They hang out with movie stars. They own some of the country’s top art collections. Their donations are rebuilding hospitals. They’re the real estate rich, and you’ve likely never heard of them.
Dozens of property developers have become billionaires on the back of Canada’s four-decade residential real estate boom. Most are owned by the offspring of immigrants. Only a handful embrace public profiles.
You might know Vancouver housing developer Francesco Aquilini, who owns the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, and Mattamy Homes founder Peter Gilgan, who has donated more than $250-million of his $4.7-billion fortune to charity in recent years. But the vast majority of the country’s real estate billionaires remain low-key, to the point of being obsessively private.
Get them talking, though, and you’ll find they share widely held fears of a property bubble. For developers, soaring prices are great when they sell a home. But low interest rates and rising construction costs also make it more expensive to buy raw land and far riskier to start work on a new subdivision or condo tower that could take 10 years to complete. The current boom is long in the tooth, and veteran developers have vivid memories of Canada’s largest homebuilder, Bramalea Ltd., going bust in the early 1990s – the last significant real estate downturn.
Here’s a selection of developers who are making a fortune building skylines and shaping suburbs in Canada’s hottest real estate markets.
Polygon Realty, Vancouver
In a cut-throat industry, most everyone in British Columbia real estate circles has a kind word for Michael Audain. Rival developers such as Onni Group donated millions toward the 83-year-old’s passion project, a collection of West Coast art housed in a stunning $30-million museum in Whistler. The British-born entrepreneur was a civil-rights activist in the 1960s – a Freedom Rider who was jailed after a protest in Mississippi. He started his career advising the Ontario and B.C. governments on housing policy. In 1980, he decided to stop talking about houses and start building them. Polygon has put 30,000 homes in Vancouver and its suburbs, moving from single-family residences into townhouses and 30-storey-plus towers. Mr. Audain ceded day-to-day control to Polygon’s executive team a decade back but remains the largest shareholder.
Arch Corp., Toronto
A former tax accountant at Deloitte, Daniel Argiros started investing in real estate in 1988. Among his holdings was a portfolio of 44 Toronto-area apartment blocks. He sold those buildings two years ago for $1.7-billion to a company run by fellow mogul Daniel Drimmer. Mr. Argiros also co-founded a rooftop solar power business in 2010, then sold it six years later to an arm of Power Corp. for $700-million. In a recent interview, Mr. Argiros encouraged other investors to put money into rental properties. “It’s rare to say I need more competition,” said Mr. Argiros. “There is no use in having a city where the people who work in it can’t afford to live in it. And the best way to have affordable housing is to build more and more of it.”
Daniels Corp., Toronto
John Daniels arrived from his native Poland in 1939 at age 12, not speaking a word of English, began building homes while still studying architecture and became CEO of one of the country’s largest developers, Cadillac Fairview. After leaving CF to launch Daniels Corp. in 1983, he emerged as one of the Toronto region’s dominant developers, renewing industrial space by transforming sites such as a former Goodyear Tire factory into a community focused on seven low-rise condos. After handing the reins to CEO Mitchell Cohen, he donated $24-million to the University of Toronto’s architecture school, his alma mater, and another $20-million to downtown hospitals. While he made his fortune selling high-end homes, he’s also an advocate for affordable housing – Mr. Daniels is the single largest private land donor to Habitat for Humanity.
Minto Group, Ottawa
Four Greenberg brothers built their first house in Ottawa in 1955, expanded into Florida in the 1970s and headed to Toronto in the 1980s. In 1991, second-generation CEO Roger Greenberg took over. On his watch, Minto dived into condos as that market caught fire and expanded into Alberta. He also installed governance at a company that had held just one board meeting in the previous decade, before handing the reins to outsider Michael Waters in 2013 and taking the chair role. “You see these same stories being repeated in family businesses, where family members are complaining about lack of knowledge, lack of access to information,” said Mr. Greenberg in a prepandemic speech. “I went 180 degrees the other way. No one would ever be able to say that we did anything that they weren’t aware of.” There’s no longer a Greenberg on the executive team, but two members of the third generation are on the board. A childhood fan of Ottawa’s CFL team, he helped bring football back to the nation’s capital in 2014 and is managing partner of the Redblacks.
Westdale Properties, Toronto
Ron Kimel’s late father, founder of the Fabricland retail chain, urged his son to be a lawyer. Mr. Kimel dutifully went to law school, but by his own admission, he spent too much time playing basketball and cards, and never took the bar exam. He did, however, retain an expertise that initially came in handy negotiating leases for his father’s stores, then acquiring Westdale Properties’ first buildings in the 1970s, a collection of 200 townhouses in St. Catharines, Ont. The portfolio now spans 42,000 rental units in more than 30 North American cities, plus partnerships with some of the biggest developments in Canada, such as the two-tower, Frank Gehry–designed Mirvish condo project in Toronto. In tribute to the time he spent playing basketball as a student, Mr. Kimel donated $10-million to the University of Toronto in 2014, to help fund the Kimel Family Field House.
Alan, Steven and Peter Menkes
Menkes Developments, Toronto
Murray Menkes’s father sold furs. The founder of Menkes Developments opted out of that business, choosing to jump into real estate by acquiring two lots in Toronto in 1954. By the time he died in 2013, sons Alan, Peter and Steven were running one of Ontario’s largest developers. Each son is president of a separate division (there’s no CEO). Alan takes care of high-rise developments. He built the Four Seasons hotel and condo development in Toronto’s upscale Yorkville, where the penthouse set a record for the highest price paid for a Canadian condo when it sold for $31-million two years ago, to Peter Gilgan. Steven is responsible for low-rise residential buildings and finance. Peter runs the portfolio of industrial and commercial properties. Four of Murray Menkes’s grandsons are also now executives at the company.
Great Gulf Homes Ltd.
Elly Reisman and his brother Norman, who died in January, got their start in 1975 building 35 rather unremarkable single-family homes in Cambridge, Ont. What came later was eye-catching, as Great Gulf hired some of the world’s top architecture firms to build condos, established one of the largest privately owned U.S. home builders, Ashton Woods, and launched commercial real estate arm First Gulf. The company now operates in 18 cities across North America and has built more than 80,000 homes. Mr. Reisman’s passion is boats. Last spring, he sold an Italian-made, 47-metre superyacht called Entourage – the asking price was €16.5-million – in order to upgrade to a bigger boat.
Madison Group, Toronto
You might not know Miguel Singer, but Robert De Niro does. Under Mr. Singer’s father, Madison Group built subdivisions in Markham and Vaughan. Under Mr. Singer and his sister Nelly Zagdanski, the 55-year-old company got glamorous, moving into condos, office buildings and retirement homes. Two years ago, Madison Group partnered with Mr. De Niro, a restaurant owner as well as an Oscar-winning actor, and chef Nobu Matsuhisa to launch a two-storey Nobu restaurant and two-tower, 49-storey condo and luxury hotel complex set to open next year in downtown Toronto.
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