Irrepressible Calgary-based real estate mogul Bob Dhillon didn’t take much time to bask in the honour of being named an Officer of the Order of Canada after the year-end rolls were announced Dec. 29.
Dhillon, born Navjeet Singh Dhillon to a Sikh family with roots in India, was cited “for his achievements in business, and for his unwavering commitment to philanthropy and higher education.”
His resume notes that in a 30-year career he has gone from renovating two homes as a 19-year-old to running a publicly traded firm, Mainstreet Equity Corp., that as of Q2 2021 had assets valued at $2.6 billion with holdings of more than 15,000 residential units across Western Canada. He’s had many board appointments, including to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, donated millions including $10 million to launch a business school at the University of Lethbridge, and has been recognized by business peers and various Indo-Canadian associations with awards a dozen times.
But Dhillon, noting Canada’s growing need for quality affordable housing and business leadership, insists he is just getting started in business and philanthropy.
“What Canada has given me in terms of health care, education, business prosperity, I haven’t given back anything,” he said. “I’m going to continue to learn and continue to give back. And in terms of business, I haven’t started yet.”
Dhillon arrived in Canada via Hong Kong and West Africa with real estate in his DNA, he explained. He keeps a photo of a four-storey apartment building his grandfather bought in Hong Kong in 1910 on his iPhone. But the family arrived in Calgary broke. Young Bob looked up to real estate professionals such as the Reichmanns and Donald Trump as models.
“I come from a warrior Sikh tribe, that’s basically real estate ownership and adding value, even as agrarians, as farmers, real estate is always in a bloodline,” he said.
Dhillon was a millionaire before he was 30 and developed a business model focused on three pillars, he said — adding value to distressed assets through upgrades, working the mid-market, and focusing on Western Canada, where the model works best. The assets are upgraded with new sustainability features and smart-home technology but remain affordable.
“To be successful, you’ve got to look at the macro fundamentals,” said Dhillon. “Affordable housing is the spine of the growth of our economy. If you don’t have affordable housing, you’re not going to have an economy in Canada.”
“You can buy distressed assets, and it’s sitting empty because it’s got deferred maintenance, a lot of years of neglect, mismanagement, and you buy it for a song because it’s got all these issues. And that’s the only way you can add value.
“You create value for shareholders, create value for society and create value for the tenants.”
Mid-market is the largest share of the pie in real estate, he said, and upgrades such as high-tech furnaces, air-tight windows, high-efficiency insulation, water-efficient toilets and showers and energy-efficient lights create the value middle-class millennials seek. Often buildings are grouped together to create synergies.
“What are the millennials looking for? They are looking for funky designs, they are looking for dishwashers, microwaves, smart homes, and security is a big issue. And…they’re looking for inner-city locations, closer to transit, bike paths.”
Besides the major endowment to the University of Lethbridge, Dhillon has donated to other universities including supporting the creation of a Sikh Studies program at the University of Calgary, and he has responded swiftly during crises to house refugees from Syria and Afghanistan and donate apartments to the victims of wildfires in Slave Lake and Fort McMurray.
“We know how important housing is at times of crisis,” said Dhillon, outlining his motives for giving.
“In that situation you’ve got to be sympathetic to their situation.
“The second reason is, corporate Canada, it doesn’t matter which business and what field you’re in, has to step up to the plate.”
Twenty years ago Dhillon needed cancer treatment and the benefits of living in Canada further struck him at the hospital.
“They said the private room will be $20, or you can share a room for free. Until this day, I’ll remember that.”
Only when asked his reaction to being named to the Order of Canada did Dhillon, obviously humbled, lapse into momentary silence.
“It was a big deal for me to receive because I’m an immigrant. And for me to receive such an honour, now I feel more Canadian.”
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.