Like many a gifted entrepreneur, Paul Taggart had an uncanny knack for seeing business opportunities in places most others never would have thought to look.
In the late 1980s, for example, he and friend Steve Jay were running a chicken wing and burger joint in Mississauga called Cocomo Joe’s. After a hot start earlier in the decade, the restaurant had fallen on hard times. Taggart suggested they take the venture in a different direction.
“A lot of fancier, newer restaurants were coming into play,” says Jay, who’s now a realtor in the Greater Toronto Area. “Paul said, ‘We’ve got to turn our place into a seafood restaurant.’ We all just thought that was absolutely nuts, because he was allergic to seafood. But he’d heard that in various places in California and so on, those had done extremely well. We just laughed that off.
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“Since then in Mississauga, there have two or three unbelievable successful restaurant chains that did that. We didn’t do it, and we ended up going out of business. It was at that point that I realized I’ve got to always go with what he’s saying. Hugely successful people in business always see something that everybody else says, ‘No way.’ You cannot teach this.”
Today, Jay smiles at the memory of his former business partner, a treasured friend gone much too soon.
Taggart, the president of Taggart Realty Management and a key figure in one of the first families of Ottawa business, died unexpectedly late last month of heart failure. He was 61.
“It was a real shock,” Jay says with a hint of disbelief. “But I think his kids and those around him that knew him are going to take his positive energy and move forward.”
Taggart wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Quick to laugh and even quicker with a grin, Taggart charmed friends and strangers alike with his gregarious, larger-than-life personality. Despite all his success in business, Taggart’s warmth and ability to connect with people from all walks of life are what resonate most with those who knew him best.
“He really enjoyed people,” says his brother Chris, the youngest of the seven Taggart siblings. “He was always a happy guy with a big smile on his face.”
Chris’s wife Mary, who’s known the Taggarts since she was 14, affectionately calls Paul “the approachable Taggart,” a fun-loving soul who had time for everyone.
“He was a kind and caring man with a genuine spark of interest and engagement, read through his smiling eyes, with anyone he encountered,” says Mary, the publisher of Ottawa At Home magazine.
“He was a compassionate man, and his daughter Sarah summed it up beautifully when she told me the other day that his words of wisdom and advice will carry her through the rest of her life even though he died too early.”
From restaurants to real estate
Born and raised in Ottawa, Taggart grew up in a family in which entrepreneurship was a way of life. His father Harold founded the Taggart Group and built it into one of the capital’s leading construction and real estate conglomerates, and most of the next generation became involved in the family business in one way or another.
After graduating from Queen’s with a degree in economics in 1979, Taggart worked for his older brother Keith managing a Hurley’s roadhouse on Merivale Road before moving on to a job at the Business Development Bank of Canada.
A few years later, he was back in the restaurant game – this time with Jay, his former university roommate. Showing a flair for deal-making that became his trademark, he convinced Jay to become a partner in Cocomo Joe’s, which was then in receivership, and move to Mississauga.
“Paul was an entrepreneur at heart,” Jay says. “He was always looking for a deal, always wanting to take a chance.”
Anyone who understands the business will tell you that buying a restaurant is a risky move at the best of times. But one that had gone into receivership? Well …
“Anybody that would buy a restaurant would just be considered crazy,” Jay says with a laugh.
Taggart, however, was never one to blindly follow conventional wisdom. The restaurant was still open, and he had a good idea why.
“Paul was a smart enough businessperson to know that there’s no way the receivers would be running a business unless it had a cash flow and was making money,” Jay says. “That’s just how he operated. These are visions that someone like me just didn’t have. He had that business sense to know this was a good, viable operation.
“That venture didn’t end so well, but that was really just the start of him going on an entrepreneurial route.”
Taggart’s business career blossomed in the early ’90s, when he returned to Ottawa to take over the family real estate business. At the time, Taggart Realty Management consisted of a couple of apartment buildings, a single office and about 10 employees.
“He was always kind of pushing the envelope to bring us into new ventures and new directions.”
“It was a fairly modest commercial development division,” recalls Chris.
Showing great instincts, savvy and determination, Taggart grew the realty business into a multimillion-dollar operation that now employs dozens of people and manages more than 800,000 square feet of retail and commercial space in the National Capital Region.
“He was always kind of pushing the envelope to bring us into new ventures and new directions,” Chris explains, noting his brother’s ability to develop long-standing partnerships with key anchor tenants such as Farm Boy and Metro, relationships that continue to this day.
Away from the office, Taggart’s twin passions were family and cottaging. Not much for leisurely pursuits like golf, he preferred to spend his time with wife Judi, their four children – David, Simon, Sarah and Matthew – and his four grandchildren at the Taggart lodge on the Rideau River.
“He’s left quite the legacy, between business and family, I would say,” his brother says.
Jay agrees, adding his longtime pal served as a constant source of inspiration throughout his own career.
“There were so many steps in my life that have been taken because he convinced me to do something I was hesitant to do,” Jay says. “All to my benefit.”