The mural on the wall is stark and beautiful -- prairie fields rising to a thin green horizon -- but Jon Love does not seem moved.
"If you'd like to buy it, we'd sell it to you," says the president of Oxford Properties Group Inc., who explains that his company's collection of Western Canadian art is available to bidders.
"That's our art," Mr. Love says, pointing to three large photos of glittering office complexes that form part of Oxford's $3.8-billion real estate portfolio.
It was with this same unsentimental realism that Mr. Love, 47, last week sold Toronto-based Oxford Properties, the family company founded by his entrepreneur father Donald 40 years ago in Edmonton.
The Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement Board (OMERS), a huge pension fund that already owns 17 per cent of Oxford, has agreed to buy the rest for $23.75 a share in cash, in a transaction that puts Oxford's equity value at $1.5-billion. The deal is scheduled to close in late October.
In Mr. Love's view, he has done his job, issuing Oxford shares at the presplit equivalent of $5 in 1995, watching the price slide to $2 and change nine months later, then riding it back up to the offer price on August 21 -- a 34-per-cent premium to the average closing price of the 30 previous trading days.
Asked for his emotions on selling his father's creation, the affable but guarded Mr. Love says, "I am satisfied that we did what businesses are supposed to do, which is to create value for our shareholders."
Mr. Love brushes off any suggestion that this is a family business story, crediting Oxford's recovery from its dark days of 1991-1992 to a strong management team. "This is not my company," he insists.
He says he might feel a bit differently if it was only his family's money that was locked up in Oxford. But this is one of the few remaining Canadian real estate companies without a controlling shareholder, although the Love family, senior managers and a Hong Kong investor own a block of about 21 per cent.
It was also one of the last major property companies that retains at least some associations with its founding family.
Jon says his father Donald, 74, likes the transaction because it underlines how much shareholder value has been created since 1996, when Oxford's capital base was valued at only $104-million. The older Mr. Love, now retired, divides his time between Toronto and Naples, Fla., although his son says "Don Love will always have a deal."
Donald Love started Oxford in 1960 in Edmonton and expanded across the country as a developer and landlord. In the late 1970s, he made his move into downtown Toronto with big office building purchases.
Meanwhile, Jon took a business degree from University of Western Ontario and worked as a retail broker for ScotiaMcLeod in Edmonton for five years. He was good at selling stocks, but at 26 wanted something new.
He knew about real estate from dinner-table talk, and applied at Oxford. "My father didn't hire me -- he sent me to see a guy." Jon became a leasing co-ordinator in Toronto and moved on to other roles and cities before becoming president in 1989 and chief executive officer in 1992.
An older brother, who had run Oxford's U.S. business, left the company when those assets were sold in 1986.
Like many developers, Oxford was battered by the early 1990s recession, but managed to stay nominally solvent, unlike peers such as Olympia & York Developments Ltd., Trizec Inc. and Cadillac Fairview Corp.
In the summer of 1992, Mr. Love says the company decided to change tack and emphasize the more-hospitable business of property management. Two years later, having more than doubled its property under management, Oxford could foresee the revival of the real estate market and began to buy assets again. Charles Chan, a Hong Kong businessman, came in as an investor and Oxford went public.
Oxford's strongest legacy may be its role as a busy co-investor, partnering with deep-pocketed institutions to build up a diversified portfolio. This joint-venture strategy has helped improve returns, diversify risk and allow Oxford to provide the sophisticated tenant services that come with large scale, Mr. Love says.
The strategy brought Oxford in league with OMERS, a partner since 1990 in Canterra Tower in Calgary. OMERS took a stake in Oxford in 1998 and the two teamed up with General Electric Capital Corp. in the $827-million purchase of Royal Bank of Canada's real estate portfolio in 1999.
Mr. Love won't say how the takeover deal was hatched, or who made the first move. "We both approached each other and thought through what was the right thing for everybody."
So what is Jon Love going to do with the rest of his life? Senior managers own about 8 per cent of Oxford, and his personal stake of 2 to 3 per cent should deliver a payday of more than $30-million.
But he won't tip his hand about his future. Once he helps shepherd Oxford through the sale, "we'll sit down with the OMERS people and make a collective decision."
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