Back when she was employed at a ByWard Market nightclub in the early 2000s, Ashley Hopkins and her co-workers would pass the time by dreaming up ways of making the tourist mecca more lively.
“We used to stare at the building and come up with goofy ideas about what we could do with it,” she recalls.
“That was 15 years ago. And nothing’s changed.”
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Today, the 35-year-old native of Carleton Place is the new owner and CEO of Paradigm Properties, a real estate management firm her aunt, Louise Radmore, launched in 1996. It’s a job that seems particularly well-suited to Hopkins, who calls herself both a workaholic and a “geek” when it comes to issues such as infrastructure-building and city planning.
“It’s such a dynamic industry,” Hopkins says. “I can be on a roof one day doing an inspection, and then I’m in a boardroom the next day. You don’t know what your day is going to entail, and I think that’s really why I love it.”
In fact, Hopkins – who joined Paradigm in late 2010 after returning to Canada from a five-year stint running restaurants and nightclubs in England – liked working there so much she bought the company. Already a partner in the firm, she assumed full ownership in late June after her aunt decided to retire following a long and successful real estate career.
It’s not a path Hopkins initially even considered when she first returned from her stay abroad nine years ago. But she needed a job, and Radmore needed administrative help in her office. It turned out to be a perfect match.
“I’d say two months (after starting), I knew I wasn’t going anywhere,” says Hopkins, who studied police foundations at a private college after graduating high school before deciding a career in law enforcement wasn’t for her. “I fell head over heels for the job.”
Diligent and detail-oriented, Hopkins quickly took to the often-mundane but vital task of doing due diligence on rental properties – that is, poring over leasing documents and financial statements to figure out what type of investments would make a property more attractive from a tenants’ perspective while generating healthier returns for Paradigm.
“I love puzzles,” she says with enthusiasm. “I remember (Radmore) handing me boxes of (documents). She’d be like, ‘You know what our budget looks like. You’ve got to figure out how to create this and redo it.’ I would throw myself into (doing) diligence.”
Her affinity for digging into the details of leases led to a role in investment management. Hopkins quickly became adept at crunching numbers to figure out if a particular property was financially viable to buy and lease out.
“You literally create a model of what the building is currently and what the building needs and what the costs will be for the next five, 10 years to get it to the investment level that you want it to be at,” she explains. “That just became my focus.”
When Hopkins first bought a share of the company two years ago, she created a to-do list that included winning back some clients who’d left the firm, upgrading its accounting software and streamlining its management processes. The changes began paying dividends almost immediately.
“We just started growing,” she says. “People just kept throwing us opportunities. How do you say no?”
Today, Hopkins and her staff of 10 manage 15 commercial sites around the city from the firm’s new office in Hintonburg. Two of those properties are in the ByWard Market, where Paradigm is the landlord of the city-owned buildings at historic 55 ByWard Market Square and nearby 70 Clarence St.
As the manager of the most important commercial properties in Ottawa’s most popular tourist district, Hopkins feels a certain responsibility to revitalize a neighbourhood she believes has lost some of its lustre.
‘A really good challenge’
She and Jeff Darwin, the head of the not-for-profit Ottawa Markets organization that oversees the area’s operation, are now working together on projects to make the ByWard Market more pedestrian-friendly.
That includes a pilot program that banned cars from a one-block stretch of William Street this summer, turning the road into a sort-of public square with Muskoka chairs, picnic tables, food stands and children’s games, including a giant version of Connect Four.
For Hopkins – who first started imagining new concepts for the Market all those years ago while working at a nightclub – the William Street project is just the first step toward making the district the go-to destination for families, shoppers and tourists.
“Here’s a tired entity that has so much potential that just needed help. It’s no disrespect to anyone before me, but the tenants just needed, as cheesy as it sounds, a hug,” she says with a laugh. “They needed people to listen to them and help them figure out their business issues and that sort of stuff. It was a really good challenge. The geek in me got to come out again.”
Hopkins has heard some merchants complain that restricting parking and vehicular traffic will take a bite out of their bottom lines – criticisms she doesn’t necessarily buy.
“If I grow too quickly, I risk losing everything I’ve built. And I like what I’ve built.”
“It needs to be more of an inclusive place. I can’t see how bringing tens of thousands of people down to have fun would hurt business.”
As for as her long-term plans for her own company, Hopkins says she’s always willing to consider adding to Paradigm’s portfolio – but not at the expense of the personal relationships she’s developed with her existing clients over the years.
“I’m not looking to become the international REIT. I think there’s enough of those,” she says. “If I grow too quickly, I risk losing everything I’ve built. And I like what I’ve built.”