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Illustration of Daniel Fournier, CEO of Ivanhoe Cambridge, the real estate arm of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Daniel Fournier, CEO of Ivanhoe Cambridge, the real estate arm of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. (ANTHONY JENKINS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

Ivanhoe Cambridge’s Daniel Fournier: Real estate titan seeks the next Brazil Add to ...

I am slightly distracted as I sit down to lunch with Daniel Fournier, the CEO of Ivanhoe Cambridge, one of the 10 largest real estate investors in the world. I’ve just learned that Jude Law is in a nearby room.

Mr. Fournier and I are at Epic Restaurant in the Royal York Hotel, which is buzzing over the Toronto International Film Festival. Black SUVs are lined up out front, gawkers are milling about, and the occasional entourage-flanked actor passes by. But I can’t imagine any of them get better treatment than Mr. Fournier and me. Ivanhoe Cambridge, the real estate arm of Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, owns this hotel, a small part of its $35-billion stable of assets, and someone from the firm called ahead to ask for a quiet table where he could be interviewed.

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In no time an amuse-bouche appears before us, consisting of cherry tomatoes from the hotel’s own garden, marinated with olive oil and accompanied by burrata cheese and crostini. Waiters hang on our every word.

“The last time I was here I got a club sandwich,” quips Mr. Fournier, 59. He may have studied at Princeton and Oxford, but with his friendly demeanour I can’t imagine him ever throwing his weight around – except when he played for the Ottawa Rough Riders.

Mr. Fournier and his team at Ivanhoe are still debating whether to sell or refurbish the Royal York, which opened in 1929 and has hosted several functions attended by Queen Elizabeth II. Shortly after taking the helm of the Caisse’s real estate arm a few years ago, he decided to sell most of its hotels, something it’s been doing since 2011.

“We can’t be all things to all people,” he says. The company once owned as many as 60 hotels, but Mr. Fournier wants it to concentrate on the property classes it knows best: retail, office and residential.

Ivanhoe Cambridge is invested in more than 60 shopping centres, 170 office properties and a growing portfolio of residential properties, including a large number of apartments in Silicon Valley and London, England.

Although hotels didn’t make his short list, the Royal York is one of a few that he’s reluctant to part with, along with the Château Frontenac and the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. “They’re phenomenal assets, hugely challenging because the capital required is immense, but you just know that something special could and should happen,” he says. “I mean, I look at the Château Frontenac and I just think of Roosevelt, Churchill, and a few others planning out the Second World War.”

Mr. Fournier has been a history buff ever since leaving Quebec at the age of 16 with a scholarship to New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy. After Exeter, he went to Princeton and then Oxford. “I had told my mom I’d be back in a few years, and a few years ended up being nine,” he says, as the waiter clears his butternut squash soup.

That included a stint in Canada, in 1977, when Mr. Fournier played for the Rough Riders. He had been captain of the team at Princeton, and was subsequently drafted by the Canadian Football League as he was accepted to Oxford. When a fellow student asked for permission to skip a term to be quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, Mr. Fournier decided to follow his lead. “My law tutor was not very impressed, I can tell you.”

He chose to return to Oxford after one term in Ottawa, but regrets not trying football a little longer to see how it went. Mr. Fournier ultimately returned to Montreal at 25, and within a short time he was hired at Canderel, where he received a crash course in real estate. That gave him “the entrepreneurial bug,” which pushed him to form a small company, Equidev. It would take Montreal by storm with a string of local acquisitions, including the Ogilvy department store and the city’s Ritz-Carlton. A Globe profile in 1988 noted that Mr. Fournier, who was then 34, Bill Tresham, who was the 33-year-old president of Ogilvy, and their crew were known in town as “the boys.” They transformed the once-stuffy Ogilvy “into a showcase of such international fashion superstars as Versace and Valentino,” the Globe noted.

Mr. Fournier knew Mr. Tresham from Princeton. Decades later, in 2010, when Caisse CEO Michael Sabia hired Mr. Fournier to run the pension fund’s real estate business, Mr. Fournier convinced Mr. Tresham to come on board as Ivanhoe’s head of investments.

The two look out for each other. Mr. Tresham spurred Mr. Fournier to run a marathon a number of years ago, when Mr. Fournier had let his physical condition slide a bit.

Mr. Sabia frequently reminds employees at the Caisse that the long-term investment game is a marathon, not a sprint. “Every time he says it, I get the shakes,” Mr. Fournier says, laughing at his marathon experience as he tucks into his salmon. “My biggest downfall is food,” he says.

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