When Peter Cohos speaks about the virtues of being a marathon runner in the business arena, who can argue?
On a track littered by the fallen sprinters of the once-dashing dot-com world, Cohos, the marathon man of real estate, is still in the race with his eyes fixed on the finish line.
Cohos is CEO of Tonko Development Corporation, which has been one of Alberta’s most dynamic commercial real estate companies in recent years.
Calgary-based Tonko is in the process of being taken over by Pyxis Real Estate Equities in a deal being applauded by Tonko shareholders.
|Larry MacDougal, Business Edge|
|Peter Cohos says friendly takeover of Tonko will be good for shareholders.|
And wouldn’t you know it – the marathon man is in fact a marathon runner.
1. What was your boyhood dream?
“To drive a cement truck. In my university days, I poured a lot of concrete on construction sites, but thank God, for my safety and everyone around me, I didn’t drive the concrete truck.”
2. What was your first job?
“It was delivering roses to young ladies who sold them at the liquor stores. My job was to pick up a station wagon full of roses at the airport every week, deliver the roses to the ladies and I’d also collect the money from the ladies. As a 16-year-old, that’s not such a bad job when you have a bunch of young, good-looking ladies that you have to go visit. What can be so bad about that?”
3. How did your father, Martin Cohos (founder of prominent Calgary architectural firm The Cohos Evamy Partners), influence your career?
“I was exposed to business sitting around the kitchen table listening to my father. What he shared with me is the importance of surrounding yourself with as many bright people as you can, because very few of us can be a success on our own. He also would say that you should do business with people who share your value system, because, at the end of the day, there’s only one person that makes or breaks your integrity, and that’s yourself. He would also say that you should run your business as if you could print on the front page of the newspaper every day every business deal you did. What he meant by that was that it was OK to be a tough negotiator, but one always has to be a fair negotiator. You should never be embarrassed by a deal.”
4. Is winning everything to you?
“It’s clear to me that winning at all costs is not acceptable. If you have to cheat to win, I have no interest in doing that. I want to be able to stare into the mirror and say: ‘I won in a fair battle.’ ”
5. How do you feel about the friendly takeover of Tonko by Pyxis Real Estate Equities?
“Since a hostile bid came in five months ago (from SeaCliff Investments Ltd.), we’ve almost increased the share price 50 per cent (with the Pyxis offer), so the shareholders have done very well. As a company, we recognized that we were somewhat stuck in the mud. Tonko was a small publicly traded commercial real estate company and many or almost all publicly traded real estate companies – regardless of their size – were not able to raise money in the public markets over the past four years. So selling the company was the best thing for shareholders.”
6. What will happen to the company once the takeover is completed?
“Pyxis, which is the CBC pension fund, doesn’t have a desire to run and operate a business, so should they get control of the company (shareholders vote on March 12), we as a staff have agreed to stay for three months. During those three months, they can do one of three things: to start up an operating management company, go hire a third-party property manager or hire this team (Tonko) to manage the real estate. It’s my hope that we as a management team can turn around and buy out the management company and carry on with managing the assets. The three of us who founded Tonko will stay in commercial real estate in one form or fashion. The simplest way to start anew would be start a management company and keep the staff we have.”
7. To what do you attribute the success of Tonko and its rapid growth?
“The people. We are absolutely surrounded by some of the nicest and hardest-working people. By working hard, I think we’ve had some success in creating an atmosphere in which, regardless of who you are, you are important and you are listened to. Although it’s a public company, we’ve tried to create a family atmosphere. I’m proud of the low turnover rate of employees that we’ve had. We believe that the reason we have such loyal people is that we communicate with them, so they feel a part of the organization.”
8. What’s the key to finding compatible business partners, based on your long-term business partnership with Jeff Kohn (Tonko chief operating officer) and Rob Proud (chief operating officer)?
“There has to be respect for each other, you have to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and it’s very important that everyone checks their ego at the door. The analogy I want to use is a marriage. Once every two or three months, we get into a room and we air out any differences. Don’t let molehills turn into mountains. It’s also important we all have a common value system. In our case, I think it’s also important we all have stable family situations so there are no distractions outside of the office.”
9. What’s your vision for the commercial real estate market in Alberta?
“I believe the market will be strong for the next 25 years. My fundamental belief is that all commercial real estate is a service to people and I believe the economy will be strong, so I believe commercial real estate will be strong. I believe that both Calgary and Edmonton will be strong economically in the next 20 years or so.”
10. What changes do you foresee for the commercial real estate industry?
“I believe that what you’re going to see happen is that the distinction between warehouse space, retail space and office space is going to get blurred. I believe that people will start to build buildings where people can warehouse their product, have their offices there and also sell their product there.”
11. What’s your most treasured personal possession?
“The picture of me crossing the finish line in the Honolulu Marathon (1994). I believe it was the singular most personal accomplishment I’ve ever achieved. When you run a marathon, only you can put your left foot in front of your right foot for 26.2 miles. The other reason that it was so special was that I ran it with my father. It was his 60th birthday present to himself. It was a wonderful period of time for me, because I spent so much time with my father while we were training for two or three months. I only hope that when I’m 60, I can run that marathon.”
12. Can you relate running a marathon to running a business?
“Commercial real estate is very much the tortoise-and-hare business. Those who are successful in commercial real estate are often the tortoises and will get to the goal line, whereas if you look at the tech business, those were the hares. I never had expectations that I was going to be an Olympic marathon runner, but I set a goal that I would get across the finish line.”
13. What’s the best advice you could offer a young entrepreneur?
“They first have to decide where they want to live. I don’t care how much money you make. If you don’t like where you live, you wake up in the morning and you’re miserable. So, first, choose where you want to live. I believe that if you wake up and you’re happy, your probability of being successful in whatever field of venture is exponential.”
14. Why did you choose to complete your education at the University of Capetown in South Africa?
“One, it was an English-speaking country, and, two, it was about as far away from Calgary as one could get. As opposed to some people who go to Europe and backpack for a year, this was my way of backpacking and combining a university degree. It was also an excellent university.”
15. So, in terms of personal growth, what was the advantage of attending universities away from your home?
“I’ve always believed a university degree is much more than just a formal education. I believe you gain far more from what I call a social education than a formal education you get in the classroom. One of the rules my parents had, which I’m a big, big believer in, is that they’d help support us financially to go to university on the condition we didn’t go to the University of Calgary. And that’s not a criticism of the University of Calgary. But the whole purpose of university is to get out in the world, to learn how to budget your money, pay rent, buy food, do your laundry, how to cook.”
16. So you’re a big believer in the rewards of expanding one’s horizons?
“I believe that when you travel, it will open your mind. It’s such a wonderful experience because you can touch, feel and see so many things, learn from that and then apply it to whatever endeavour you choose.”
17. How were you affected by your South African experience?
“Apartheid was still very much a part of their world when I was there, but I learned that these people who were living halfway around the world from me had the same needs, wants and desires as we did as Calgarians. That was the positive thing. The negative thing that I learned is something which, to this day, I still don’t understand as a Canadian. I met some of the brightest people that I have ever met in my life and I still to this day don’t understand how they believed that black people were stupid. It was mystifying to me. It was just mind-boggling to me.”
18. What’s your favourite escape from work?
“Athleticism. Going for a run. Recently, because old age is setting in, I can’t run as much as used to. So I go swimming a lot. Another great escape is spending time with my family. One of the most enjoyable things I do now is playing a round of golf as a foursome with the family on a Sunday afternoon. It just takes you away from everything that happens between these four walls.”
19. How important is money?
“It’s wonderful to have, but I think it’s way overstated. I’m now 43 and I’ve come to realize that no matter how hard I work or how much money I make, there’ll always be someone ahead of me and there’ll always be someone behind me. And, in the end, isn’t the race just with yourself?”
20. What do you hope to be doing 10 years from now?
“Investing in commercial real estate in Western Canada in some form or fashion. I don’t think I’ll ever retire.”
IN PROFILE: Peter Cohos
* Born/raised/age: Calgary, 43.
* Title: President/CEO, Tonko Development Corporation.
* Education: Master of business administration, University of Capetown, South Africa; honours in business administration, University of Western Ontario.
* Family: Wife Kim, sons Ben, 15, Stephen, 13.
* Career: Cohos was appointed president and CEO of Tonko in 1998 after serving as a director for three years. He began his real estate career in 1980 as a negotiator with Knowlton Realty, was an assistant to the executive management team at Trizec Corp. from 1980-85 and president of Copez Properties from 1985 to 1997.
* Favourite things: Sports adventures; eating Chinese food on Sundays; watching the movie Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid; listening to Billy Joel; travelling to Maui, and reading author James Michener.
THE COMPANY: Tonka Development Corporation
* Brass: Peter Cohos, president/CEO; Jeffrey Kohn, chief operating officer; Robert Proud, chief financial officer.
* Profile: Tonko is a real estate company in the management, acquisition and development of mid-market commercial assets in Western Canada, ranging in value from $10 million to $100 million per individual asset. The company manages 7.6 million sq. ft. of retail, industrial and office space. It is in the process of being taken over by Pyxis Real Estate Equities in a cash deal worth $4.10 per share.
* Accolades: Tonko was recently ranked by Alberta Venture magazine as 21st on a list of the 30 fastest growing companies in Alberta, boasting a 534-pre-cent three-year sales growth rate.
* Recent Stock Price (TAK-TSE): $4.06 (year range, $2.25-$4.10).
* Website: www.tonko.com
* Calgary head office: #600-999 8th St. S.W. T2R 1J5; (phone/fax): 403-245-4447, 403-228-4899).
* Edmonton office: #72-10025 Jasper Ave, T5J 2B8; (phone/fax): 780-990-1768, 780-990-1769).