24/7 Executives is a series of stories on high-performing professionals who are as serious at play as they are in the conference room. See the other stories here.
If it's a calm day, there's a chance Gerald Hartwig will be muscling his way to work on his paddle board, along Victoria's harbour, heading to his waterfront office in the high-end Shoal Point condominium and commercial complex.
Mr. Hartwig is president and chief executive officer of Hartwig Industries, a development and property-holding company with interests in Victoria, across British Columbia and in Saskatchewan.
He's also an extreme sports fanatic who's had multiple concussions, dislocated shoulders and a sport-induced hernia. His list of physical pursuits – all of them solitary – rivals his "injuries of interest" inventory, and includes kick-boxing, kite boarding, paddle boarding, rock-climbing, skiing and surfing, dusted with yoga, running and meditation. "I don't like the pack mentality," Mr. Hartwig said.
The divorced father of three grown children says he is also the kind of guy who, when he hears about a single mom who can't find a place to live, will help her move into one of his properties and then charge below-market rent.
"I'm only halfway through my career," the 58-year-old said. "I love life, I have a passion for it. We're only here for a short time. We get to write our own stories so I want to experience as much as I can."
Thirty-five years ago, Mr. Hartwig started as a residential and commercial builder. "I was one of the first open-shop contractors in Victoria," he said. His company, Wigmar Construction, moved into subdivision and townhouse construction throughout the West Coast and also took on large projects such as high schools, student residences and a museum upgrade.
After selling Wigmar 20 years ago, Mr. Hartwig focused on boutique developments, his numerous properties in the Victoria area, logging operations in the B.C. Interior and well-timed purchases and sales of Alberta and Saskatchewan farmland.
His latest projects include Mill Springs Village, north of Victoria, where 36 lots are being added to the existing 200 of a planned 400-lot subdivision, and a 13-unit townhouse in North Saanich, B.C.
While Mr. Hartwig won't divulge financial information for his company, he's not hurting, at least figuratively. One week out of six each year is devoted to play. He was surfing in Hawaii in March, kite boarding in Mexico in January and skiing in Whistler, B.C., in December. "And I probably spend 20 nights a year camping in a tent." He also donates thousands of dollars each year to various organizations. "It's all part of my life."
One very close to his heart is the 84-chapter Surfrider Foundation, an international group dedicated to protecting oceans and beaches. Last year, Mr. Hartwig gave the Victoria chapter $15,000. "I'm very passionate about the ocean. It's the source of our food and recreation. What I like about Surfrider – there are no admin costs. They're grassroots," he said.
A long-time animal lover, who owns rescue dog Shasta, Mr. Hartwig is also a dogged supporter and past chair of the Victoria SPCA. As well, in 2009, he and his children funded and built an orphanage in Ghana. "I've always been interested in helping people. The responsibility falls on those most capable of taking it. I'm blessed that I can help," he said. "I love to meet new people every day, everywhere."
A disciplined teetotaller, up at 5:30 a.m. every day, Mr. Hartwig admits to having experienced failure and then its harbinger, fear. "Fear could be when you make a move rock-climbing or sign on the dotted line. It could be catching a big wave beyond your ability. It's that moment. Even if things go bad, you prepare for it," he said.
Things did go bad more than a year ago. While kite boarding in Mexico, he hit the water from three metres above, at about 55 kilometres an hour. "I wasn't knocked unconscious but I kept going in and out [of consciousness]," he said of what would his 12th known concussion.
"About one month later, I found out I had a concussion," he said, after episodes of disorientation and memory lapses.
For 10 months, three times a week, he worked with Kim Oslund, a certified athletic therapist, at the University of Victoria's concussion lab, using specialized software – NeuroTracker – to restore his brain.
"The concussion for him was probably the first time he realized this is serious business. It was also the first time in eight years that he followed my instructions," Ms. Oslund said. "It all became very real for him." She credits Mr. Hartwig's partner, April Dorey, an investment adviser, with keeping the "big kid" on-track during his recovery.
Ms. Oslund has known Mr. Hartwig since 2006 when he provided a reduced-rate rental space for her business. It wasn't long until he was visiting Ozmosis Wellness for tune-ups and treatments resulting from his endeavours on land, sea and air.
"When he hurts himself, I don't think he recognizes that he did," she said.
When advised to take it easy, instead, he'll challenge someone in the gym to see how many chin-ups they can do. "He likes to take the piss out of people," she said with a laugh. Or he challenges himself. When Ms. Oslund told him that he'd be using crutches for at least one week, at day six Mr. Hartwig walked in, crutch-less.
Doug Enns, a former CEO of Pacific Coast Savings, and now owner of Upturn Consulting, met Mr. Hartwig at a martial arts session 15 years ago. Soon Mr. Enns was giving his sparring partner strategic financial and corporate-structuring advice.
"Gerald's done very well. He's very good at seeing opportunities and knows when to time his investments. And he knows when to back off," Mr. Enns said. "He's never involved in a deal where partners lose money. You don't see him taking on high-risk ventures. He probably manages risks better than anyone I know."
This, from a man who repeatedly risks his body (broken cheekbones, wrists and ankles, herniated discs, two nose surgeries), but who is also a self-taught individual who reads about world history and social housing while keeping his ears tuned for those in need.
Mr. Enns recalls walking into Hartwig Industries' boardroom near Christmas and seeing the table laden with presents and food. The largesse was for needy families. "He has a very quiet kind of approach to giving. He does stuff behind the scenes and never asks for recognition," Mr. Enns said. "He's got a really strong sense of values."
Mr. Hartwig's early days were likely influential.
On his first day of school in Edmonton, the third child of German émigrés showed up sporting a German accent and lederhosen. Mr. Hartwig knows about bullying.
His father, Hans, later left the family, which also included two sisters. His mother, Irmela, was left to raise her children. "Mom was a survivor. She was orphaned at a young age, was in the German cavalry in World War II," he said.
A champion rugby player with a proclivity for trouble, Mr Hartwig bounced between his father's and mother's homes. In Grade 11, he was kicked out of the private Shawnigan Lake School. Soon, he was hopping onto freight trains, picking up odd jobs, even living in a tent for a year while working at a construction job. He hitchhiked across Europe and the United States, encountering attempted rapes and abductions. "I learned to read people very quickly," he said.
At 21, he returned to Victoria where his father, a successful developer, sold his son his dormant Wigmar Construction. The vagabond had settled.
Recently, Ms. Oslund and Mr. Hartwig had a discussion about his latest injury. "I asked him, 'What will it look like if you get another concussion?'" Not long after he was looking for the next big wave.
"I like to get out of my comfort zone every day," he said.