-How did you both get into real estate? Was it a straightforward path or were there any detours?
I was working in finance and Debby was in design, and we got the bug when we started doing real estate flips. At that time, there weren’t any real estate brokers specializing in new construction. We were satisfied with the real estate brokers we were working with for the purchases and sales of our renovated or new products, but we were convinced that we could do better, so we decided to get our real estate licenses. We quickly became successful by making several record sales of our own projects, and also projects by small developers who entrusted us with their projects given our growing reputation. Eventually, a major developer entrusted us with their projects. Our agency, specialized in sales and marketing of real estate projects, was born.
A luxury real estate franchise was entering Eastern Canada and we were the first two brokers solicited, but we declined to start our own agency specialized in new construction projects. We would become their biggest competitor a few years later.
We didn’t intend to grow our company to the size it is today. Things changed when a competitor copied our name and tried to poach our brokers and developers. That’s when the competitors in us went into “game on” mode! The rest is history. After almost 15 years, we were in control of 50 per cent of the new construction real estate projects listed by Altus Group in 2020.
With Debby being of Belgian origin, we regularly travel there to visit my in-laws. While there, we noticed Engel & Völkers was the luxury giant in Europe. I always told Debby, this is the most beautiful real estate brand on the planet. We were already toying with the idea of starting a luxury resale agency, so when we saw the brand’s spectacular rise in the Americas, we jumped at the opportunity in 2015. Eighteen groups were trying to obtain the rights in the province of Quebec. The final recommendation came from Richard Brinkley, SVP of market development in Canada, who chose us for the following two reasons: first, because we had created an excessively dominant brand in the new condo market in only 10 years and if we were to apply the same rigor to the Engel & Völkers luxury brand, the result would only be definite, and second, because he recognized our passion for our work and for the brand and dynamic personalities that strive for continued success.
After only three years, we became the #1 luxury agency in terms of volume. Six years later we were recognized as the top Engel & Völkers brokerage in the world two years in a row (2019, 2020) amongst 950 Engel & Völkers real estate shops. What our real estate family accomplished in such a short time is absolutely phenomenal. To manage to dominate at this level in two specializations, makes us very proud and most of all, very thankful to our employees, our brokers, our developers and our valued clients.
-You are life and business partners, running a top-performing, luxury real estate office in Montreal. How is it living and working together? What is the key to your successful relationship?
Working with a spouse is really not for everyone. We are lucky that our skill set is extremely complementary and we contribute equally to the business. I don’t think the magic would have happened without either one of us. The only problem is that we’re constantly working, it’s like a never-ending meeting, we’re constantly talking about real estate. But at the same time it’s our passion so we’re lucky to love what we do, but it’s so much more demanding than people think. In 2020, I was getting up everyday at around 4:30-5:00 a.m. seven days a week with an average of 500 emails (inbound/outbound) per day. It’s like an ultra-marathon, but with no finish line. It’s physically and mentally exhausting, especially after 20 years in the industry.
-During 2020, both of you took courses at MIT to increase your commercial real estate knowledge and finished top of your classes. Tell us a bit more about your decision to go back to school. Were you still working full-time during your studies?
I attended several universities over the years, Université du Québec à Montréal, University of Sherbrooke, McGill University and Harvard University. Harvard was a dream. I loved the energy of the campus, the history, the notoriety of the university, the quality of the education, but especially the high-level international network to which we have access with such prestigious universities.
Today, we are starting to have really strong commercial brokers so we are planning for our official commercial divisions. We are experts in real estate projects and luxury resale, but I wanted to have that same level of expertise within the commercial market. MIT has always been a university on my bucket list. My only disappointment was that this time, with COVID, I couldn’t have a portion of the training on campus like at Harvard, everything was 100 per cent online. So one morning while having our habitual coffee together, I asked Debby, “Are we doing this together?” It was quite a scheduling challenge with our three kids and our colossal workload. Of course there was the language challenge, because we are francophone, and there are many accounting terms, which are often different from Canadian terminology, as well as a load of abbreviations and acronyms. But we took it as a challenge, and a high level of training with a principal professor at the head of the program who is a leader in the field. To our surprise, after 20 exams, sessional work and hundreds of hours studying, we finished at the top of our class, which had 144 international students enrolled. Debby finished with an average of 98.1 per cent and I with 97.5 per cent. We’re trying to show our kids the importance of education in view of their future options. I think what our kids saw us achieve at MIT will incite them to attend good universities more than ever.
-Would you recommend that other people go back to school in the pause that pandemics and other disruptive life events can bring? Why or why not?
I know it’s very cliché but we never finish learning. Training or an additional degree always has an added value and it’s a good way to take a turn or to use it as a springboard for the rest of our career.
-Beyond profits and statistics, how do you personally define success?
Being successful in business is one thing, but being successful in your relationship and family is a feat, and that’s without forgetting your family and friends and not forgetting yourself in the process. High-level entrepreneurship inevitably comes with sacrifices. Too many people think they can achieve success without effort, without risk and without an enormous investment in time and money. And it is absolutely false that if we persevere we will all eventually succeed. There is always a portion of luck and timing that is part of the mystery in entrepreneurship. You have to reach a certain balance, which is just more fragile than for the average person, and you have to give back to the community. That’s why we are, among other things, ambassadors and major sponsors of several foundations, including the Sainte-Justine Children’s Hospital Foundation and Centre Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM).