When real estate developers retire, they may head permanently for warmer climates, and play a lot of golf, or even dabble a bit in the industry.
Then there's Walter Zwig, who at 81 is still going strong after a 50-year career during which he was responsible for building about six million square feet of space in 13 downtown Toronto office towers, all on or connected to the Yonge Street subway line.
Mr. Zwig developed these properties as the head of Horizon Developments Ltd., the first one for Prudential Insurance Co. of America's Canadian subsidiary at the northwest corner of Yonge and King streets in the heart of the financial district. That building opened in 1958, and the following year Horizon opened the National Trust Building on the southeast corner of that intersection. Mr. Zwig displayed investment acumen early on. He prudently persuaded most of the corporations that were lead tenants in his buildings back then to invest in them as well, making his company practically recession-proof.
Although semi-retired, Mr. Zwig spends about nine months a year in Toronto, where he advises Horizon Legacy Group,the successor to his own firm, where his son Tony is president. He divides the rest of his time between his condominium in Boca Raton, Fla., which he bought two years ago, and sailing.
He also sits on the Ontario Public Services Pension Board (its real estate arm) and Yonge-Eglinton Centre boards.
Mr. Zwig sold his real estate portfolio to O&Y Properties Inc. five years ago and has been on the company's board ever since.
Last Tuesday, Mr. Zwig received the first annual National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP) Lifetime Achievement Award at a black-tie dinner in Toronto, attended by 700 players in the Greater Toronto Area's (GTA) commercial and industrial real estate industry. The awards, sponsored in part by The Globe and Mail, were founded to recognize excellence in the commercial real estate sector, both as a pillar of economic growth and an engine for neighbourhood improvement.
Several speakers paid tribute to Mr. Zwig, among them Joe Barnicke, founder of J.J. Barnicke Ltd., one of Toronto's largest commercial real estate brokerages, who noted that "with the way real estate financing is being done today, it is doubtful that any other private developer can do what Mr. Zwig did."
Mr. Zwig later echoed that observation in a telephone interview from his daughter's home in Boca Raton.
"Developers need an awful lot of money to operate today. That's why the biggest players in the business are pension funds. The days of being able to borrow money for real estate are long gone. We used to be able to operate with 10 or 20 per cent of our own money. Today, that's impossible without 50 per cent of the financing in place."
Mr. Zwig's solid relationships with life insurance, trust companies and other institutional lenders were buttressed by the unbeatable locations of his buildings on main subway lines connected at Dundas, University, St. Clair and Eglinton stations, among others. He gave the real estatemantra "location, location, location," particularly in the context of mass public transportation, new meaning.
Mr. Zwig, who by all accounts prizes the collegiality and personal relationships that often turn into firm friendships in business, lamented the state to which developer-tenant relationships have declined.
"Insurance companies, law firms, brokerages and other large tenants don't seem to identify with developers from whom they lease space any more," he said. "Everything is very cold and sterile, not like in the past, when we were close to our tenants. Today nobody does anything unless four lawyers are involved, and everything is signed and sealed," he said, only partly in jest and inferentially excluding law firm tenants who don't need outside lawyers to handle complicated leasing issues.
Does he have any regrets about not doing something during his development career? No, he never looks back. There are ups and downs in every business, he said.
What would he enjoy doing if he were able to start all over again? "I'd like to rebuild Toronto's Union Station, a Toronto landmark, which also sits on the subway line.
"I'd still like to build high-rise office buildings, but nothing over 30 stories. For me that's the limit, because of the cost, the construction time, and it's very difficult to manage buildings taller than that. I admire people who run 70-storey buildings. It's damn hard."
He is also impressed with the way residential buildings have sprouted all over downtown Toronto, which he describes as a "great place to live." Indeed, Mr. Zwig lives in the city with his wife in one of those buildings, a midtown condo.
If there is a stereotype of real estate developers as aggressive, tough as nails and unable to relax, Mr. Zwig doesn't fit the mould.
As his friend, Barney Danson, a retired businessman and former federal cabinet minister, said of Mr. Zwig at the awards dinner: "He's very relaxed and has a remarkable ability to bring things to a successful conclusion without being obtrusive or apparently pushy. I'm sure he's pushing all the time but he seems to be laid back, relaxed and yet he knows precisely where he's going. He did what he had to do and then he took his time off."
When Mr. Zwig takes his time off it's usually to head out to sea.
He's an avid sailor, an activity he's been enjoying most of his life. When they're not in Toronto, the Zwigs sail along the Eastern Seaboard aboard their 17-metre yacht, usually out of a Cape Cod harbour. They also sailed around the world between 1987 and 1991.
Mr. Zwig is the first developer in his family, with an obvious passion for connecting people and workplaces, but he wasn't the only member to leave his mark on the Canadian landscape. His father emigrated to Ontario from Russia early in the past century and worked near London, Ont., as a section hand laying CN railway track.
Coincidentally, about 50 years later Mr. Zwig's company built the CN train station in London. While most of his projects are located in downtown Toronto, Horizon Developments also built apartments in Ottawa and one of the largest mixed-use projects in London.