Self-made entrepreneur bringing vibrancy to uptown

 

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Keith Brideau, 36, is helping to change the shape of Saint John, N.B.’s historic city core. Photo by April Cunningham

As appeared in the Telegraph-Journal on March 6, 2017

Life wasn’t always easy growing up in Saint John’s north end, but for uptown property developer Keith Brideau, it was where he honed a competitive spirit and the drive to succeed.

 

I always felt like I could do better if I worked harder,” he says in his bustling Princess Street office, pausing to sign a cheque and direct a worker to the renovated Bustin’s apartments where new tenants are moving in. “I just didn’t want to be an average person.

Brideau’s father, who was in construction and his mother, a former Crosby’s molasses factory worker, always did their best to provide for their children – once selling the family car to buy Christmas presents. It was that sacrifice and generosity that made him feel “obligated” to do well.

That drive started from a young age, says Brideau, 36, who co-founded Historica Developments with a silent investor from Alberta almost 10 years ago, a company that has grown “exponentially” in recent years, helping to reshape the city’s uptown core.

Growing up on the Boulevard and later the old north end, Brideau played sports, including baseball, karate, badminton, and spent a lot of time in community centres.

My parents were really good at keeping me off the streets.

Brideau soon realized he had the same desire to keep up with kids in the classroom and he started to excel academically, named student of the year in Grade 6.

I always paid attention to people who did well,” he says, although he often had to look beyond his immediate family for mentors. While his family worked hard and had “street smarts,” neither one of his parents finished high school.

The first family member on either side of his family to attend university, Brideau attended the University of New Brunswick, graduating with an electrical engineering degree as well as a technology, management and entrepreneurship diploma in 2003. He was soon hired by Deloitte in risk management and information technology consulting – a role that would allow him to travel across Atlantic Canada.

Meanwhile, Brideau knew he didn’t want to pay someone else’s mortgage, so he made his first leap into real estate. He and his former girlfriend bought a run-down townhouse on Highmeadow Drive for $54,000. They put a few thousand dollars into the property and flipped it for a $10,000 profit.

I enjoyed the process of taking an old townhouse that needed some work, and investing some money, some sweat equity, and turning it around and making it into a place you could feel proud of,” he says. “It got me hooked on real estate.

All while still working and travelling for Deloitte, Brideau immersed himself in the world of real estate, learning about inspections, markets and construction. He also learned to leverage the bank’s money to make a bigger profit. From the Highmeadow Drive house, Brideau next bought a duplex, followed by a three-unit and a six-unit complex with friends. His hunger for development continued.

At one point, Deloitte assigned Brideau to work for a bank in Toronto. He was set up to live in a downtown condominium, complete with a rooftop patio with a view of the CN Tower.

Guys with TV shows and CEOs of big companies who would pull up to the front door in Ferraris, then there’s me from Saint John’s north end,” he says.

What I realized is there was an amazing quality of life we just didn’t have in New Brunswick – I had never seen anything like it.

Brideau knew Saint John was poised for growth, and that there was potential to build a more high-end urban lifestyle. But with limited financial resources, he wasn’t sure how he could tackle it on his own.

One day, Brideau met a man in his Toronto condo’s rooftop hot tub. They struck up a conversation about their backgrounds, and the man said he helped build sports complexes and arenas. Brideau was in awe, and asked him how.

I partnered with people who had more money than I did,” said the man, who turned out to be Gary Green, a former Washington Capitals coach. For Brideau, it was like a light bulb went off.

It wasn’t long before he left the job at Deloitte in 2007 to start his own venture with his brother and a friend.

That first attempt, Home Improvers, did renovations, garages, windows and siding. It also flipped one house with limited success, he says.

You don’t really know what you’re getting yourself into from a business perspective until you jump in the deep end – sink or swim,” Brideau says.

At that time, he started looking for investors to grow bigger. While Brideau had always looked to Kijiji and other for-sale-by-owner sites for the best real estate deals, he started thinking it would also be his key to finding a potential investor.

He got his girlfriend to help him post an ad across the country: “Attention major investors: I’m going to tell you now what you wish you would have heard five years from now had I not told you today.” He laid out the city’s potential for major growth with an energy boom on the horizon, and his own experience in flipping properties.

Brideau’s phone started ringing almost immediately.

I had so many people calling me I had to keep a spreadsheet of all the conversations,” he says.

One woman in particular from Alberta had done her homework. She asked for references and a couple weeks later, came with her husband for a tour of Saint John. Brideau convinced them to invest.

We became business partners and set up a model where they would invest a bunch of money and I would earn my ownership,” he says. Historica Development was born.

They started with 55 Canterbury St., the old Aberdeen Hotel, merging hotel rooms to create 15 apartments, with lower level offices and restaurants. From there, they moved to a number of other heritage buildings in the uptown area.

For the former Bustin’s furniture building that spans from Germain to Canterbury along Grannan Lane, they brought on more investors, including partners from Saint John and Alberta. The building is now home to restaurants, a comedy club, a gallery and a pub with new apartments on the upper floors.

We’re growing the business now exponentially and in order to grow at that point, you need to bring on more partners.

The company is about to complete the Bustin’s portfolio in the next month or two, then plans to close on more properties. Brideau’s goal is to do three times as much work in the next 10 years as he has completed over the past decade, and he hasn’t ruled out moving beyond Saint John.

He says the uptown investments “make sense” for the Historica partners because they represent low-risk potential. The real estate is cheap, Brideau does the bulk of the work in an environment he understands, and they end up with assets that pay for themselves. Saint John doesn’t have the peaks and valleys of other cities, and the difficulties with renovated historic buildings tend to keep the competition away.

It takes someone like me who has the experience from the ground up to be able to turn these buildings around and bring them to life,” says Brideau, who works alongside his wife Margot Brideau. They have two daughters.

It also takes mental strength, he says, adding some projects feel like a “nightmare” in the thick of it.

But you know what they say, if you’re going to go through hell, you’ve got to keep going. I keep a thick skin because the problems turning these old buildings around and having them meet today’s code – all that difficulty creates opportunity.

Ray Strowbridge: From wrestling ring to political arena

As appeared in the Telegraph-Journal on Jan. 23, 2017

The last time Ray Strowbridge saw his father, he was eight years old.

Growing up without a dad was “incredibly hard,” he says, as his mother, Margaret Haigh, struggled to make ends meet on Scott Avenue, one of the poorest streets in the Kennebecasis Valley.

But on that apartment-lined avenue crawling with children, Strowbridge, now 41, remembers then-Fairvale mayor Jigs Miller stopping by to talk to residents. His pockets were always filled with candy.

I was always fascinated by him, and politics,” says Strowbridge, who has been a Saint John city councillor for nearly five years. “People would flock to him.

Those early impressions continued to impact Strowbridge, who was born in Newfoundland, as he moved through elementary school. In Grade 6, his teacher orchestrated a mock election between three classes. They organized political parties and ran campaigns.

Strowbridge was elected president.

I dreamed of becoming a politician,” Strowbridge, who represents the east side’s Ward 4, says over a coffee at Tim Hortons on Loch Lomond Road. “I’ve always had a strong sense of community and where I belong.

As Strowbridge got older, his interests temporarily changed direction. Like many youth of his generation, he started to idolize the stars of the World Wrestling Federation, now known as the WWE. Posters of Hulk Hogan plastered his walls.

It was my religion growing up,” he says, adding he now connects his fondness for Hulk Hogan to the lack of a father figure in his life.

By the age of 16, Strowbridge made the “stupid” decision of dropping out of high school to pursue a wrestling career. He attended “wrestling school” in Moncton.

It wasn’t long before Strowbridge says he realized he wasn’t good, adding he returned to school and got his diploma a short time later.

I wouldn’t make it to Wrestlemania,” he says with a laugh. “It was a really big growing up moment.

Still, Strowbridge maintained his passion for wrestling, making appearances in Atlantic Grand Prix Wrestling. He took on the persona of “Teddy Too Sweet Champagne,” a drag queen dressed in pink with a feather boa. The idea is to get a strong reaction from the crowd by getting fans to either love you or hate you, he says. Strowbridge was a “good guy.

It’s now been about 10 years since he has wrestled, though “they keep asking me to come back,” he says.

Strowbridge, who has been a paramedic for 20 years, says he has never taken any heat for his unique interest in wrestling.

Most people think it’s pretty cool,” he says, adding many locals who follow the wrestling scene remember his “Too Sweet” persona.

Fast forward to 2012, and Strowbridge threw his hat in the running for council after spending time on his now 11-year-old daughter Brooklyn’s Parent School Support Committee. The political fire in his belly never burned out, he says.

That first term on council under former mayor Mel Norton was an intense experience for the political rookie, as the politicians navigated one problem to the next – whether it was the desperate need for pension reform or securing funding for the city’s massive drinking water system overhaul.

So far, Strowbridge says this second term under Mayor Don Darling is rather quiet in comparison. It’s not as easy to point to big accomplishments in the first few months of this mandate, he adds.

The thing is, we don’t have any huge, crippling problems,” he says. “We’re like hungry soldiers looking for a fight, but there isn’t one. There are no big wins, because there are no big problems.

Strowbridge says there is a definite difference in the leadership styles of both Darling and Norton, but he doesn’t see that as a problem. Darling is not as “strict” in meetings as Norton was, for example. And Darling “doesn’t micro-manage.

With fewer problems to tackle, Strowbridge says he sometimes struggles with how to focus his energy. But he has found a happy medium in focusing on local neighbourhood needs.

He’s eager to see a splash pad built in the Forest Hills area, for example.

And he has just received word that the city will set aside $10,000 from its capital budget to build a dog park and shelter at the Little River Reservoir. These are the things he hears about when he goes door to door, he says.

They’re tangible – they matter.

A member of the city’s growth committee, Strowbridge says Saint John residents need to stop comparing themselves to the outlying communities.

We will always be more expensive because we’re bigger,” he says. It also doesn’t make sense to compare the city to Moncton, which is geographically smaller than Saint John.

Council recently voted to hold the tax rate, which hasn’t changed from $1.785 per $100 of assessed value for nine years. Strowbridge believes it doesn’t make sense to drop it by a cent for the sake of a few dollars in savings for each resident when the city’s revenues would drop by $673,000.

Why don’t you keep your $20 and pave roads, or improve a park. Taking $20 off my tax bill is an insult to me. Why not keep that money and invest in something that matters?