FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Barry Ullett
January 20, 2015
“If I was to retire I’d be bored stiff.” … well, that got that question out of the way.
I’ve known Barry Ullett for 15 years. He’s a landlord. I’m a leasing agent – our paths have crossed, we’ve done some deals. Come close on some and missed others completely – but in the course of ‘doing business’ I find I often don’t get beneath the surface of really knowing people, not because they are unwilling to open up but because we are so very busy doing what we are so very busy doing.
He admits to being a jock in high school in university, that despite difficulties his mother kept things so they never wanted for anything growing up. He remembers listening in on his dad, a car dealer, working on a deal. He remembers summers on a farm, 1967 going to the World Scout Jamboree in Idaho and growing up in Guelph as a great way to grow up.
His wife of 40 years, Mary, runs the family home and holdings. Two grown daughters, Ivey grads like their dad, lots of family travel, one grandchild and playing with the golf simulator were where he wanted the discussion to go. Obvious pride, but I wanted to know more about Barry.
Two things have characterized Barry in my mind – because every time I’ve met him he is nattily dressed and moving fast, very much the image of a successful guy in a hurry. Sitting down with him as I did over the holiday season for a chat, I found it interesting to observe him sitting still … which is obviously not his preferred mode.
The office, large but not huge – contemporary, bordering on flashy, but not over the top. Art is present, both in his office and around his business premises but not overwhelming or garish.
So who is the guy behind, or obscured by, this image?
Life began for Barry in Carlton Place, just outside Ottawa. His dad, an entrepreneur and car dealer, died when Barry was seven. Barry’s mother, a nurse, relocated to Guelph with Barry and his two younger sisters in tow. Barry’s education was Guelph schools grades 2-13, then he was off to the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario where he earned a B.Bus. Admin. (Hons) degree. His first career choice – six years at Xerox – was a fast rise from that first job in London, ON to National Account Manager. He recalls it as ‘like family’ and touch football games are well remembered …
1981 was the year Barry made the move to Calgary – as a Swiss Chalet restaurant franchisee. He says he learned a lot in his eight years running, at one time, four locations. He recalls ‘doing everything’ seven days a week. By 1989 he’d sold them off and acquired Western Corporate Business Centre. While he’s kept his hand in the hospitality industry through other investments, his principle activity has been as landlord to smaller office users through his centres in Calgary [70,000 sq. ft.] and Markham, Ontario [40,000 sq. ft.] which he owns with a partner. A stalwart Bow Valley Club member he’s been a fixture in Bow Valley Square and Suncor Energy Centre for a very long time and an able competitor in his industry.
He says he likes to spend three-four months a year away (Mayan Riviera) but not this year as a new granddaughter has re-ordered priorities for the Ulletts.
“There are three key variables in my business – you have to buy your product right (he means the head-lease deal on his space), be able to sell and market product during difficult times and to run a good business.”
Regrets? “I’m pretty happy with my lot in life.”
What has contributed most to your success? “Having a sense of urgency, ability to work hard and some luck. I wanted nothing other than to own my own business since I was 39 and I’ve done that.”
What has held you back? “I didn’t aspire to do more than I have. I made time for family and friends – and I have no regrets about that.”
Does he really relax? I don't know, but for the 90 minutes we were together - I didn't see that; did I see that intensity slip? Not even for a minute.
I asked Barry how he sees his businesses – business centre office rentals; ‘how’s business?’ over the next quarter?
… difficult challenges depending on the oil & gas business – but we have good fundamentals and costs under control.
And over the next five years?
… you tell me where the price of oil is going to be and then I can give you an answer …
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… simple really – someone with integrity who under-promises and over-delivers.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Barry Ullett and Western Corporate, why do they do business with you?
… we’ve been delivering a consistent high level of service for 25 years – we’ve built a good reputation without falling off-track.
How would you describe your leadership or management style?
… I treat everyone with sincerity and respect. I try to listen carefully.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I try not to worry about anything. My family is quite well …
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my wife – we’ve grown up as a team, Ivey Business School – discipline, hard work, community, Xerox – taught you how to sell and communicate.
Work life balance, do you have it?
… Yes. Lots of time with family and friends.
… Flames fan (25 yrs!), Mexico, golf (everybody in the family golfs), downhill skiing, squash, snorkeling. I love doing yoga by the ocean … five-days a week when in Mexico. I work out at the gym when I’m here, but no yoga.
What do you read?
… newspapers, historical novels. Currently reading ‘Flash Boys’ by Michael Lewis about high frequency trading on Wall Street – it’s a fascinating read.
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