Entrepreneur of the Year 2017: Real Estate/Construction

The annual Ernst & Young list of B.C.'s brightest business visionaries finds a fresh crop of leaders building empires in everything from renewable energy to venture capital to social enterprise

Janet LePage
CEO, Western Wealth Capital XVI LP (Winner)

In 2008, most Canadians buying U.S. real estate were looking for deals on vacation homes. North Vancouver native Janet LePage was just looking for deals. Over two years, while working full-time as a senior marketing manager at Ledcor Group, LePage purchased, upgraded and resold 58 homes in Phoenix. Unlike in Canada, where foreclosed properties must be sold at fair market value, in the U.S., banks can unload homes quickly by selling them cheap at cash auctions.

LePage’s “very lipstick” approach was to acquire a house at a discount, do minor repairs, paint it and replace missing appliances, then put it back on the market for the same price as the neglected foreclosure next door. “They would sell like hotcakes,” she says, especially to first-time homebuyers who didn’t have credit problems but lacked funds for improvements. “They would buy our houses like crazy because it was turnkey,” LePage adds. “Flipping is an in-and-out game. I often was in and out, from the time I bought it to the time I sold it, in under 40 days.’

After the recession, it became easier to get financing, so LePage bought her first apartment building in 2011 and a second one the following year. A year later, she quit her day job to found North Vancouver-based Western Wealth Capital in 2014 with property investor Dave Steele. WWC buys multi-family rental buildings in Greater Phoenix, fixes them up, and sells or manages them for cash flow back to its investors—more than 400 on four continents, with many in Canada. So far, the company has invested US$375 million to acquire 31 multi-family properties, comprising 5,100 rental units, divesting just five.

WWC’s business model is based on what LePage calls “the need for speed.” The day the sale closes, improvements begin. “When you come in with a splash, you’re the talk of the town, you get a lot more applications, and your tenants are thrilled with the changes,” LePage explains. “Being able to raise rents becomes a whole lot easier, which is a massive part of our game.” The company is expanding to two more North American cities, unnamed to avoid tipping off competitors. ­

What did your summer jobs teach you about business?
I delivered pizza. What I learned is mistakes happen, but how you handle correcting them is what the customer remembers

Garett Wall
President and CEO, Centra Construction Group Ltd. (Runner-up)

Founded in 1985 by 2011 EOY Real Estate and Construction winner John Tilstra, Centra Construction Group is a Langley-based window and door manufacturer and installer, new construction siding installer and building envelope remediation specialist. Centra is the province’s largest energy retrofit provider, says Garett Wall, who joined the company in 2005 as CFO, becoming president and COO four years later, then president and CEO in 2015 when Tilstra retired. Tilstra remains chair of the board.

“Homes lose a lot more energy than cars emit, so when you look at what we do, we have a significant impact from an environmental standpoint,” Wall explains. But he emphasizes that what really defines the company, which is 100 per cent employee-owned, is the focus on how it operates as a team. “Our goal is to have everybody become an entrepreneur that’s an owner here,” Wall says. “Whether you have 10 shares or whether you have 20,000 shares, you’re an entrepreneur, and you’re treated that way here.”

Jonathan Friesen
CEO, Mission Group Enterprises Ltd. (Runner-up)

Born and raised in Japan by a missionary father from Saskatchewan and a Japanese mother, Jonathan Friesen moved to Vancouver in 1983 to work for Mitsubishi Corp. as a chemical trader. In 1988 he co-founded Advance Pacific Developments Ltd., building the 1000 Beach condos in Vancouver and a resort off the coast of Singapore. In 1996 he moved with his family to Grand Cayman, where he led a charity that provided affordable housing for migrant workers, then relocated to Kelowna several years later and founded Mission Group, developing commercial and multi-family residential projects in the Okanagan and Lower Mainland. Last year, the company switched to building and holding rental properties. “If we can build a portfolio of revenue-bearing real estate assets, all of the staff, and the community at large even, benefit because the organization has got traction and stability that it doesn’t have if you just go from project to project,” says Friesen, who had four rental buildings (251 units) and 549 condominiums under construction this summer.

How would you describe your leadership style?
Demanding but enabling. I like managing with three broad tools: one, coach; two, mentor; three, terminate. That last point might sound draconian, but in reality I see this as releasing this person to higher and better use, which ultimately will make them a happier person. It is also critical for the organization