Twenty-three years ago, when Marvin Rubner was nearing his degree in accounting at the University of Toronto, his father offered some words of advice.
"Get into real estate is what he said. He was in the textile business; he didn't want me to follow in his footsteps," Mr. Rubner recalls. "His view was that Toronto was growing and over time almost everything was going to go up in value."
His father's advice proved bang-on. Mr. Rubner joined the ranks of private investors, who quietly dominate Canada's real estate markets.
In April, 1982, he put away the accounting texts and with the backing of his father and a friend of his father's bought 345 Adelaide St. W., 48,000 square feet of loft space in downtown Toronto. The following February, again with family and friends as investors, he bought 197 Spadina Ave. in Toronto, which had 70,000 square feet on seven floors.
The next April it was 590 King St. W., a major acquisition. It was another loft building, once home to a textile factory and held a whopping 150,000 square feet; three years later, it was a pair of apartment buildings near Birchmount and Eglinton in what was then Scarborough and in 1997, an 85,000-square-foot shopping plaza in Mississauga.
His company, YAD Investments Ltd., still holds all those properties today. Over the past two decades, Mr. Rubner has steadily improved them, renovating, upgrading, restoring. He has turned aging industrial buildings into showplaces, stylish enough to attract tenants such as BCE Inc.
While his properties have increased in value many times over, he lives a conservative, low-key life. Equally important, Mr. Rubner puts a face on the most important force in the commercial real estate market -- the private investor.
Forget the big deals that make newspaper headlines, says Blake Hutcheson, president of real estate broker CB Richard Ellis Ltd. They are few and far between.
"Private buying and selling accounts for between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of all transactions done in Canada in any single year," he says. "Right now, in fact, there is huge pent-up demand from wealthy baby boomers, eager to invest their money. This is one of the busiest times for private transactions in our collective memories."
Last year, for example, private investors accounted for 75 per cent of all apartment sales across Canada, 45 per cent of all retail property sales and 40 per cent of all transactions under $10-million, says George Caras, president of RealNet Canada Inc., which tracks real estate sales.
The reason? Well-structured, well-managed investments can yield anywhere from 20 to 30 per cent, Mr. Hutcheson says.
"I look for 20-per-cent returns when I consider taking a piece of a deal," says Sheldon Esbin, a private investor for more than 30 years. "But every deal is different; some can take decades to pay off. I have 2 per cent of a land deal I bought 35 years ago for $13,000, for example. If we sold it today, my share would likely yield $2-million."
Granted, there are deals where exceptional profits can be made quickly but those are most likely to happen in times of fast-paced inflation. By contrast, most real estate fortunes are amassed steadily over time. Successful private investors often have the patience of Job. In tough times they also have to suffer similar trials.
For Mr. Rubner, his worst days were the early 1990s when commercial real estate values schussed from dizzying heights to desperate depths in a matter of months. When the bubble burst, he lost an office building and apartment building in Toronto and an office building in Calgary.
"I learned lots of lessons from that," he says. "Today, we have very little leverage [little or no mortgages]on the properties. We have spent our own money to make the renovations."
Mr. Esbin says leveraging his investments depends on the nature of the property. Professionally, he wears two hats: As president of Romspen Investment Corp., he is a mortgage lender, and an investor.
In some cases, the lack of a mortgage has proved to be a lifesaver.
"We bought 208 Bloor Street West in the mid-1980s. I raised $4.2-million cash from a group of investors and we bought it outright," he says of a Toronto property. "It was 40,000 square feet leased out to doctors' offices.
"During the recession of the early nineties, doctors could not pay and the rents went to zero. But because we had no mortgage we were able to keep the property while others all around us were losing their shirts."
Recession, in fact, can be a great time to invest because prices are often bargain-basement low, he says. "We picked up deals all over [Toronto]-- 60 residential units in Rosedale, a building at Spadina and Lonsdale, some very nice properties indeed."
One thing both Mr. Rubner and Mr. Esbin agree on is that proper management separates the men from the boys when it comes to real estate investing.
"It is all about management and timing," Mr. Esbin says.
"Management is what has created lasting value in our properties," Mr. Rubner adds. "We went into each of these properties with the idea that we were going to improve them, raise them to the level where triple-A tenants like BCE would want to take space.
"I now get 30 calls a month from tenants looking to take 10,000 square feet or more in one of our downtown buildings. By working steadily and managing conservatively, these properties are now worth many times what we paid. They also produce significant cash flow."
Where the pair differ is when it comes time to sell. Mr. Esbin sees an up market as an opportunity to cash in and move to the next deal.
For Mr. Rubner, however, selling any of his family's holdings is an option that may wait until he is ready to retire.
"What do you do if you sell?" he asks. "You face a big tax burden and then you have to find a place to invest the proceeds. If you make a million you lose half in taxes and then what sort of interest will a bank give you?
"Besides, when it is time to retire, there are maybe 100 people within a block of me more than happy to step into my shoes."