Peter Sharpe’s career in real estate started one evening over a beer at the Victoria Hotel in Toronto. Almost 40 years later, in December 2010, he retired as president and CEO of Cadillac Fairview Corp. Ultimately, he says, “Real estate was a great fit for me.”
Born in Winnipeg and growing up in Toronto, Sharpe credits an early job as waterfront director at Camp Kilcoo, near Minden, Ont., as key in developing early leadership skills. Camp owner John Latimer and Sharpe’s father Len were major influences, “teaching me a lot about patience, calm and respect for people.”
After studying economics and business administration at Waterloo Lutheran University (now Wilfred Laurier University), he got involved in a training program with the Royal Bank. But the salary was low, and he was looking for more money and more opportunities. He joined a public relations/promotion firm responsible for the World Curling Championships and while that was fun, the firm was small and didn’t offer him much of a future.
He knew that ad agencies and promotion wasn’t where he wanted to be. So when he and an old friend who was working for Marathon Realty, the real estate division of CP Rail, met for a beer and his friend mentioned that the company was looking for a property representative, Sharpe asked what the job involved and how much they paid. $12,000 annually, he was told. “Well,” said Sharpe, “I can do that.”
He was hired to manage a building at 69 Yonge Street, in Toronto. But the company was growing and he moved up quickly, eventually managing the Ontario properties portfolio. He then went to York Hanover, which was developing Maple Leaf Square in Niagara Falls, Ont. “That taught me different skills,” he says. “That’s when I really learned to appreciate the tie between building something, renting it and getting income and paying salaries. And if that wasn’t working, it was really hard to deal with the bank.”
Sharpe left York Hanover in 1979 to work briefly for Prime Minister Joe Clark in Ottawa (an extension of his volunteering during the 1970s for Conservative candidates including Bill Davis, Robert Stanfield, Clark and Brian Mulroney). While short, the job resulted in contacts that “kept popping up all through my business career.”
He joined Fidinam Realty to manage Toronto’s Hudson Bay Centre, becoming vice-president operations before being recruited by Cadillac Fairview (CF) in 1984 as vice-president of operations for the company’s office portfolio. CF was then in the process of unloading its residential holdings to concentrate on North American office buildings and shopping centres, and was going through a financial restructuring with the Bronfman family through its holding company, Cemp Investments, selling its interest.
The 1980s were boom times. “We were all building shopping centres, office buildings. [But] then the bubble burst. We saw it first in retail because retail responds more quickly to a downturn,” says Sharpe. “Those were tough times. We were dealing with individuals whose whole lives were tied up in their businesses. [It taught me] about being honest and open and frank but also about listening to people. Down the road, a lot of those people came back to do business with us.”
Markets began to improve in 1997, and the company went public again until 1999 when negotiations began with the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, of which CF became a wholly-owned subsidiary in 2000. At the same time, Sharpe was name president and CEO. “We kept running ourselves as a private company. They were extremely hands off,” he says. “Of course, the company did well. If it had been tougher times, it might have been different.”
CF now develops and manages office properties and regional shopping centres in Canada and the U.S.as well as international investments, real estate companies and investment funds. The company and its affiliates own and manage about 48 million square feet of leasable space at 85 properties across North America — a portfolio worth more than $20 billion.
It has partnered with Multiplan, a major shopping centre developer in Brazil, and invested in the U.K. “We were very interested in South Africa but outbid there, looked at India and Mexico but weren’t comfortable,” Sharpe says, adding that he’s a great believer in the need to achieve a level of confidence and trust. “There needs to be some chemistry.”
When asked what advice he would give young people coming into the business, he says, “It’s a relationship business. You’re dealing with people whether in your company or in other companies. And you have to be open and honest in all your dealings. At the end of the day, all you’ve got is your reputation and if integrity is part of that relationship, it will all work out.”