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Mr. SmartCentres, Mitch Goldhar, gives Canadians what they want Add to ...

Nonetheless, the company, as a proxy for activists’ favourite punching-bag of a retailer, has encountered stiff resistance in Vancouver, Guelph, Stratford and Toronto. Critics argue that SmartCentres exacerbates the trend toward sprawl and dependency on cars, while also sapping the energy of downtowns. It speaks to B.C.’s “Left Coast” and nature-loving culture—in which salmon is a potent symbol—that Salmon Arm is the smallest place in Canada where a concerted opposition has emerged.

But SmartCentres has mastered the art of pushing and cajoling municipalities to approve its plans, as any ambitious developer must. And some municipalities—including the conflicted City of Salmon Arm—have actively encouraged SmartCentres to build. In any case, cost-conscious Canadians have voted with their dollars. As Goldhar likes to point out, precisely one covered shopping centre—Vaughan Mills, in a suburb of Toronto—has been built in Canada since he and Walmart stormed the mall industry. “We’re just building what we’re told to build by the Canadian consumer,” Goldhar says. “That makes for a pretty complex relationship. Sometimes people don’t like to see what they look like in the mirror. Jekyll says, ‘We like to look at nice buildings.’ Hyde says, ‘We have to get in, get my stuff and pick up the kids from gymnastics.’”

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At a youthful 50, Mitch Goldhar is an intense, analytical and surprisingly candid figure who still seems vaguely surprised by his considerable success. He is, according to one ranking, the 38th-richest person in the country, with an estimated wealth ($1.5 billion in 2010) that puts him a shade north of the high-living celebrity duo of Gerry Schwartz and Heather Reisman.

Yet while Goldhar is well-connected in political circles, he is hardly a household name. He lives on his own (with two pets) in an unprepossessing bungalow in North Toronto. He is a sports buff; his staff knows that nothing, including even meetings with VIPs from Bentonville, takes precedence over pickup hockey. A few years ago, Goldhar bought an Israeli soccer team, and he recently spent $1.2 million to own Paul Henderson’s Team Canada jersey.

The passion for sports aside, Goldhar mostly works—a lot. He once described his malls as “my children.” He immerses himself in the minutiae of each project. Sometimes, he’ll load up an RV and head out on the road, camping in Walmart parking lots, chatting with consumers and pretending to be an ordinary shopper. “We keep an eye on every community in the country,” he says. “It may sound crazy, but I relate very much to the average Canadian’s reality.”

Goldhar comes from a family of entrepreneurs: His grandparents, Jewish immigrants from Poland, ran a midtown Toronto cigar store. His father, Leo, transformed a carpet-contracting business into a thriving commercial/industrial developer. Indifferent to classroom learning, Mitch joined the family business, First Professional Management, in 1983. While his friends only followed the careers of athletes or entertainers, Goldhar was fascinated with iconic Canadian builders like the Reichmanns. He watched them soar, and then he watched their crazily overleveraged empire crash. He took one particular lesson to heart: “I treat debt like dynamite.” To this day, SmartCentres and Calloway maintain highly conservative debt-to-equity ratios; Calloway’s is just 52%.

After a few years of working with his father and brother, Goldhar decided to strike out on his own. As he scouted around for development opportunities in the late 1980s, he was struck by the peculiar position of deep-discount retailers. He knew there were a few chains in the market, like Majestic Sound, that offered wide selection and low prices, but noticed they couldn’t be found in established shopping centres. It was a classic market gap, and he saw his opportunity.

Goldhar’s idea of a discount mall met with immediate resistance from suburban municipalities. “They were obstreperous,” he says. “They used whatever instruments they could to discourage us.” He suspects the cities were responding to back-channel pressure from entrenched shopping mall developers like Markborough, Cadillac-Fairview and Cambridge. After all, these companies had invested millions in covered malls—this was that distant era when the Eaton Centre was a magnet in downtowns across Canada—and behaved, in Goldhar’s view, like a cartel. They passed on costs to retailers in the form of high rents, which led in turn to brutal markups on goods. “I realized that retailers didn’t put themselves out of business,” Goldhar says. “Landlords put them out of business.”

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