Founded more than 30 years ago and headquartered in Vancouver, Westbank is one of North America’s leading mixed-use real estate development companies. Westbank’s practice is dedicated to the creation of beauty through inspiring environments that help cities live up to their full potential. Judy Leung, Chief Financial Officer, joined the company in 2000 when the team only consisted of eight people. Since that time, she has been instrumental in creating and implementing the structure for accounting and operations, and now heads up all finance activities.
We spoke to Judy about the changes she’s seeing in the industry, Westbank’s focus on executing with excellence and why she values First National’s ability to balance an entrepreneurial spirit with the necessary rigour.
Q: With the pandemic behind us and a return to normalcy, how do you feel the industry has changed?
JL: There are a lot more challenges with liquidity, capital markets and interest rates. Lenders are being choosier on office and retail assets and bullish on multi-family and industrial. There is a growing conservatism that is forcing developers to rethink land uses and development purpose. There is a bigger fight for quality, with tenants asking questions about HVAC, windows and outdoor space. Interest rates are creating barriers to entry for buyers, causing developers to rethink their projects. In our diverse business, the pandemic created challenges we never thought about before. How do we find and keep great people? How do you entice people to come back after long hiatuses or remote work?
Q: What changes have you seen in your business/market, and how are you adapting?
JL: The government introduced several new regulations aimed at affordability including a foreign home buyers tax and new rules around vacant homes. But they haven’t been effective in stimulating the economy and promoting affordability. And rising interest rates and inflation haven’t helped either. We’ve had to find innovative ways to differentiate. Our sustainability and climate change efforts are significant and in demand by our customer base. We’ve also had to rethink our retail mixes in our developments and look to larger, more sustainable tenants for our office assets.
Q: What is your vision for growth? Have you modified it based on current economic conditions? How so?
JL: We are not looking to grow much right now. Our focus is on holding our ground. We feel it’s a time to be cautious and keep chewing what we’ve already bitten off. Currently, we have several large projects on the go, which we started before the pandemic. Our focus is about executing with excellence and finding the opportunities for differentiation. We’re also revising the condo/rental mix for the mastermind communities in progress. We want our communities to be places where people live, work and play during many stages of their lives. When they decide to put roots down in a Westbank community, they know they can stay there as their lives evolve and change.
Q: As you look ahead to 2023 and beyond, what are your priorities?
JL: The success of our current large projects is our core priority. We have Mirvish Village in Toronto, Oakridge in Vancouver and Senakw in Vancouver, which is a purpose-built rental project on First Nations land. We always want to stay true to our mission of helping cities live up to their full potential. The success of our communities elevates the neighbourhoods and businesses around them.
Q: How is First National supporting you in your vision for growth beyond financing?
JL: I connect with Brian Kimmel all the time. He’s always there for me whenever I reach out. He responds quickly and with honesty every time. Sometimes I reach out just to pick his brain and ask him if he thinks something has legs. He gives me his gut feel, which I trust. It’s not always about a deal. But when it is about a deal, he’s the first person I go to because I know I’ll always get honest feedback.
Q: Can you describe your first deal with First National? What stood out to you about the experience?
JL: My first deal with First National was in 2012. I worked with an originator who is no longer at the company. I remember the first time we met was over a drink just to pick each other’s brains about something. And then we came up with an idea for a project. By the end of the night, we had an outline for what things may look like. That spirit of collaboration and spontaneity has continued.
Q: How does your First National advisor support you in achieving your goals?
JL: Brian is so fantastic, experienced and versed in the industry. He’s not afraid to tell it like it is and set boundaries around what he can and can’t do. He also respects our boundaries. Our relationship extends beyond business. Brian supports our charitable and philanthropic efforts as well. I appreciate his lack of ego and willingness to dig in even if it’s messy. He genuinely wants to know about our business and work with us to figure out the deals. Mixed use developments and large campuses have a lot of moving parts. He takes it on and figures out how to make the chess pieces move together. His tenure and knowledge allow me to free flow with him and provide information as I have it. Brian is a great person. I enjoy working with him.
Q: What do you value about First National’s approach?
JL: First National has an entrepreneurial spirit with the rigour required. It’s not a transactional relationship. There is a commitment to longevity and evolving the relationship. I’ve had deals where I had to get people to bid and First National didn’t win. Brian was honest about his disappointment and desire to be part of that asset. To me, that speaks to the quality First National wants to associate with and what constitutes pride in a deal.
I often call First National a one and half – not rigid like a first lender or too loose like a second lender. There is a willingness to read between the lines of financial statements if required to get a fuller picture. Having that confidence combined with creativity is invaluable to a borrower. For us, we have a symbiotic relationship. First National will host events at our hotels, showcasing our assets and venues to their clients. It speaks to the strength of our relationship and their esteem for what we create.
Q: Any final thoughts?
JL: We’re in a time of uncertainty where caution is important. We’re not looking for huge growth or to roll the dice on things. It’s a time to go deep in your existing relationships, execute on what you say you will do and find ways to do things better. Right now, we are focusing on coming out stronger than ever.