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Terrence Belford – Globe and Mail
You may never have heard of Jane Renwick. Chances are, however, her name will become a lot more familiar if you follow the new homes market in the next few years.
To draw a sports analogy, Ms. Renwick has just made the jump from scorekeeper to star player on an expansion team. About two and a half months ago she quit her job as executive vice-president at Urbanation Inc. and took up a new one as vice-president sales and marketing at Onni Group Developments GTA.
Onni Group has a 40-year history in British Columbia’s lower mainland as building everything from industrial warehouses to large master-planned communities. Two years ago it decided to diversify geographically and Toronto was its first choice. If Canada was an amusement park, B.C.’s housing market would be the roller coaster, and the GTA the infinitely more sedate merry-go-round.
Urbanation by contrast tracks the GTA’s high-rise industry and serves as a consultant on market research for condo builders. Developers hire it to know where the market may be heading, who are the likely target buyers and what kinds of suites to build to best tap into those markets – all based on surveys and number crunching.
You need to know all this to understand what Ms. Renwick’s move might signal for the future of condo development in Toronto.
To date, the men and women who head the sales and marketing teams for condo builders have mostly been drawn from the ranks of sales people or lower level jobs on marketing teams. They worked their way up absorbing skills and insights as they climbed the ranks – you could say they learned their jobs on the street.
They and their bosses relied more heavily on experience and intuition than on evidence-based research to make decisions.
By contrast, decision makers in other areas of real estate (such as commercial, industrial and retail) are now professionally trained managers who long ago abandoned gut feelings in favour of relying exclusively on data-based decisions. Why? It is the influence of the big pension funds.
After the recession in the early 1990s pension funds stepped in and picked up Canada’s public real estate companies and their top quality holdings like Toronto’s skyscraping bank towers for a song. Along with ownership they brought a new attitude towards real estate. No more room for hunches, no more room for individuals calling the shots. Now commercial real estate would be all about professionally trained teams making decisions that were supportable by facts.
Commercial real estate benefited greatly because this new approach changed what was a boom-or-bust industry into a stable, steadily growing sector virtually immune to deep and sometimes near-catastrophic collapses in tough economic times.
All that said, I see Ms. Renwick’s move as evidence that this shift to professional management and fact-based decision making may now finally be creeping into the last real estate sector still dominated by seat-of-the-pants players. The current glut of suites on the market probably comes from the old saying that a rising tide floats all boats.
When condos were hot, everybody got into the business. Forget after-sales service. Sales and marketing teams were just there to move product. Presentation centre staff was more order takers than anything else.
What Ms. Renwick brings to her job is that deep evidence-based understanding of the GTA market and its buyers.
“After the past two years running Urbanation, I know the GTA condo market intimately – probably better than anyone else,” says Ms. Renwick, 34, and a graduate in economics from McGill University in Montreal. After all, she points out it was to her team at Urbanation developers went when they needed someone to explain what was really happening.
“I know what segments work and how to tailor projects to best meet their needs,” she says.
She understands the business on a micro level as well. Since buying her first condo seven years ago, she has gutted, renovated and sold at a profit five suites in a row, making each her home as she did so.
The choice of Onni also seems to make great sense. The company has two large development sites in hand: One with room for five high-rise towers and 1,000 suites at Bathurst Street and Fort York Drive, just west of CityPlace. Ms. Renwick is now working on getting that as yet unnamed project ready for a March launch.
Its second task will be equally impressive – a project with 1,200 suites at Parklawn Avenue and Lakeshore Boulevard West in Etobicoke.
What Onni offers is not just those decades of experience but also another distinct advantage in a market which has been plagued by delays as developers struggled to sell enough suites to obtain construction financing.
Onni has a large portfolio of office, retail and industrial space in British Columbia, which kicks out enough cash on a steady basis to let it get on with construction without having to reach a high level of presales for condo projects. The Fort York development will start selling in March and start construction in early summer regardless of the level of presales, she says.
Finally both Ms. Renwick and Onni believe strongly in after-sales service. Like companies such as Tridel Corp., Minto Communities and the Daniels Corp., which consistently rate at the top of surveys on buyer satisfaction, Onni will have more than just a skeleton customer service staff.
So does Ms. Renwick’s move signal the start of a change for the better in the condo industry? I for one certainly hope so. For the past 40 years I have covered the commercial side of the business and seen the change for the better professionalism makes. The residential side could sure use the same.
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