Why some corporate head offices put down roots in Vancouver

As local companies double down on Vancouver by building big new headquarters, could they help make housing more affordable?


Saje Natural Wellness will be the largest tenant in Mount Pleasant’s Lightworks Building, which has a rooftop garden

As local companies double down on Vancouver by building big new headquarters, could they help make housing more affordable?

When you’re a wellness company surrounded by a coastal rainforest, you’ve got a built-in one-with-nature branding that money can’t buy. Why go anywhere else?

Vancouver’s geographic gifts are a large part of the reason that Saje Natural Wellness is staying put and deepening its local roots with a massive new headquarters set to open late next year, out of PC Urban Properties Corp.’s new Lightworks Building in Mount Pleasant.

Saje, whose products include essential-oil and skincare lines, will be the anchor tenant for most of the six-storey, 54,000-square-foot development, which includes a major heritage restoration. At street level, the original building, completed in 1942, was once a plant for radar equipment used in the Second World War. Saje’s head office will be the antithesis of a bustling factory, a serene hideaway whose large outdoor area includes a rooftop vegetable garden and a meeting space with mountain views—the perfect backdrop for office yoga sessions.

Vancouver “is part of the DNA of the company—we so love it here, and it embodies what our culture is about, and the backbone of our company is connecting people,” says co-founder and CEO Kate Ross LeBlanc. “Vancouver is such a central nucleus to wellness for all of Canada.”

When it comes to real estate, central Vancouver may be the country’s priciest city in which to run a business, but Saje and other local companies are more than willing to stick it out. Although staff may find it tough to secure affordable housing and commercial property taxes are on the rise, some CEOs say the advantages offset those drawbacks. Their companies’ growth underscores the decision to maintain and expand head offices in Vancouver.

Tech success Bench Accounting, billed as North America’s number one online bookkeeping service, recently launched a 55,000-square-foot head office at Telus Garden on Robson Street. Bench, which called New York home until 2013, outgrew three other nearby spaces as it expanded to 250 employees.

The company chose the city because it’s cheaper than places like New York and San Francisco and has the tech talent, says director of communications Natalie Burgwin. “We have yet to see staff leave Bench to go somewhere else because of housing prices,” Burgwin adds.

CYC Design Corp., the umbrella company for clothing brands Wings + Horns and
Reigning Champ, has a new factory on Clark Drive and a Burnaby distribution centre. It’s also expanding into a new 22,000-square-foot HQ at Grandview Highway and Rupert Street. Founder Craig Atkinson is a British Columbian, which might help explain why he and other business owners brave Vancouver’s high cost of living: they can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Michael Heeney, principal at Bing Thom Architects (BTA), says Vancouver attracts residents who like the lifestyle and use their business savvy to find a way to stay. It’s the opposite of the bigger trend where people move to a city for employment. “They want to figure out how to make it work here, and that’s why you get lots of startups,” says Heeney, whose Vancouver firm did a 2014 study of head offices. “But that kind of personality that starts things is not necessarily the same personality needed to grow it. They tend to get to a certain size, then sell it and start something new.”

The study, by BTA Works, showed that Vancouver ranks third among Canadian cities for head offices, behind Toronto and Montreal. But most of those offices are small, averaging about 60 people. Vancouver companies tend to hit a growth wall, not making it to the level of major players in Seattle and Portland. In those cities, Amazon.com and Nike Inc. pay high salaries and create enormous wealth, which in turn generates spinoff businesses. Heeney says that cycle isn’t playing out in Vancouver, where many entrepreneurs make a good living and don’t feel the need to go big. Meanwhile, Heeney says, Vancouver policymakers overlook the importance of income in the affordability problem.

But expensive housing does chase away valuable midcareer employees, those who’ve spent 15 years with a company but want a proper home. “If we could create big offices with larger numbers of upper-level employees with higher salaries, that will help grow our incomes, and that in a way will make our housing more affordable,” Heeney says.

Family-run Saje appears to be on that trajectory. Ross LeBlanc and chief wellness officer Jean-Pierre LeBlanc launched the business in 1992 after moving from Ontario with their daughter, Kiara—now brand and creative director—for the B.C. lifestyle. Over the past five years, Saje’s revenue has grown more than 1,000 per cent, Ross LeBlanc says. The company employs about 1,000 people, 125 of them in Vancouver. Saje will have almost 80 North American stores by the end of 2017.

The founders plan to grow their Vancouver head office to some 500 in the next half-decade. “Seeking a healthier lifestyle is the reason we came here in the first place—it would be super counterintuitive to leave,” Ross LeBlanc says.