Director's Note: Big Decisions and Next Steps

Posted by Brandon Copeland

St.John's Skyline.jpg

In July of 2017, I started Urban East. It was a decision I made after about 6 months of preparation, business planning, and seeking advice from people I trusted. Looking back, it was perhaps the best professional decision I had made up until that point in my professional career.  

Urban East was something I had always wanted to do. I felt strongly that real estate in St. John’s could be done differently. While I learned a lot in my previous role with a large real estate development company, I hadn’t had the freedom to pick-and-choose my projects. Nor did I enjoy the suburban nature of the work I was doing. I was not challenged on urban issues, or tech in cities, or innovative design. Those are the things that got me interested in real estate in the first place, and unfortunately they weren’t highly prioritized in my old role.

Courtesy of some government funding, and a large dose of 27-year-old over-confidence and vigour, I launched my company to see if I could build something. After almost two years clawing my way through entrepreneurship, I can comfortably say that Urban East has been an exceptional experience that has been pivotal in my career growth.

I love being an entrepreneur. I love the freedom it provides. It is why I’ve repeated to friends and colleagues, time after time, that I will never work for anyone again.

So, I’m here to tell you that I’ve defied my claims. At the beginning of May I joined the team at Martek Morgan Finch here in St. John’s. Let me explain the long story of how I came to this decision, and why it is such a perfect fit for me, my clients, my business, and my career trajectory.

The Story So Far

 One of my focuses with Urban East has been telling a different story about local real estate. I’ve talked about things like infill projects and adaptive reuse. I’ve tried to actively identify properties which may be underutilized based on what could be allowed within the municipal zoning. I’ve presented ideas to municipal staff for projects I wanted to pursue, some of which have impacted the recently approved municipal plan (or so I’ve been told.) And of course, I’ve pursued my own investment and learned a lot about real estate financing in an attempt to better understand how to kick-start projects.

This last piece has perhaps been the most eye-opening aspect of what I’ve done, and it has also been my biggest challenge. I launched Urban East as a vehicle to generate money that I could ultimately invest in my own downtown development projects. Consulting, while often enjoyable, was a means-to-an-end more than anything else. The ultimate goal was to reach a point where I could impact the urban fabric of St. John’s, and eventually (hopefully!) Atlantic Canada as a whole, through smart urban projects. Learning how difficult it was to actually finance these projects without significant equity was interesting. Not to say I didn’t understand that equity was required, but I didn’t fully grasp the differences between financing your first home purchase and financing your first speculative development. (For the uninformed – they are not at all the same!)

What I have been coming to grips with over the past six months is that the St. John’s development market may not be large enough for a full-time development consulting business. I’ve done well over the past year to make enough to survive – but that’s about the extent of it. I’ve had consistent work, but it came and went in waves. I was paying myself, but not at a level I’d like. I was saving a little, but not enough to invest in anything significant any time soon.  

It seems to me like real estate consulting can be a component of a business model in this city, but it can’t be THE ONLY THING that the business does. The role I have been attempting to play is often supplemented by engineering services, architectural services, management services, or something else. I did manage to buy a second house last year – courtesy of money earned as well as loans from supportive parties – but it would take me a long time with only Urban East to do that again. Revenue from that property will bolster my balance sheet this year, but again, it won’t do much to help me pursue redevelopment projects any time soon.

So I’ve been toying lately with how to alter the Urban East business model. What can I do differently? How do I redefine my services, and subsequently redefine my place in the development ecosystem?

How Brandon Met Charlie

One of the things I’ve always done (and something I ramped up as a business owner) is networking. I love interacting with other people in the community to understand their challenges, or their take on the current business environment. Beyond that, every business in the world has a real estate component – and in my line or work business challenges related to real estate are fun to solve.

It was through my networking initiatives that I was asked to moderate a panel for the St. John’s Board of Trade’s annual conference in 2018. Charlie Oliver, Founder and CEO of Martek Morgan Finch, joined me on stage as a panelist to discuss how established businesses can assist in the development and support of entrepreneurs. When, during this panel, Charlie mentioned a willingness to sit with any entrepreneur who felt that it would be valuable, I didn’t hesitate to pursue this opportunity. Given that Martek is undeniably the largest third party commercial property management company in the city, and realizing that Charlie boasts over 37 years of experience in the real estate trenches, I felt that buying him a coffee would be a valuable use of my $2.50.

What quickly developed was a relationship – Charlie and I met several times, chatting about real estate, entrepreneurship, and the challenges of building something. Whether he liked it or not, I began to look to him for advice, and found in him something of a mentor. Charlie had seen it all – sales, leasing, development, management – and I was eager to soak it up.

Our chats evolved into an initiative to help entrepreneurs talk to experienced practitioners in a variety of fields, which Charlie dubbed Empty Spaces (INSERT LINK). Beyond this, I was asked last year beMartek’s  leasing lead on Star of the Sea (INSERT LINK) – the largest purpose-built apartment building to be constructed in the downtown core in decades. This was a huge contract for me – value-wise nearly double anything that Urban East had done before – and it also provided an amazing opportunity to work with an established company on a project that was changing the face of downtown. It was the sort of project I had hoped to work on when I established my company.

The relationship developed organically. In April, Charlie approached me about an opportunity for a further role within Martek – something more formal. My initial reaction, internally anyway, was “I’m flattered, but I can’t do that.” After all, I’m an entrepreneur. 

How “No” Became “Yes”

The challenges I’ve been facing with Urban East were not forgotten as I considered Charlie’s offer, and as I spoke with him more and more about the opportunity it became apparent many of our values were aligned. First and foremost, I knew Charlie thought about real estate differently, much like myself. He is interested in unique ideas. He reads about changes in how people utilize space. He’s fascinated by how tech is impacting real estate needs. He is a creative mind.

Martek also brings access. One of the many challenges I’ve faced as I’ve tried to build my business is portraying legitimacy. I was a single person, with a short track-record. Working with a successful and well-known company like Martek could help me to access ideas and opportunities. It would also be a more powerful name to present to potential clients, and a more stable and successful team to work with on new initiatives.  

Further, in talking with the team at Martek, it became apparent that what I’ve been building didn’t need to end. I expressed a desire to maintain my website and this blog – the immediate response was that I should be posting more often. I expressed that I couldn’t leave any clients high and dry, and that I wanted to finish the projects I’ve been working on. I was told that they wouldn’t be interested in me if I was the type of person who didn’t finish the things I had started. I inquired about the potential to continue pursuing consulting and project work if opportunities arose. I was informed that we would do so together, with the support of the Martek team at our disposal.

I also thought about what it means to pursue the types of project I want, and what my hurdles have been. I have not had a solid team with me to help me vet opportunities. Financial backing has been minimal. My brand is relatively unknown. All of these challenges become less significant with a team as established and intelligent as the group at Martek. Hell, if the right project comes up, there could be an opportunity to work with the people here to make it happen.

As I toyed with the opportunity, it became clear that my business wouldn’t disappear – it would just evolve. It would take on a new form. My clients wouldn’t be abandoned – in fact, they would be better supported. My dream projects wouldn’t be put on hold – they would likely be pursued at a faster rate. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, my entrepreneurial spirit wouldn’t be stifled. With this team, it could be fostered and supported. My entrepreneurial leanings were what made me an attractive candidate in the first place.

My New Role

So, as of early may, I am now part of the Martek team. In addition to continuing the work I’ve been pursuing for the past number of years, I am principally responsible for leasing and managing Atlantic Place. Atlantic Place is the largest office building downtown. It hosts a variety of businesses, and is a key piece of our city’s core. It presents me with an exceptional opportunity to learn the ins and outs of commercial leasing.

In addition to Atlantic Place and Star of the Sea, my role includes a Business Development focus. I continue to be involved with the Board of Trade and will likely be throwing myself into other organizations. I continue to be interested in creative real estate projects and will work with my colleagues at Martek to help reimagine how our city should be utilized. Affordable housing, the sharing economy, smart cities, and downtown revitalization are all passions shared by the folks I’ll be working with. Projects that make our neighbourhoods better will continue to be pursued, now by a team as opposed to me by myself.

I’ll also continue to invest, and pursue creative development opportunities. “Placemaking Through Partnership” continue to be words that will define my real estate philosophy, only now I have so many more valuable resources to help make it happen. The Martek team truly is top-tier, and I can’t wait to work more closely with them.

I’ve learned a lot from this experience as well. I feel that the way in which this opportunity arose – after a year of establishing a strong and true professional relationship – is an excellent demonstration of the value of getting to know someone versus handing out a business card. I also feel that there may be a case study here someday, of when to pump the breaks and pivot. I truly believe that this is an alternative path towards all the same goals. Realizing that it was the smarter path took time, but I got there, and I’m happy I did. Lastly, I had to do some deep analysis about what being an entrepreneur means. I don’t know if I’ve reached a conclusion, but I do know that I don’t feel any less entrepreneurial now one month in.

So, I’m excited for this new journey. I’m excited to learn more about commercial real estate. I’m excited to continue to talk about real estate on the Urban East blog. I’m excited to continue to invest around our city. Most importantly, I continue to be excited to hear about how all of you think St. John’s can be better. Hopefully now, with this new role, I’ll be working with a team that will be better positioned to help bring these thoughts to life.  

I’m still an open door, and I’m still eager to find creative ways to tackle urban challenges. I just now have a different business card.