Rob Macdonald is one of the biggest developers Vancouver has ever produced—but politics forces him to build elsewhere
Querying—even in jest—one’s own intelligence is quite the opening gambit from a business leader.
For veteran developer Rob Macdonald, the unexpected quip centres on years of his well-documented kvetching at Vancouver’s ruling Vision Party and his perceived inability to develop in the city.
“Maybe I’m just stupid,” the owner and president of Macdonald Development Corporation says about being openly critical of city hall. While the development fraternity may give money to all parties to wield maximum influence, he’s notable for not mincing words (the “lunacy” of bike lanes, for example) and opines he’s not part of the “system” that curries favour at city hall in terms of rezoning or density.
“I’ve talked myself out of doing any development in Vancouver because they won’t let me,” says 59-year-old Macdonald, who publicly supports the right-leaning NPA. “Whatever I want to do, the current government just shuts me down, so we do lots of things elsewhere.”
Over nearly four decades, of course, that “elsewhere” has been expansive—from Seattle, Sacramento and San Diego to Atlanta, Hong Kong and Phoenix. Today, Macdonald, a UBC commerce graduate, has around $500 million under development in this province (including Prime, a 40-storey tower in Surrey, and Kelowna’s 1,365 lots at Lakestone Living), Alberta (Watermark at Bearspaw development in Calgary) and Ontario. “I have always believed in the Confucius saying that ‘a clever rabbit has at least three holes’ and therefore never have a concentration of assets all in one place,” he says over sushi (he has a cold so we’ve ordered in at his Howe Street office).
A sharp observer of the political landscape, the Shaughnessy resident and father of four grown children (with wife Susan) is pleased to see Justin Trudeau’s majority win. (Macdonald would have hated the Grits needing NDP support; he famously pulled his business out of the province during the NDP reign of the ’90s only to return investments under Gordon Campbell’s Liberals.)
“I think that if the new Prime Minister does what he says he will do in terms of aiding with transportation infrastructure, it can’t help but be extremely positive for the Vancouver region,” says the director of UBC Properties Trust, who is keen to see a subway to the university—although only if it’s “substantially below grade through Vancouver” to Arbutus Street to avoid disturbing businesses along the Broadway corridor. Neither does he believe that running small deficits for a few years “can harm one of the greatest countries in the world,” though he offers the caveat that debts need to be paid off in the long term—“or we risk peril at some point.”
Macdonald’s gateway to real estate happened by fluke, after attending a Behind the Green Door event where UBC students were invited to tour businesses over lunch. “I was always going to be an accountant, but this sounded so exciting and offered an immense amount of money compared to what I was being offered by the accounting firms so I jumped into that world.”
After graduating, he joined North American Land Corporation from 1980 to 1983 before moving to Strand Development Corporation. In 1985, Macdonald was diagnosed with lymphoma.
After doctors cited overwork as a contributing factor, he cut his hours and set up his own firm.
The experience also ignited a lifelong exercise-and-healthy-diet regimen—he’s co-founder of the RBC GranFondo Whistler cycle ride and an avid trekker. Just back from a trek around Everest Base Camp, in fact, Macdonald is determined to keep a work/life balance. Put simply, he says, “I sleep well at night.”
THREE THINGS ABOUT... ROB MACDONALD1. Worked the graveyard shift at a copper mine on northern Vancouver Island and in a beer parlour to pay his way through university.
2. Mad on history books, especially ones focused on how people failed–like The Reichmanns: Family, Faith, Fortune, and the Empire of Olympia and York: “In real estate, that’s almost always down to people having too much hubris and too much leverage.”
3. Under Vision Vancouver, Macdonald’s firm won the 2009 Heritage Award from the City of Vancouver for restoring The Hudson (in conjunction with Wall Financial Corporation, he co-developed this in 2006 and Capitol Residences, which finished construction in 2011, during Vision’s early years).