Louie Lawen oversees Dexel Developments, the development, design and construction side of The Lawen Group business. An esteemed player in the Halifax real estate market, The Lawen Group also includes Paramount Management, which owns and operates apartment properties. Dexel develops, designs and constructs mixed use, urban, multi-unit buildings, which are entirely owned by the Lawen family.
Louie shares his perspectives about the Halifax market, where the opportunities lie, his vision for growth and why First National’s focus on relationships is so vital to his business.
Q: What are your perspectives on the Halifax market?
LL: Halifax is a very unique market, with approximately 90% of multi-units being rentals. It’s actually an inverse scenario across the rest of Canada, with condos taking precedence. We have a very healthy apartment business here. The market is strong, but it is slowing down and becoming intensely competitive. Until recently, most of the development focus has been in the suburbs. But the city is being viewed as a more viable option now. Approximately 2,000 apartments are being built on the peninsula only, which is 10 times the normal rate. Development is still affordable when you compare to places like Toronto.
Q: Where do you see the opportunities?
LL: We’re really focusing on larger projects where we can offer world-class amenities. Quality of units is pretty much a given these days. Attractive amenities can take a building to the next level. In our buildings, we really have a cross section of society, right up to politicians and CEOs of the biggest corporations in Halifax. It’s a testament to the affordability and quality of what we offer.
Q: What is your vision for growth?
LL: We are always in a growth pattern. There are a few ways to grow – increase rents, increase volume or decrease expenses. Our goal is to build buildings that are more efficient, so we can decrease our costs without sacrificing quality.
Q: How is First National supporting you in your vision for growth?
LL: Our business has a lot of moving parts, and we consider First National to be a true partner. Our First National team offers us the most competitive rates, the best service and highly professional advice. We worked with First National on our largest financing to date, which was a takeout construction loan on a 214-unit building.
First National’s experience with CMHC is unprecedented. The financing specialists at First National know how to navigate through the government regulations and bureaucracy, removing the barrier of rigorous negotiation. And because of the way that we are structured – we have no investors or exterior forms of funding – financing and reinvesting back in the business are critical to our success and bottom line.
Q: From your experience, how does First National deliver on the concept of being “more than a lender?”
LL: It’s not just about the transaction for First National. I mentioned to Jody Comeau, our representative in Halifax, that we were evaluating a large commercial office/retail acquisition attached to one of our residential properties. He came back with a very reasonable, acceptable offer because he recognized the future potential of helping us move in that direction.
Leveraging First National’s CMHC expertise, Jody brings us a lot of things that we don’t know about and sees what others may overlook. We did a recent pari pasu mortgage, which helped us minimize our exposure for future risk on a project. Jody told us what he was going to do, and three to four weeks later, it’s done and packaged. There is an eagerness there to dig and uncover the best deal, not just settle for off the shelf products or templated solutions.
Q: What stands out to you about working with First National?
LL: First National really looks at the people and the substance of the business. I’ve had situations where we were in the midst of construction in a triple A location. Even with a 20-year reputation in the market and 20-year relationships with some of the more traditional financing institutions, they were still arguing and trying to figure out how to finance our project. Absurdity like that just slows us down.
We are in the driver’s seat on a project, and we’re the ones taking on the risk. If you’re slowing us down, you’re just not going to be a part of our business. Conversely, First National steps up. Our First National team is right beside us in the passenger seat – trusting our driving and helping us navigate our path forward.
Q: How would you describe your experience with First National?
LL: Genuine first comes to mind. Our team is genuinely interested in what we are doing and are genuinely trying to do work for us. I always trust that the deal that I’m getting is the best deal possible. I’ve never had to go back and second guess. So far, First National has originated $70 million for our business. And I look forward to doing more. As we grow, I plan to have First National right by my side for financing, advice and support.