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THE LUNCH

Rachel Idzerda for The Globe and Mail

Putting the personal in the professional

Mark Rose, chairman and chief executive officer of Avison Young, steered his firm through a period of rapid expansion. He’s also shaken up the company’s culture

Mark Rose arrived as chief executive of Avison Young armed with a methodical plan to expand the small Canadian company into the world’s fastest-growing real estate firm.

There was only one thing he forgot to consider: his health.

By 2013, five years of constant travel – he gets on a plane four to five times a week to oversee the company’s aggressive growth – had taken its toll on his body.

“You get on a plane, you entertain, you eat meals, you have wine, you don’t watch yourself,” says the 52-year-old father of three, who regularly commutes to Avison Young’s Toronto head office from his home in Chicago.

Co-workers began asking him about his health. So did one of his board members from the private equity firm that purchased a minority stake in his company.

Then Mr. Rose returned from a trip to France, sick with the flu, and found a package on his doorstep.

He had gotten an opportunity to play a round of golf with Phil Mickelson and had received a commemorative gift in the mail that included an autographed photo of himself with the famous golfer.

“Phil’s not a small guy and I looked at the picture of the person next to him and I said: ‘I got it,’” he says.

He put himself on a low-carb diet – no bread, no pasta, no alcohol – and ran his first triathlon that August. He has since lost 62 pounds.

“I’m back playing ice hockey, which makes me so happy,” he says over lunch, flashing his Apple watch – one of several fitness trackers he owns. He’s having the lobster cobb salad, which he eats every time he dines at E11even restaurant near Avison Young’s office in Toronto’s South Core neighbourhood. He’ll have to find a new meal however, since the waitress has just informed him that his salad is coming off the menu in two weeks.

Having overhauled his lifestyle, Mr. Rose set about to do the same with his company. At an employee meeting in Vancouver, he threw out his prepared speech and instead launched a corporate wellness program.

He now mentors employees who are also struggling to get healthy along with those who are coping with tragedies or serious health problems. “I have stories and e-mails that would make you cry at this table,” he says, listing off details of employees who are living with cancer, or who are grieving the sudden death of family members.

Incorporating the personal into the professional is a common theme with Mr. Rose.

Since being lured to Avison Young in 2008, he has grown what was previously a collection of four largely autonomous provincial operations with 11 offices and fewer than 300 employees into a merged company with 75 offices spread out across five countries and more than $500-million in annual revenue.

Most of Avison Young’s growth has come through acquisitions – it has spent more than $100-million buying more than 30 companies since Mr. Rose became CEO. But when he talks about his expansion program, he describes a plan that is less focused on building a real estate business than on creating a cultural movement.

A 2008 photo of Avison Young's Mark Rose in Toronto.

A 2008 photo of Avison Young’s Mark Rose in Toronto.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Much of his time doing due diligence in acquisitions is spent on getting to know new recruits, he says, asking about their family, gauging their opinions to make sure they’re a cultural fit and letting go those that don’t make the cut. He recounts having to fire a new recruit less than 24 hours after hiring him, although he declines to elaborate.

“The entire program is built on something very specific, which is your head matters, but your heart matters more,” he says.

Central to Mr. Rose’s vision for what he calls “the real estate services firm of the future” is the idea that Avison Young will remain a private company, owned by employees who buy into the firm through annual share offerings, share in the profits and vote on the company’s strategic plans.

It’s a structure common in other service industries, such as law and accounting, but is rare in real estate, where most large firms are publicly traded.

A career spent rising through the ranks of commercial real estate brokerages south of the border convinced Mr. Rose that the corporate structure of public companies, designed to report their financial performance in 90-day increments, was a poor fit with the cyclical nature of commercial real estate, which thrives on long-term relationships with powerful clients.

“Your relationship with your clients are 10 years. You shouldn’t be worrying whether you’re achieving revenue-generating activities in July versus December. Heck, it shouldn’t matter if it’s year two or year five.” he says. “Our entire competitive field right now is exactly the opposite.”

So far it seems to have worked. Avison Young’s head count has grown to more than 2,100, including 300 voting principals and another 100 employee-shareholders whose share purchases have helped finance the firm’s aggressive expansion.

Among those who have bought in is Mr. Rose’s 25-year-old daughter, Marissa, who works out of the company’s Chicago office.

Mr. Rose cites the appeal of profit-sharing and voting rights in helping Avison attract high-profile recruits, including Arthur Mirante, the long-time CEO of Cushman & Wakefield who now heads up Avison’s New York City operations. His recruitment pitch boils down to: “Do you want to be an owner, or do you want to be a day labourer?”

He insists there has been little internal friction among Avison’s employees about the firm’s rapid growth strategy, which includes an expansion into Asia over the next 12 to 18 months and eventually adding as many as 3,000 additional employees.

CURRICULUM VITAE

Age: 52

Birthplace: Borough of Queens in New York City

Education: BA in accounting from Queens College, City University of New York

Family: Married to Allyson. They celebrated their 28th wedding anniversary in November at a steakhouse in Nashville, where Mr. Rose was travelling for work. Two daughters, aged 25 and 22, and son, 18.

Hobbies: Running, reading, golf. He completed the Three Peaks challenge in the U.K., climbing the tallest peaks in England, Scotland and Wales. Hopes to do a half marathon on the Great Wall of China and climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Is the assistant coach of Avison Young’s recreational hockey team.

Favourite book: Younger Next Year, by Dr. Harry S. Lodge and his patient, Chris Crowley, was an inspiration for his personal wellness challenge.

Favourite sports team: “I moved to Chicago. I’m still a New York team fan, but if you move to Chicago, you have to love the Cubs. It’s a team that hasn’t won in 108 years. So I love the Cubs even though I love the Mets. And I love the Blue Jays.”

On why he initially encouraged his eldest daughter, Marissa, to work for a competitor and then changed his mind: “They just sat her down and said we’ll pay you just to work on Facebook. They treated her a bit like a circus freak, saying she came to this particular place and she chose it over Avison Young.” She now works for Avison Young. “I worried at the start, and I probably will always worry that maybe she’s not getting the honest feedback. She really is thriving, but everybody needs to be developed.”

Words of advice from his mentor, the late James Boisi: “I was blessed to have a mentor who taught me that it was my role to teach people to be better than me. Your legacy is to create value in people and in companies and in culture that you don’t shy away from. The other piece of this is keep working really hard yourself and maybe no one will ever catch up to you.”

On how the October terrorist attacks in Paris have altered his company’s European expansion plans: “We were trying to look at France, but all of a sudden you have to think a little more. Certainly it’s still on our radar, it’s an incredible city. Now you need to do a little more due diligence about what steps we need to take to ensure safety, to ensure that you have a viable business there given the instability.”

As much as Mr. Rose describes the merits of collective decision making, the vision for Avison Young is largely based on a strategy that he carefully developed over decades in the real estate. When listening to him describe his background, it’s clear that he has been on a steady, structured path for much of his life.

He grew up in the Queens borough of New York City. His parents, a stay-at-home mom and a carpenter, pushed him to excel, encouraging him to fast-track his high-school education. Academics came easily to him and he graduated high school at 16.

“Looking back, I wouldn’t recommend it and I didn’t recommend it for my children,” he says of graduating early. “My mother and father thought that I could advance, I could basically skip years. But you’re actually too young.”

He met his wife, Allyson, when he was 18. The two worked together at a Wauldbaum’s grocery store, she in the front and he in the deli. They married at 23.

He got an undergraduate degree in accounting and planned to enroll in law school, but his parents weren’t sure they could afford it. So he got his CPA designation and went to work instead. “My very last final in university was on a Friday and I started working on a Monday,” he says.

He landed a job at Helmsley Enterprises, working for infamous New York real estate titans Harry and Leona Helmsley, whose holdings included the Empire State Building.

There he met his mentor, James Boisi, whom he followed a few years later to Pan American Properties, a real estate company owned by the pension fund of British Coal Corp. He rose to become its CEO when he was just 27, orchestrating the company’s move to sell off its nearly $1-billion (U.S.) worth of U.S real estate, which included the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., before the real estate bubble of the early 1990s burst.

His timing was impeccable and the pension fund avoided the worst of the real estate crash. But as the CEO of a real estate company that no longer owned any real estate, it meant Mr. Rose was out of a job.

He started his own brokerage, but quickly realized he wasn’t an entrepreneur, selling the firm to Jones Lang Wood in 1995 to become a partner.

He left in 2005 to become CEO of Grubb & Ellis, a struggling brokerage that had been delisted from the New York Stock Exchange.

He launched a turnaround plan, but it was cut short in 2007 when the brokerage went public through a reverse merger with a firm that specialized in tax-sheltered real estate investments.

Mr. Rose said he opposed the sale, which was spearheaded by Grubb’s largest shareholder and chairman, Michael Kojaian.

Although he was CEO and had a seat on the board, Mr. Rose was deemed a potential competitor because of a possible management buyout and didn’t vote on the merger. He left the company that December.

The two firms ultimately proved to be a poor match and Grubb & Ellis filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

Looking back, Mr. Rose acknowledges that the merger was a bad move, but says the company also piled on more than $200-million in debt in the years after he left.

“We actually sold a very strong company,” he says. “But was it the wrong buyer? Yes it was.”

Grubb & Ellis was later sold off for less than $30-million to BGC Partners, which promptly sued Avison Young and Mr. Rose for allegedly launching “an illegal scheme to loot” the bankrupt firm by poaching 16 of its employees, undermining its ability to sell its assets.

“It’s nonsense,” Mr. Rose says of the lawsuit, which is still working its way through the courts. “It was a bankrupt company. Two hundred people went other places. Yet somebody tried to yell at us about 16? Why us? One could argue it’s a little bit of a compliment.”

After leaving Grubb & Ellis, Mr. Rose took nine months to put together the strategy he would ultimately implement at Avison Young and shop around for a firm willing to accept his vision.

He admits that he wasn’t deliberately targeting a Canadian firm. But by coincidence he had agreed to speak at Avison Young’s annual meeting in Edmonton in January, 2008, and afterward some of the firm’s executives approached him about coming on board.

The company had all the elements he was looking for: It wasn’t based in the U.S., it was private and it was employee-owned.

He turned it down. He didn’t want his speech to come off as someone angling for a job. Also, his wife had asked him take a break from working to spend time with family, something he had never done since graduating university. But by April he was back negotiating with Avison Young.

As much as Mr. Rose is a Chicago-based CEO working to build a global real estate company that just happens to be headquartered in Toronto, he likes to play up Avison Young’s Canadian roots.

“Texas is a very proud state and they’re serving Molson beer in the offices” in Houston, he says. “They’ve got the Canadian flag all over the place.”

Rivals are suspicious of how long Mr. Rose is able to sustain Avison Young’s rapid growth without selling the company or taking it public.

“They say you know what Mark will do, he’ll take it and wrap it up like a taco and sell it,” he says. The company has taken on both some debt and private equity, but Mr. Rose insists that “a cheque isn’t going to control our company.”

Having found a firm willing to embrace his vision for a different type of real estate enterprise, he’s in no rush to cash in any time soon.

“For us there is no end game,” he says. “This is a company that will be built for its future. The young people will eventually buy out the retiring folks. Whoever said there’s an end game to a living, breathing company?”

Editor’s note: A prior version of this story incorrectly stated that Avison Young CEO Mark Rose has been married to his wife for 33 years. In fact, they have been married for 28 years. This online version has been corrected.

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