Chris Bourassa | BCBusiness
"Unless you've poured concrete or backfilled foundations," says Chris Bourassa, "how do you know what the guys in the field are going through?"
From a Prairies childhood to a Harvard degree, Ledcor Properties COO Chris Bourassa knows all about buildings from the ground up.
It’s not often that you come across a Harvard-educated executive who is at ease in a hard hat and in a pinstripe. Following his father and grandfather into carpentry, Chris Bourassa spent 15 years on construction sites before his current role as COO of Vancouver’s Ledcor Properties Inc., the investment and development arm of the Ledcor Group of Companies.
It’s not that the 44-year-old wanted to be in the field forever, but he did feel it was essential for his boardroom role to be more “effective.” Over seafood at Gastown’s Water Street Café near his offices, he explains, “It always drove me nuts that some people in senior positions had never done this – unless you’ve poured concrete or backfilled foundations, how do you know what the guys in the field are going through?”
It makes for a more collaborative workplace, he insists, with the person working the shovel being as important as the one sorting out finances. “Without each, you have nothing and it’s worth listening to everybody’s point of view. Even if it’s not quite the solution, it might spark another thought that gets you to the right one,” he says. Besides, Bourassa believes it’s a great excuse to head out on-site when office life is making him “stir crazy.”
Beyond hands-on schooling, the Saskatchewan-born COO’s academic resume is a testament to lifelong learning, from a diploma in architecture at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in the late ’80s through to an advanced management development program in real estate at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 2010. (He also sits on the Ivy League institution’s alumni council to help bridge the gap between industry and students.)
Bourassa was also the first person at Ledcor, where he’s worked for 18 years, to earn a certification in LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Achieving it in 2001 – only a few years after the ratings system for creating green buildings was established – was a bonus, he continues; now it’s expected. “Today, it is so engrained that we know it takes no more effort to do a building well and sustainably, and really we don’t need a checklist to do that,” explains Bourassa, whose flagship developments include this year’s Epcor Tower, a LEED Gold office in Edmonton, and Maui’s Honua Kai resort in 2010.
With the recession in the U.S., Bourassa has seen some partnerships fall apart down south. “When things are going well, fewer questions are asked. But when they start shifting sideways, that’s when people start territorializing and looking out for themselves,” he explains.
It was one of the reasons he enrolled at Harvard: to expand Ledcor’s integrated project delivery approach to include sales and marketing with development and construction. By way of example, he cites The River, Ledcor’s new project in Calgary, where earlier this year one suite sold for $8.99 million. “Now, almost everything is down to our team,” he says.
Bourassa seems to enjoy a peripatetic life; his father’s construction jobs took him nationwide including to Yellowknife, Lethbridge and Toronto. “The other day I clocked up that I had lived in 19 homes by the time I was 21,” he says.
Moving his own family – wife Elizabeth and four children now aged from six to 13 – from Calgary to Vancouver five years ago was “like the end of the world” in terms of the high cost of real estate here, but it was also enlightening in the sense of urbanization. Where cities could spread in the Prairies endlessly, he appreciates the difference in land-constrained Vancouver. (He notes with a smile that he lost the ability to have his own carpentry workshop at his home on Vancouver’s west side.) “But being a dense city is more exciting because everything is right there – and communities can be tighter,” Bourassa believes.
His own community role revolves around the B.C. Children’s Hospital Foundation’s Development and Real Estate Committee, and as an assistant coach motivating youth in soccer at the Vancouver United Football Club. (Not that he was ever a player; he was into rugby.)
One thing Bourassa is noticing at home is catching his children – just as he did – riffling through construction drawings he often leaves on the kitchen table. A fourth-generation Bourassa in construction? “Perhaps,” he ponders proudly, “perhaps.”