Karim (Kay) Nasser is a business legend in Saskatchewan, although you wouldn't know it from the modest home he has lived in since 1968, or by the 1997 Mercury Cougar in his garage. This low-key millionaire has been a property developer, an inventor, a professor and now a major donor to the University of Saskatchewan. At 83, he's planning to leave another legacy - as a partner in a long-delayed $250-million development that, if built, would change the face of Saskatoon's downtown riverfront.
I grew up in a village in the mountains of Lebanon, 20 miles from Beirut. We had a one-room house and a little farm. My father was a contractor, but his profession was a mason. The minute I could carry a shovel, I had to help him in construction.
I came to this part of the world for higher education.
I was in the United States for a year to get my master's [in engineering] Later, I came for my PhD at the University of Saskatchewan. I drove into Saskatoon in October, 1961.
I fell in love with it.
In the 1960s, I developed equipment for testing concrete, including one item that is very well known - the K-Slump Tester (the K is for my first initial). It was first used in building the CN Tower in Toronto, and it is still used today.
I went to work with a Canadian engineering firm, mostly during the summers. I met one of their clients who had a farming background, and he was putting up an apartment building. I asked how he could do that when his background was farming. He said, "All I need is my hard work and my knowledge of the trades." He would get a loan from the bank and by the time he had finished the apartments, he didn't need any of his own money. "I just have my own sweat," he said.
The next summer, I built one eight-unit building. The bank was very friendly. After they heard my background, they said, "We will give you a line of credit even though you have no money." That's how I started, in 1964.
THE SNOWBALL EFFECT
From then on, every summer, I would build one, two or three small apartment buildings. Soon, I had lots of people employed, and it grew and grew. The minute the cash flow started coming in, I told my wife, Dora, and the family, "We are going to live on the salary of a professor-period." As landlords, we went through several stages of the economy. During one slump, we had to move from a house we were renting, to live in the apartment building so we could pay the mortgage.
We lived decently, we kept going and the cash flow started building up. Finally, we were able to buy and renovate existing buildings. By the time we sold most of the residential property two years ago, we had about 440 units. The timing was good. We have commercial property now and it is going well. The economy is growing here.
THE HOME FRONT
I have made all my money here in Saskatoon, and I am very grateful. The city had been trying for 30 years to develop the riverfront. The original developer tried to get funds from Europe, the economy crashed and things did not work out. We had a little extra cash, so why not get the project revived?
It is much better to put your money in property than many other things - as long as you can hold on to it through the downtimes. We have always made sure the cash flow is enough to pay for it, and to keep managing our debt. There is a proverb I learned from my father when I was growing up: A basket full of seeds or roots is much more valuable than the same basket full of money. The money can go away, but with the seeds and roots, you can grow them and survive with them.
I had cousins who inherited money from their parents and, after two or three years, they had nothing. That keeps coming into my mind, talking to my own children. I say, "This is what can happen if you don't look after your money."