You actually started working with Ian prior to Westbank, on what would become Westbank’s ﬁrst project?
Before he started on his own, Ian contacted me and asked if I wanted to work on a project. We both had other jobs, but in the evenings, we would get together and work on the budget for this one project that he had on the go at the time London Plaza in Richmond. On the sidelines, he was also working on new partnerships.
I was the numbers guy and he was deﬁnitely instructing me as to what I had to do because he had the development experience and had put together pro formas before.
Then one day he called me up and said, “I’m thinking of quitting my job and do you want to do the same and then we can work full time on this project?” And he said, “It could just be this one project, or it could be many more do you want to take the risk?”
So he quit his job, I quit my job and we started working together and we had this little area in the Abbey Woods office. As a partner, they were quite generous because they gave us this little spot and allowed us to use whatever infrastructure they had.
So basically it was me and him, and it was exciting.
And today, what excites you about working at Westbank?
When we moved into this office, I thought man, this is not an office. Real estate is very exciting because every project is different and every project enables us to grow. We’re learning. I’m still learning a lot. I think you get good with the experience that you have, but you never really become an expert at everything. Each project is different.
I like the excitement. And Ian’s got a lot of drive, so we’ve always got some new project to work on. To some extent I like the independence as well because no one is really looking over at what I am doing. Ian requires a lot, yet it’s pretty much him saying, this is what I need, go ﬁgure out how you can get there. So in a lot of ways, he leaves that to us and then we have meetings with him and there is guidance. When there are problems he’s so quick to understand the issues and quick to make a decision and usually it’s the right decision.
What do you do exactly?
It’s hard to describe my role. Right now I am managing the Shangri-La project in Toronto. My job has evolved quite a bit. I used to be involved in accounting, then I got involved in the property management side of things and dealt with back end work. In fact I am still doing a lot of the back end work. You could call me the clean up guy. I deal with a lot of things for example when things go wrong at the back end, in terms of actually completing the projects.
How does that contrast with what Ian does?
Ian is kind of the big idea, big picture guy behind the projects. He gets the projects set. And then once the plans are set you need someone to kind of ﬁnish it off. That’s what I do. Not that I’m the only one. Then I deal with the ongoing project. And I deal with some of the not so fun things legal issues, etc.
Having worked at Westbank so long, there must have been conﬂicts?
Sometimes at the beginning it was very harsh, working with Ian because he’s very determined in his ways. So there were lots of times when we banged heads, for sure and today it is on and off, here and there. There have been times when we don’t really talk to each other and then eventually we start working together again.
But there have been times when this place has been very good to me. A few years ago, I was going through some personal stuff and there was a time when the burden of that and the burden of work was too much and I knew I couldn’t focus on everything, so I actually had to say to Ian, I think I’m going to have to quit. And he said to me, well why don’t you just work part time. Take the back office, just come and go whenever you want, work when you can. It was a very generous offer and it helped me get through what I was going through and it was a place for me to go. Eventually I settled down and I was ready to work again. He was very, very good to me.
I don’t think people from the outside fully understand Westbank. I think they look at it as a progressive company that is doing a lot of things, but I don’t think they understand how it totally operates or the atmosphere and the culture. It is very much like a family.
Any memorable moments?
There was this time, when Ian had this brilliant idea to privatize the Abbey Woods shares. We worked a lot in the evenings, trying to ﬁgure out this deal and it’s another example of one of the big projects, an example of him doing something with nothing. I mean he put this deal together with nothing in his pockets, it was all leverage. It was a huge risk, but it paid off. We privatized a publicly traded company and we really didn’t have any experience in that and we went through it and it was a lot of hard work and a lot of learning and we did it.
What happens next?
In ten years? The way things are going, Ian might own the city.
He has so much going on, we seem to keep growing and yet our office is not huge. We’re involved in so many huge projects and yet our office is quite small. Because of the size and the volume, everything is getting bigger now. That ﬁrst project was a mixed use project, with office, retail, residential and parkade so we started big on that and then we kind of settled down and some of the projects we were doing were shopping centres, strip malls or purely residential. Now it’s highrises, mixed-use, everything, city blocks, could be China next. If Ian’s excited about a project, it will happen, no matter what it is, because he’s got his thinking cap on and he’s working on that project.
It’s a pivotal time for us.