apple or Toyota and they’re innovating constantly and that’s also a theme here. We always have to be the most innovative and ahead of the market. I think that’s harder to do in real estate because there’s less of a culture for it. Some people just want to bang out homes. What excites me most about being here is that there is this constant culture of idea generation.
What about the future, marketing and the brand?
The greatest fear with Westbank is the same one that Apple has and that is how does it exist without Steve Jobs? Or without Ian. And I know he doesn’t talk about that because he’ll work forever – he says – they’re going to carry him out of here in a pine box.
But we are getting much better at branding Westbank on its own. As we built up our brand, we have a lot more opportunities and more people approaching us and it’s almost as though they feel it would be a privilege to work with us. And that’s because of the body of work. Right now half of the work is just coming to us. And it would be nice to be in a position where all of it was coming to us.
On the sales and marketing side I’m trying to elevate the quality of the marketing. Westbank presentation is good but real estate marketing in general is very boring. It would be nice to do more avant garde campaigns.
The other thing is that China is now a big part of this business. It’s a hindrance that I don’t speak Mandarin for example, in sales. And there is always the fear, what if the China market blows up? But right now I have a rule when we talk about projects if the Chinese market doesn’t want it, I have no interest in it.
What’s the best part about working here?
The best part of the job is the amount of mentoring Ian likes to do. He actually genuinely likes to make people better and I’ve learned so much. That, more than anything, is why I’m here. It actually surprises me how open he is and generally how open the organization is, because I’ve never experienced any workplace where that amount of info is shared. We know everything from how much money we’re making to what Ian thinks about things.
And the challenges
The struggle is that Ian wants to keep it a ﬂat organization but there is a lot of overlap between us that he doesn’t see. Sometimes from an accountability perspective it’s hard. If something goes wrong or goes right you don’t always know who to go to. Here everyone’s ﬁngers are sticky, but at the same time everyone’s ﬁngers are good.
The work ethic is very intense here. Working all the time permeates the whole organization. That’s hard to ﬁnd in Vancouver. In New York I ﬁnd it very standard. But there’s a general culture of ﬂexibility here. If I don’t come in until noon, there are no questions.
Before I started here I heard that Ian had a reputation of having a temper but I ﬁnd him quite mellow in general. He still works an insane amount, but not 6am to midnight or whatever. There are these moments during the day where I can see him zone out or walk off and disappear because it’s like things are just too much in that moment. I’ve walked in here and he’s laying on the couch under a blanket, still in a meeting, because in some ways the office is like his house. His pace is relentless too, I’ve never seen anything quite like that. I remember a ﬂight to New York and he worked the whole time doing emails. Whenever a plane he’s on lands, ﬁfty emails go out. Even when he’s watching a movie he’s doing something else.
The struggle for the organization will be what do they do after. It’s the one worry. Ian just keeps saying his kids are going to do this, but I ﬁnd that having gone to private school myself, you see that everyone’s dad wants their kid to do the same as them, but it usually doesn’t work out. And Ian still struggles with delegation. Even when he says I’ll delegate this, he does somehow insert himself in it and then if it doesn’t work out he’ll say, “Why am I involved?”
Has anything surprised you about Westbank?
The thing I ﬁnd interesting is that unlike other developers I’ve worked with, Ian doesn’t really care about money. I mean he cares because it’s to do with the success of the project and getting a certain return. But personally, when it comes to money, he doesn’t care that much. And he doesn’t really spend a lot; it all goes into the business. I bet if you asked him what he has in his bank account, he’d have no idea. Ian is in it to do good work, not to make dollars.
Also, what amazes me about him is that nothing is ever good enough. You will never go into his office and just hear “good job” which I think is hard for some people. You will get “good job” and then feedback on how it could have been better.
The intensity of each of his interactions is amazing. He will never go over to our cafe Giovane and come back and say, “Oh, I’ve just had a good cup of coffee.” Instead he’ll say that the whole place is a disaster; the guy doesn’t know his name; the TV is on the wrong channel; the chairs are lined up wrong; there’s not enough menu items; it just goes on and on...
Most people don’t know that he hates leaving the office. He hates lunches and the act of sitting there. It’s interesting how much he has been able to build without doing that social networking thing, but in a way that’s why he has to be better at his work because he can’t rely on that obsessive networking that most people do. But when he does have a relationship with someone it’s very intense.
He’s much more sensitive than you’d think. I didn’t know that when I ﬁrst met him. He’s nicer than me.