On Tuesday, June 5th, guests of ULI BC enjoyed coffee and breakfast with Bob Rennie of Rennie. Patti Glass of Grosvenor moderated a discussion with Bob to a sold out crowd that covered Bob’s experience over 40 years, the catalytic moments in his career and for our city, and his thoughts on what the future has in store. Below is a recap of the discussion for all to enjoy.
A Warm, Well-Brewed Welcome
Bob Rennie was warmly received to his first ULI BC event by a sold-out audience. Patti Glass of Grosvenor, moderator and a long-time family friend, opened the talk with the simple question – ‘why coffee?’
Bob’s began his career as a realtor; he found the best way to get to know his clients was over a cup of coffee and slice of pie. Bob’s held this philosophy for over four decades.
Today, with over 70 employees, Bob has coffee with new employees to tease out fit and shared values. Not concerned with job titles (he’s now one of Rennie’s multiple ‘executive directors’), employees hopefully feel comfortable discussing any topic with him (except pay). His view is: “I’m not allowed to be me unless you’re allowed to be you.” To help maintain the culture for which the company has become known, Bob takes the office offsite annually for 3 days, this year to Las Vegas.
Bob didn’t set out to grow his company to its current scale. But in 2000, he realized that new and younger leadership, including a key position held by his son Kris, would help to grow the company and contribute to the industry and community. A new generation of leadership has attracted key people to the firm, such as Jennifer Podmore-Russell and Andy Ramlo.
A World of Art
Bob bought his first piece of art, a Norman Rockwell painting, when he was 17.
Today, he has one of the largest private art collections in Canada. He was pleased to tell us why he helps fund, through the Rennie Foundation, the art program at Florence Nightingale Elementary School – studies show art “helps calm children.” He recently contributed 197 works to the National Gallery of Canada worth over $12m as a gift to the nation on its 150th anniversary.
The Rennie Museum is a currently exhibiting Rennie’s collection of Kerry James Marshall, whose painting ‘Past Times’ sold recently to P. Diddy for $21.1 million at auction, Patti reported. Marshall’s narrative centers on black experiences; Bob started collecting his works almost 20 years ago. How art will be shown and understood 20+ years in the future is important to Bob, who also pointed out that a block away from the Rennie headquarters the issue of addiction is obvious. Social problems require further attention, which is why he was a founding board member of Street-to-Home.
Bob feels a responsibility to give back. To be a good corporate citizen, we need to get involved in our community. Beyond art, he’d like to see better responses to address addictions and suggested both stabilization and follow up as a way to keep those with mental health and addiction off the street.
In the Role of Interviewer
Bob has had the honour and the challenge to be involved in high profile events and interviews, including sitting down with Hillary Clinton in 2017. Patti asked him to share a story with the crowd, which he did: He said that rather than preparing his questions for her in advance, he proposed more colourful inquiries, such as why she wore purple for her concession speech; was it a sign that the red and the blue parties could work together?
The event drew 5,200 people, 98% of whom were women. He kicked-off with a ‘pre-approved’ hug with Clinton, and turned to something they had in common: “we’re both not straight white men”. That, along with standard Canadian hospitality, was to show Clinton that she could be at ease and not have to fear a trick question. Bob acknowledged political life is not normal – Secret Service surrounds you constantly.
He has also interviewed journalists Chris Wallace and John King. Yet he recently declined an opportunity to interview Bill Clinton, not wanting to be seen as “in the Clinton camp.”
Politics – Local and Provincial
Bob admitted a checkered history with Christy Clark, stemming from her mayoral bid when he supported a rival. He went on to support her provincially, raising funds for BC Liberal party in exchange for a provincial government investment of $130m for the new Emily Carr University. He took a lot of abuse around his support of Clark – “but you have to make a choice”, he acknowledged. Bob also congratulated David Eby on the NDP win. The two got to know each other and address misimpressions over coffee. Bob no longer gets involved in politics.
He doesn’t expect to see another majority. Instead, he highlighted the need for both the right and left sides to work together. Things might get solved by moving both sides a bit, while working within a world of new media and its intertwined relationship with politics.
Social Media – Fictions and Facts
He one day hopes to give up his smart phone (and his driver’s licence) and sees social media filled with lots of sound bites, but not backed up with much data. Informed through solid research, he wants to move the conversation towards fact-based dialog, which is why he acquired Urban Futures to form Rennie’s in-house data team.
Given the quick (and often negative) response of social media, many people don’t want to express their views in public. All the more reason to be bulletproof with data, rather than just opinions.
Bob shares Tom Friedman’s views in the book “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations” and is curious about operating in a changing world and working with different people. Yet he recognizes that some things are immutable: 4% of people are a******s, while the other 96% of people spend their time working around them.
Yet, still have a conversation and coffee with different people to see where they’re coming from, even if you don’t agree with them.
Bob made it clear – he isn’t going anywhere soon. Energetic as ever at 62, he plans to work another 8 years before slowing down a bit. Between real estate and art, it’s his work in the former that supports his collection of the latter.
His ultimate wish – by the time he’s 75 years old, people say he used to be Bob Rennie.
He acknowledged some career missteps, such as getting off to a bad start with Ian Gillespie of Westbank, due to a level of arrogance for which Bob later apologized.
As for advice to young people: get unconformable; go into spaces you don’t control; explore places and situations where you have to rely on yourself. (For Rennie Marketing Systems, that means entering less familiar markets such as Seattle.)
Rennie on Vancouver
The Woodward’s redevelopment, developed by Westbank and marketed by Rennie, changed the industry. The project team and the city worked together helping bring balance to a challenged neighbourhood. The complex project involved many stakeholders and it required a shared vision. On reflection, Bob believes outward rather than inward facing retail for the London Drugs and Nesters stores would have been better for the site.
Initially, the Olympic Village development was a failure. Rennie made a corporate decision to stay with the project; he didn’t want to be known as only there for the good times. (Penny Ballem, City of Vancouver General Manager, was angry at Bob for calling the area a ‘ghost town’.).
Bob believes that if the mixed-use area could attract a coffee shop, it would draw and demonstrate resident occupancy. However, retailers would not have confidence in the area without residents. And there was no ‘there, there’ in the Olympic Village example; in today’s vernacular, that being a coffee shop, grocery store, and pharmacy (which of course it now has).
The other Amazon-sized challenge is the lack of large corporate headquarters in the Vancouver region.
If Amazon moved their corporate office to Vancouver, this competition would mean that local hi-tech start-ups need to pay higher wages. Amazon creates many new direct jobs and spin off jobs (for every one job that comes, more get created), with needed housing and new infrastructure creating further pressure for construction workers. Yet only certain parts of the region have the necessary amenities, such as the cultural metric of being nearby numerous good restaurants, to attract corporate investments.
Real Estate and Housing Affordability
As with most conversations in Vancouver, things turned to real estate. Bob’s no casual observer, saying “I know I’m a lightning rod for real estate. But someone has to do it.”
His real estate housing advice is to seek an area that is the least inconvenient for your lifestyle. Places that you go to the most within walking distance. With respect to housing prices, single family zoning needs examination. We cannot solve affordability within this city – instead we need to look at the wider region.
The False Creek Flats area could have had three times the jobs and housing. Instead, a hospital is the main proposal. Some 42% of St Paul’s employees live in the West End, but with the relocation of the hospital they will no longer live as close to work.
Along the Cambie Corridor, where a massive transit line was built, only later was higher density requested. Instead, we should be proposing density at the same time as transit investments. Massive density hubs are needed at transit stations, along with retail and rental and non-market housing – energy centres, so to speak.
As for NIMBYS, Bob dismissed those by saying: “If you have a ‘no tower’ sign in your yard, you have no right to talk about affordability for your children.” If he could, he’d convert most of the single-family lots in the city to multi-family — but recognizes that would be political suicide for any mayor and council. What is the harm of more well-placed density, he asks rhetorically: “Why not just add two floors to building height along all arterial roads, and require it to be rental housing?”
Yet there’s still some $250b in un-encumbered housing equity in the region owned by residents without mortgages – this wealth will continue to fuel and fund demand as parents help their children buy homes.
And the attempt to curb housing demand with a surtax won’t work. Rather than restrict demand, build more supply. He went on to say governments now treat real estate as the new tobacco – “tax the hell out of it.”
A new and smart generation must take on the old guard; and although NIMBYS oppose development, we can’t have yesterday back. He encourages young people to attend planning meetings and speak up for stakeholders of the future.
Proponents get slammed for coming up with solutions to solve affordability – he suggests this is best countered with arguments based on data, not just opinions. And yet he still has hope for the future, noting that President Trump has caused everyone to question everything, which he encouraged us all to do.
Bookending Patti’s question of ‘why coffee’, Bob said if he could have coffee with anyone it would be his Dad, who taught him that everyone is equal. He also told him to ‘get a real job – a salesman is not a real job’. He added, possibly jokingly, that his own gravestone might read something like a Simon & Garfunkel song – ‘It’s all happening at the zoo’.
Rennie Marketing Systems is recognized for its vision and leadership in the real estate market. Founded 40 years ago by Bob Rennie, the company is at the forefront in real estate across Western Canada, and is recognized as the most influential leader in how housing is planned, developed, and marketed.
Bob built the firm on the foundation of helping the industry, over cups of coffee with colleagues and friends. ULI BC was pleased to have Patti Glass, Director of Corporate Marketing & Communications at Grosvenor Americas, talk with Bob over a coffee on June 05, 2018.
Written by: Eric Aderneck, ULI BC Member
See photos from this event on ULI BC’s Facebook page.