Weekend Warrior: Developer Zack Ross mixes business and pleasure up in the air

For the COO of Cape Group, a pilot's licence comes in handy—at work and at play.

Credit: Adam Blasberg

It took years of training, but Zack Ross now feels more comfortable in a cockpit than in a car

For the COO of Cape Group, a pilot’s licence comes in handy—at work and at play

“In first-year university, a friend called me up, said he was going flying and asked if I wanted to come,” Zack Ross recalls matter-of-factly. “I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it sounded cool. So we drove out to Boundary Bay and hopped into an airplane.”

That day sparked a latent curiosity about flying planes himself. Growing up in Vancouver, Ross played with Microsoft flight simulators and remote control planes and, pre-9/11, hung out in the cockpit on commercial flights with his family.

The university trip led to a pilot’s licence and a stack of certificates to go with it. More than a weekend warrior, Ross has also found ways to make flying part of his day job. But he’s not a pilot.

Often, sons and daughters talk about joining the family business and injecting it with actual change. To that end, Ross, who serves as president and COO of his family’s property development company, Cape Group, has made a tangible impact on the firm his grandfather launched more than 60 years ago. After all, Cape now has a plane and uses it to conduct business more efficiently.

“If we’re doing projects in Kamloops and Edmonton at the same time, there’s no flight from Kamloops to Edmonton,” says Ross, who acknowledges that the COVID-19 pandemic has effectively put a damper on many of those trips for now. “You’d have to do either Vancouver to Kamloops, Kamloops to Calgary, Calgary to Edmonton or Kamloops to Vancouver, back to Edmonton. We were doing it in one day: fly to Kamloops, spend the morning there, spend the afternoon in Edmonton, fly home. How many times do you get a consultant’s or partner’s undivided attention for an hour and a half, two hours?”

There are other work purposes, too. “One time our team was in Fort St. John and needed a bunch of material they couldn’t get,” Ross remembers. “So, following our dangerous goods certificate, we were able to bring the material up. It would have been two weeks, but we didn’t have to go through all the shipping stuff—just put two barrels of special paint in the airplane, and it was there in two hours.”

Ross graduated from UBC with an integrated engineering degree but has been to flight school more than a few times since then. The latest was a trip to become certified to fly a six-seat Citation CJ3, which Cape upgraded to from its previous model, a King Air C90.

“The way the flying world works is, if it’s over 12,500 pounds or has jets on it, you need a specific licence for that make and model,” Ross explains. “It’d be like saying, Oh, you have to go to school to learn how to drive a Honda Civic.”

The jet investment ties in with the company’s plans to expand into Eastern Canadian cities like Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa. His younger brother lives in the nation’s capital (which he calls a “strong rental market”), and Ross dreams of a non-COVID reality where he can “fly over, scoop him up, take him back home for the weekend,” he says, chuckling.

To that end, it’s not all work- and family-related endeavours: “Went up to Yellowknife, down to Phoenix, flew over the Grand Canyon,” he says. “Flown all over the Western part of the continent. Well most of it; haven’t made it to Mexico yet.”

So, is he ever frightened up there among the clouds?

“When I first started, I was a little scared,” Ross admits. “But it’s like when you’re first riding a bike. You’re scared of getting on it, and then you’re like, Whatever, it’s a bike; I know how to ride it. When you become more efficient, there’s less to be scared of.

“Now I’m more scared driving to the airport. Cars blowing by you, people swerving on the highway…none of that in the air.” 

Warrior Spotlight

Ralph Schwartzman, Zack Ross’s maternal grandfather, founded Vancouver-based real estate development firm Cape Group in 1956. The company, which has about 25 employees, usually looks after “between five to 10 projects in various stages of development or construction,” Ross says. He notes that Cape Group concentrates on rental buildings. “We’ve filled in the gaps with condo projects, but most of our projects have been build-and-hold,” Ross adds. “We try and keep them as long as we can and rent them out. That’s been our focus–not playing the game so much with condos going up and down. It’s always been the slow and steady build for an economical price, rent it out, and then just wait.”