BOMA “Icon of Industry” puts priority on people

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Even though he runs one of the largest real estate companies in the country, with more than $14.5 billion worth of assets, Michael Cooper never really considered himself an icon of the industry.

The CEO of Toronto-based Dream Unlimited Corporation said he was surprised when BOMA Ottawa asked him to be its “Icon of our Industry” for 2014.

“In fact, when they said that, I said, ‘Isn’t that the thing they have on computers?’” he said after accepting the award and speaking to the members of the local Building Owners and Managers Association earlier this week at the Westin.

The event was originally scheduled for last October, but was postponed due to the shootings at the War Memorial and Parliament Hill.

Mr. Cooper said that even though the stakes can be high in commercial real estate, at the end of the day, a company’s success depends on how it relates to other people and how it creates opportunities for both sides of any deal.

The Dream CEO, whose company is a major investor in Windmill Development Group’s $1-billion plan to convert the former Domtar lands into a mixed-used community, said that was the main takeaway he hoped BOMA members took from his presentation.

“You have the choice to try and connect with people and have real relationships and trust and doing things that are of benefit for everybody,” he said. “You don’t try to do something unless it’s good for the other side too, and you don’t try to steal from your partner, you try to make money with your partner.”

Mr. Cooper said there have been a lot of changes in the industry since he got his start in 1986. For instance, when he founded Dundee Realty, the predecessor to Dream, in 1994, real estate was just starting to have a presence in the stock market.

“It used to be a whole bunch of lawyers in the room. Everybody arguing and negotiating. Real estate guys had a reputation of being pretty tough,” he said. “Now with the stock market, it’s not with lawyers. It’s done with a phone call to buy stock. It’s done in a meeting to talk about what you’re trying to do.”

Mr. Cooper said that’s just another example of how important it is to be able to relate to your potential partners.

“I think we’ve done pretty good with being able to communicate our ideas to people in a way that they can feel comfortable and trust us,” he said. “I think we’ve been able to take chances with trusting people. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. Lots of times it does. Net, I think it’s been good for us. And it also feels good.”

The real estate industry has had its shares of ups and downs over his 30-year career. Mr. Cooper said when times are tough, it’s important to “focus on the things you know and try to add value and run your business in a safe manner.”

Trying to predict the future, he said, is useless.

“Just open the newspaper and you’ll see all sorts of people predicting the future and they have very bad success,” he said.

Mr. Cooper said people often miss the obvious because they are busy thinking about what might happen next.

“What we try to do a lot is say, ‘We really don’t know what’s happening next, so let’s deal with the present and make sure we manage risk appropriately and not predict the future.’”