In 1978, Clark McDaniel and his partner Denzel Williams bought a single triplex in Guelph. With that property, they defined and solidified what it means to put customers first and deliver exceptional customer service. Since those humble beginnings, the company has grown and now owns and manages more than 4,000 residential units across Central and Southwestern Ontario.
This year, Mr. McDaniel is being honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Federation of Rental-housing Providers of Ontario (FRPO) for his vision, leadership and contributions to the industry. We spoke to Mr. McDaniel about his perspectives on rental housing, the greatest lessons he’s learned and what he values about his relationship with First National.
Q: How have you seen the industry evolve?
CM: In 1976, inflation was skyrocketing. The Federal Government brought in wage and price controls to try to tame it. By 1978, rent control was the only remaining measure, which created a really challenging situation for multi-residential owners and operators. In response, we assembled a group of landlords and created the Committee of Concern for Rental Housing. Our mandate was to encourage the provincial government to allow reasonable, above guideline rent increases, so it was fair for residents, and so we could survive. In 1985, that committee evolved into FRPO. Our efforts ushered in a workable rent control regime. Then in 1997, the Mike Harris government implemented vacancy decontrol, which saved us and became the lifeblood of our industry.
Q: A lifetime of achievement in the real estate industry is an incredible honour. What are some of your greatest achievements and some of the most important lessons you’ve learned?
CM: We have built an incredible team culture, which is imperative to succeed in this business. Our customers come first. Our tagline is “let our customer service bring you home.” We commit to that and stand behind it in every decision. And our customers feel it and appreciate it. We are the only landlord of our size with a 4.8 Google rating in Ontario. We don’t have tenants. We have residents. It’s our soft touch that makes us different from our competitors. My quality standard is clear. Every building, every manager and every suite we finish has to be at the level of quality I would expect and demand for my mother or my oldest daughter.
I was shocked when I got the call from Tony Irwin, the President and CEO of FRPO, about this award. And he just said, “you’ve done so much for the industry.” When I reflected on it, we’ve worked really hard to raise the bar for all owners in terms of service and excellence in the 26 cities we are in in Ontario, Alberta and BC.
I’ve learned a lot about the negative implications that can happen when politics and housing intersect. Politics can sometimes harm the very people it’s purported to help. In 1976, rent controls were promoted as helping the renting public. But in reality, they turned out to be the biggest drag on new supply that Ontario has ever experienced. Seventeen per cent of our 4,000 suites rent for $1,000 per month or less. Thirty six per cent of our portfolio rents for $1,200 per month or less. Extrapolate that to the 1.25 million renters in Ontario that are rent controlled. In essence, private owners are subsidizing the renting public, which makes it very challenging for anyone to build. In my view, rent controls are a significant contributor to the lack of new housing in Ontario.
Q: When did you start working with First National?
CM: A commercial real estate sales representative I knew introduced me to Peter Cook in 1990. He had a great reputation as a CMHC expert. I hadn’t heard of First National, but right away I appreciated Peter’s out-of-the-box approach. First National was full of entrepreneurial thinkers. Peter would say to me, “send me your numbers, and we’ll see what we can do to improve your outcome and add some value.” It was always about me, and what First National could do for me. Peter has always had a can-do attitude, and he’s passed that on to his team. I now work with Peter and Evan Pawliuk. Evan has that same can-do spirit.
Q: Why did you choose First National at the outset and why did you keep choosing First National?
CM: There was an obvious difference any time I had to work with other CMHC lenders. They were often slow and unresponsive. It was work to deal with them. With First National, we have always been a collaborative team working for the same objective – get the best possible financing and terms, execute the deal, and get it done.
For example, we were recently working on a huge deal in Sudbury to purchase 138 town homes and a 100-suite apartment building, which were poorly run and somewhat derelict. It was a new market for us, and despite a little bit of skepticism, my gut was telling me it was a good deal. We provided the numbers, and I expected some push back. But Patricia Alvaro, another member of Peter’s team, got back to me to let me know the deal was approved as submitted with a commitment letter attached. Today, that property is worth $20 million more than we paid for it five years ago. It’s a stellar property. Patricia saw the numbers and she presented them trending positive. The past isn’t necessarily indicative of the future. She saw our experience and our track record and pushed the deal through based on that.
Q: How has First National helped you grow your business?
CM: We have strong relationships with Moray Tawse, Jeremy Wedgbury, Peter and Evan. Peter does an amazing job. In every company, there is a finder, a minder and a grinder. The finder holds and drives the vision of the company. The minder provides the leadership and oversight. And the grinders work in the details with customers and achieve the win/win scenarios. Without those three, a company can’t operate. Often with a company of First National’s size, you have the minders and grinders, but rarely do you have a finder. First National is a true entrepreneurial organization. Relationships matter. Anyone that I refer to First National gets exceptional service and value.
Q: What do you value about your relationship with First National?
CM: Peter and Evan understand our needs and deliver on them. Just last night, I got a late-night email from Evan. He was reviewing our portfolio and discovered a way that I could save $500,000 per year on interest payments. Who does that? I don’t have other lenders emailing me at night with innovative ideas on how they can add value. They also execute flawlessly with virtually no red tape and they take accountability when merited.
Q: Any final thoughts?
CM: First National is built on integrity, honesty, commitment and transparency. Jeremy often asks me for input, concerns and suggestions when he’s going to meet with CMHC. He takes my feedback to CMHC, and some of the things on my list get implemented. That’s true partnership. As I reflect on a lifetime in this business, I have such gratitude for what this business has done for us. We’ve excelled despite the controls by doing things right in the areas we can manage.