Sunday shopping bans, the opening of the Rideau Centre and the pandemic's toll: Richard Getz reflects on 40 years of retail real estate

Retired VP of retail at Colonnade BridgePort to continue raising funds for Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health
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Richard Getz, retired vice president of retail for Colonnade BridgePort.

When industry leader Richard Getz turned to online platform LinkedIn to publicly announce his recent retirement as vice-president of retail for Colonnade BridgePort, the best wishes and congratulations started pouring in.

“I was overwhelmed by the response,” said Getz, adding with a laugh: “Even people that I thought didn’t like me were writing nice things."

He had decided to pack it in after 40 years in the Ottawa retail real estate industry, having worked in management, development, leasing, marketing and brokerage sales. He wasted no time updating his online professional profile to reflect his endearing new role: special assistant to his wife, daughters and grandchildren. 

Getz remains committed to being a devoted fundraiser for the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health. The nonprofit organization honoured him as one of its 40 mental health leaders during its 40th anniversary in 2019.

Getz, who was born and raised in Ottawa, graduated with a degree in journalism from Carleton University. He’d been headed toward a future in radio broadcasting but a shortage of jobs in the late 1970s led him to manage public relations for the CFL's Ottawa Rough Riders. One of his favourite memories is having Terry Fox perform the ceremonial kickoff at an exhibition game in 1980.

The job introduced the young man to Ottawa’s movers and shakers, including Gino Falsetto, vice-president of Campeau Corporation. He offered Getz a job as marketing director of the company’s Ottawa retail properties. What did Getz know about malls? Nothing. But, the position paid 50 per cent more than what he was earning at the time.

“It was a pretty easy decision,” said Getz, who soon found himself managing the properties. 

Getz learned on the fly as Campeau Corp. built Pinecrest Shopping Centre. He was on site throughout its construction as general manager. The centre opened in 1982 as an enclosed mall along the Queensway, anchored by a Zellers store and Loblaws supermarket. Today, it’s home to a massive IKEA with its maze-like showroom.  

Getz was soon lured away to become marketing manager, followed by interim GM, of the new Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa. Much like his job with the Rough Riders, he was once again prominently positioned in the business community. 

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Richard Getz with Trinity Development Management manager Mariette MacIsaac, at a special 40th anniversary celebration hosted by the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health at The Royal in November 2019 to honour 40 mental health leaders. Photo by Caroline Phillips

In 1987, Getz joined Ottawa real estate investment, development and asset management company Regional Group. The company was founded by Len Potechin, who became one of his many mentors. Potechin’s advice was: “Richard, always tell the truth because then you don’t have to try and remember what you said.”

By now, Getz was married to his high school sweetheart, Kathie, and was father to two daughters. 

Getz paired up in 1989 with Allan Kyd, who is now vice-president of leasing at Taggart Realty Management. They worked as partners for 14 years and remain good friends. They moved to Royal LePage Commercial together in 1996 to join its Canada-wide retail group. Projects included the Nepean Crossroads Centre at the corner of Merivale and Hunt Club.

In 2004, Getz was invited to join Colonnade, founded by Jan Kaminski and run by son Steve and Cal Kirkpatrick. It merged four years ago to form Colonnade BridgePort. During his 17 years there, the full-service real estate company constructed shopping centres, from the ground up, in rural communities such as Kemptville, Carleton Place and Richmond. The Colonnade team managed all aspects, including all leases and sales.

Colonnade constructed the retail centres with the intention of selling them. In the case of the Kemptville Colonnade Retail Centre, the company was retained by the future owners to continue to manage it. The Kemptville Colonnade, which is anchored by a Walmart and Canadian Tire, remains Getz’s pride and joy.

“It has kept consumerism in the community,” he said. “Everything people need is right there.”

The Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health

Over the past four decades, Getz has seen it all. He remembers the no-Sunday-shopping rule, and when former Nepean was the place to shop because its stores were open more evenings than in Ottawa. He’s seen major department store chains vanish. He followed the rise of the big box stores. He remembers when Canadian billionaire Mitch Goldhar brought Walmart to Canada.

“The greatest certainty in retail is change," he said. "It is certain there will always be change.”

When Getz first started in his industry there was no internet, cellphone, photocopier or fax machine.

“I used a Gestetner, and most people don’t even know what that is,” he recalled.

He credits developers such as Irving Greenberg, Robert Campeau and John Ruddy with shaping the shopping centre industry in Ottawa.

“They were visionaries who put their fortunes at risk more often than once," he said. "They dreamt big dreams and were successful with some and not as successful with others.”

Today, it’s an industry of procedure and institutions, says Getz.

“It’s pension funds, it’s trust companies, it’s insurance companies, it’s banks. Things that, back in the day we could do very quickly, can now take weeks or months to get through various levels of approvals. That’s understandable – it’s not a complaint – because it’s public money, in many cases. There are shareholders, stockholders, directors.”

Said Getz: “I did my last back-of-the-napkin deal in 1996.”

Getz has seen the industry weather three economic recessions. At least retailers and landlords could see those previous downturns coming, he noted.

“With the pandemic, we were watching a news report one day that there was someone sick in China and, the next minute, all our businesses were closing down,” he said.

He believes retail will recover from the damaging effects.

“I don’t think the shopping experience will ever end," he predicted. "What the pandemic has done is to teach people who would not otherwise have shopped online to shop online out of necessity. But the really good retailers have learned how to do both, and will continue to do both until the virus is gone and people are comfortable about going back into an enclosed mall environment and rubbing shoulders.”

People will return to the malls, he said, emphatically: “We’re social beings; people want to interact with other people.”

For Getz, it just felt like the right time to retire. His parents both passed away before they got to enjoy their golden years. He didn’t want that to be the case with him. He and Kathie have been looking after their grandkids, ages seven and three, to help their daughter and her husband, who would otherwise not be able to work effectively from home during the province-wide lockdown.

“To do the things I’ve been able to do with the people I’ve been able to do them with, to have Terry Fox kick off a football, to build shopping centres, and my work for The Royal; it’s been a great run,” said Getz, who turns 66 in a few days. “No regrets, for sure.”

— caroline@obj.ca