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Ed Sonshine, founder of RioCan, the second-largest real estate investment trust in Canada.Handout

Before Toronto real estate dynamo Ed Sonshine founded RioCan, now the second-largest real estate investment trust in Canada, he was a criminal lawyer. And before that, he was a teenager itching to use his brand new driver’s licence for a semi-terrifying gig at an Ontario lumberyard. Here’s what loading two-by-fours onto trucks taught Sonshine about building a career from the ground up.

My father was a home builder, so when I turned 16, of course I went to work at a lumberyard. I was what’s called the “trucker’s helper,” which just means that when the lumberyard gets an order from a builder – say, 20 10-foot two-by-fours and 16 four-by-eights – we’d drive around with the truck to grab it.

Everything was sorted and stacked by size. The driver would back up the truck, I’d hop off the back and climb up to the top of the lumber pile. The first couple of times scared the hell out of me! And in those days, this is 60 years ago, nobody was wearing hard hats or even gloves.

The first time, I said, “But what if I fall?” The driver said, “You won’t fall, boy, get going.” I didn’t think too hard and just did it. I’d have to climb to the top, which was sometimes 25 or 30 feet tall, and pass the pieces down one by one. Orders usually had three or four sizes, so there’d be three or four stops, and then we’d go deliver it to the job. There, it’d be the same job but in reverse: He’d be in the back of the truck, he’d hand it down to me and I’d stack them all up again.

We’d deliver about three loads a day, and sometimes we’d travel quite far away. The lumberyard was in Scarborough, so from there we’d head out to Mississauga and up to North York and back again. I learned the whole city map that summer just by looking out the window. I’d just got my driver’s licence, but not my trucker’s licence, so they wouldn’t let me drive. Sometimes they’d let me drive around the yard though.

The people I was working with were mostly immigrants, lots of Italian and Portuguese people, and they were very, very kind to me. There were many accidents avoided by one of them yelling, “Hey! Boy! You’ll fall if you keep going that way!” I don’t know if anyone knew my name, but even if they did, they only called me “Boy” or “Kid.”

Let me tell you two important things about that job: Number one, I’ve never been in such good physical condition since. I was lifting, climbing, carrying – truly difficult physical labour. Later that year, I met this gorgeous young lady named Fran. She must have been impressed by my physique because five years later, I married her. Sunday is our 55th anniversary.

Number two was I couldn’t do the job for very long. I have a ton of respect for working guys who really use their hands and muscles, but I couldn’t do it. I’d had enough of physical labour and I needed a desk job. Whatever I ended up doing though, I knew I would depend on these people. Home builders don’t want their lumber sitting around in the rain for two weeks; they want wood on time and at the right time. I got a whole birds-eye-view of the real estate industry starting right there.

By the end of the summer, I was actually doing a good job and everyone actually liked me. The boss even gave me a raise, 50 cents more an hour on my usual $4. It gave me a lot of confidence that it was okay to take risks and I could get better at something if I worked hard, but I would have to work hard. I’d have to put in the hours and the effort, but if I did, it would pay off. And boy, was I ever in good shape.

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