FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Bob Dhillon
April 26, 2016
While he says he’s “never had a job”, I think most companies would love to have this guy on their team, or in their garage band. His ninth grade music teacher, commenting on his guitar-rendition of a Bob Dylan tune, dubbed him Bob Dhillon. The name stuck.
These days his instrument of choice is the tenor sax, Navjeet (Bob) Singh Dhillon is not shy about tooting his horn – deservedly so – when it comes to his accomplishments, his company Mainstreet Equity Corp., his people … except when it comes to prying questions about his family. I didn’t sense he has anything peculiar to hide, but it did set the tone for ‘I’ll have to get my sense of him without those bits of information’. He did not disappoint.
Polished, charming, disarming – and fun. Not funny, but enjoyable to spend some time with. At his office everyone is on display, glass walls demonstrate his brand of transparency. Nice. He likes mature buildings, fixing them up …
He describes himself as a ‘deal junkie’. The cover of his company's information packet boasts “5 Consecutive years of double-digit growth in FFO & NOI, 2010-2015”. He’s not shy. Seems he owns some bragging rights.
What began with two fixer-upper-flips of houses in Sunalta has propelled him to stellar accomplishments without straying far from his roots, not in real estate, but as a trader. His grandfather and father were traders. Along the way, from those early successes, Bob shifted from flipping undervalued real estate to a ‘buy and hold’ strategy. He credits influences, using his MBA at University of Western Ontario's Ivey School for development of his business plan – but that shift likely wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for cancer, for being a cancer survivor, and using “I’m going to live” as his springboard …
It all began in a small village in India …
Well, not really. First born (he has a younger brother), Bob was born in Kobe, Japan where his dad’s trading firm had an office. His parents met in their native Punjab while in school. The family moved to Liberia (West Africa) in the course of his dad’s work – and then fled to Canada (thanks to a welcoming immigration policy) when trouble erupted there. The family landed first in Vancouver, then later came to Calgary in the mid 80’s. With partners, Bob’s early house-flipping days in Sunalta soon had him living the fast life, fast cars etc.
Beating cancer changed him, and while he didn’t discontinue his real estate business (he managed it from afar) – he went to the Ivey School for his MBA in 1998. The day he graduated he launched his company, a junior capital pool with 272 units in his portfolio – he went public and has not looked back. While he’s raised money, initially selling 70% of the company and subsequently raised much more, over time they've bought back shares. His personal stake is currently steady at 50% on a fully diluted basis, today with 8.9 million shares outstanding, from an initial 8.8 million (the most recent, just the other day, a buy-back of 1.2 million shares for $43.2 million). He heads a much much larger company today with $1.4 billion in assets, $170 million in equity. Not bad for 12 years work. And he bought an island in Belize (“I hit a home run”), and other things keep him maintaining a brutal – though it seems oddly balanced – schedule. His holdings are 60% Alberta (Edmonton & Calgary), 30% Vancouver, 10% Saskatoon. He’s been in, and out of, the Ontario market.
Why are you successful? “Easy answers: 1) Canada, 2) immigrant work ethic, 3) risk-taking Sikh warrior mentality. I love Canada. Immigrants like me can make a life for themselves.”
What has held you back? “My answer is a Jack Welch quote: I wish I’d taken bigger risks and made quicker decisions.”
Tell me about being a cancer survivor, what has that meant for you? “It made me think long-term. In 1991-93, I came away with a new approach – got my MBA, got my five-year clean bill of health. I’m cancer-clear 18 years now. I visit the Mayo Clinic once a year for a full checkup.”
How do you see your business – apartment business (and Bob interjects “we’re in the business of adding and creating value”) – going forward over the next quarter?
… the whole marketplace trades below replacement cost. New supply is a threat, but new supply is expensive. We are mid-market. No technology will make us obsolete!
And over the next five years?
… Calgary and Edmonton will become more and more ‘lifestyle communities’. People will gravitate here regardless of ups and downs in the economy.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… price is important, but not the most important. Long-term fair relationships. My supplier has to make money. I hire attitude more than just experience and qualifications.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Bob Dhillon and Mainstreet, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… that has changed over the years. At first we were a start-up with a start-up balance sheet. Now they see we are a next-generation business with five years of double-digit growth …
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… flat, no hierarchy, no pyramid structure – transparency. We have 400+ people. We are a bottom-up model, which creates loyalty and team empowerment. Saying you are a team and ‘being a team’ are not the same thing.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… it changes daily! Today, April 20th, it’s oil prices, NDP government, landlord-tenant issues, electric cars.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… great mentors, like my father, a great philosopher. Larry Tapp – a Profressor from Western who became our first chairman – taught me a lot.
Work life balance?
… No! … I have a three-five year plan to become vegetarian. I’m 60% now …
… business is fun! Travel, a lot. To Belize a lot. Tennis. Kundalini yoga. I like to visit ashrams in interesting places. I was recently at Ananda doing yoga in Nepal for a couple of weeks.
What do you read?
… two kinds of books: 1) spiritual books, philosophical books, 2) business books – I usually have seven or more on the go, Warren Buffett’s Annual report. For example, right now, I’m reading “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation” by Tony Seba [and he gave me a copy! – thanks]. And, speaking of books, he’s written one. ‘Business and Retirement Guide to Belize’, co-written with Fred Langan.
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