After hearing Mel speak at the evening, we thought to ourselves that he would be great to talk some buzz with and so here for your pleasure, is a refreshingly open and honest talk with the man behind Bisha.
Lifetime has 9 separate projects in development in the GTA at the moment – how do you keep track of everything that’s going on?
I’m really lucky that I have an excellent partner and a really good team around me. We’re very hands-on developers and there’s really very little thatgoes on that somebody in a senior capacity is not involved with.
My partner and I specialize in acquisition, construction, re-zoning and marketing – that’s the focus of our attention and we believe in a very hands-on approach to that.
So we just do! We somehow manage. If the work is there to be done we take care of it. It’s probably not as difficult as you’d imagine because eventually you have to rely a little bit on the team and you do a little bit more of an overview.
Do you ever get any time off?! If so, what do you do to relax?
I do get time off. More so now than I used to. I think you need to wind down a little bit.
I have family. Family is a very important part of what I do. So between family and work it seems to be more than enough.
I’m not a golfer or do any sort of those things – I love my work and I love being with my family.
How did you get your start in the industry?
My Dad was a small house builder and I started working under him. Eventually I went out on my own and 23 or 24 years ago I hooked up with my partner Sam Herzog and we’ve been partners and best friends ever since.
I can’t say that we had some grandiose ambition – a challenge seemed to be presented to us and we always felt we were up to it. I never said I wanted to build condos or a thousand homes, I don’t think in those contexts.
All of a sudden an opportunity would present itself, we’d (Sam and I) look at each other and say ‘Hey can we do it?’, and then “Yeah, let’s make it happen!”
Then 11 years ago we saw the writing on the wall for making the move from being a suburban house builder to a downtown condo builder. We saw the opportunities were there to be in the downtown core and the transition was possible.
I fed a lot off of my own children and their life transitions–that, those of their friends–and I saw the re-emergence of the downtown core.
We saw that the opportunities in the suburbs were getting a bit more difficult, especially with the whole Greenbelt allocation issues and all these very very difficult challenges for builders in the Horseshoe and we said let’s make the move to downtown and that’s where we are and where we’ve been.
It turned out to be a very good decision. We’ve become very much a niche market developer – we really just sell the downtown core. It’s what I do. It’s what I know. I understand the market, its limitations and challenges and I think there’s plenty to do here.
I guess it’s all about relationships. We have relationships with the staff, the political processes etc. All of those things are really important as a condo developer. If we went to Mississauga, for example, to learn all those things again would be quite the challenge!
Where do you get your motivation from?
I’m a competitive person to be honest. I’m competitive with my peers, I’m competitive with the notion of ‘no you can’t’ and so I say ‘yes you can’. That’s a very big part of my motivation.
I’d like to believe that I’m a creative person so I think of things and opportunities and I try to meet the challenge.
I love this city. I know that sounds like a bit of a cliche that a developer is supposed to say but it’s true. I love Toronto and every time I travel abroad and come home it really re-enforces my love for this city. I think we’re a world class city and we still have yet to discover it ourselves.
I think the condo business is a fantastic market to be in and I think we’re probably the leader in the world when it comes to it.
I love the next opportunity, the next challenge, the next creative notion.
So yeah, that’s where I get my motivation from.
Will you ever retire?
Well, my son is in the business and he’s planning on my retirement, and my partner’s son-in-law is in the business too so they’re both conspiring against us!
I do see myself fading out of the business. I think there can only be so many bulls in the stall and I think that if I’m a good father and good mentor I’ll have to step aside when he’s ready to take over.
There are other challenges that await in other capacities. At the end of the day if you try to be a good business person rather than a good developer, you learn that the fundamentals of good business are applicable in various fields.
And you know, it can be a young man’s game as well. A young person is much more intuitive at what the market is demanding: the design, the size of units, the scope of the project, other challenging areas that are emerging. It’s very hard to stay in touch the older you get and I think you start to get a little lazy.
There used to be a time where I’d spend all day Sunday going all over the city from project to project trying to fill the notion of where the city is moving and transforming–but I don’t do that any more! Talk to my son, that’s his job now! [laughs]
That’s a very insightful answer Mel!
Well it’s the truth. I’m a very firm believer that a good father and a good mentor will always step aside for the next generation.
Another very serious question – what’s your favourite ice cream flavour?
[Without Hesitation] Rocky Road [laughs]. I have some at home right now. I still have a sweet tooth for those sort of things, the old favourites. I’m not into those new gourmet ice creams.
What part of the city do you call home?
I live in Hoggs Hollow at York Mills and Yonge, in the valley there. I built a home there about 8 or 9 years ago. For me it’s one of the last holdouts in a big city like Toronto. It still reminds me of the past a little bit: there’s no curbs on the streets, there’s trees, you know your neighbours, you can go for a walk! [laughs]
It has a lot of the old things that lent a charm to the city and you’re close enough to everything. The walk up the hill isn’t very appealing though!
We have to talk about Bisha–what is Bisha going to bring to the city?
I know this sounds very egotistical but I think that it’s part of the evolution of a city like Toronto.
The last time that a true global brand was created in the city was The Four Seasons over 50 years ago and they have been very inspirational on many levels to me and have opened my eyes to the possibilities of the whole ‘if they can do it I can do it’ story and I think Toronto is ready for another global brand.
Everything starts off as something small and I think the time is right for Bisha. Right now in the hotel/condo business in Toronto, all the top brands coming in are foreign (Ritz, Trump etc.) and I feel that they know something we don’t know. Why can’t we home grow our own brand and industryhere?
We’ve also approached that market a little bit more friendly than the others. They’re all about being at the very high end of the market. That’s not naturally where we want to be. We want to have as broad a base of the market as possible.
I think in terms of the focus of where we’re going, we’re offering a different experience to our buyers – we want you to take advantage of everything we have to offer at Bisha, and I hope we got it right in terms of what the city is looking for. We’ve sold 150 units so far in roughly 6 weeks so I think people have responded positively to it.
Lifetime has evolved from a ‘behind-the-scenes’ partner of sorts to being at the forefront of their projects – how did this push to be more visible come about? How important is brand building for you?
It’s a good question and I don’t really know why it happened the way it did.
We recognized early on that in order for us to really learn the condominium business we had to associate ourselves with very good people. There was no point for me to jump into the pool and not know how to swim so in the beginning it was really a learning process.
We partnered up with Lanterra and we did Water Park City and in my opinion they have to be one of the top developers in the city in terms of their projects, their vision, marketing, everything, so that was a great learning experience and then we started taking on fairly large challenges, The Four Seasons being one of them.
That required teaming up with a partner that had a lot of construction experience and so we brought in Menkes to the project. The one thing about the condominium business is that it can easily accommodate two or three developers. The ego issue doesn’t really come into it.
So inevitably, people started asking about Lifetime – who are they, what do they do; I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg but we sort of then came out into the sunlight.
What really initiated it was BLVD, which is a second, junior company of Lifetime. They wanted to be a little bit more “out there” and as well, Bisha required us to come to the forefront a little bit more.
It’s never really a goal for me to sit down and be open and brag about who I am but I think it is required for people to know who the developers behind the project are, it adds credibility.
When you start showing your track record it sort of tells the story that there’s somebody behind the project that will be there when required!
It’s been a more conservative approach to the business and a longer process but it’s really important to do it right. We don’t take anything for granted and don’t go to market until we have all our city approvals.
The last thing is to show off. Your customers have to be sure who they’re buying from because it’s a 3 year commitment in a lot of cases so they have to believe that there’s going to be something delivered at the end of the day.
What’s next for Lifetime?
We’re going down two paths right now – the Bisha brand and the Lifetime brand. They each have a life of their own and their own directions.
In terms of Lifetime, we always have something going. We’re launching a new project in February in the Yorkville area and we have a number of projects going through the re-zoning process that will be coming out sometime in the fall of next year. There’s always something going on!
Bisha has a very different goal. I believe in the brand, it gives confidence. A brand name means something to people and we want to perpetuate the brand but we can’t do that until we start to establish more of a full situation with Bisha so we want to start building it so people can actually see what we have to offer.
The sky is the limit as far as I’m concerned but you have to walk before you can run