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.

A new chapter

My very first job in journalism was to write feature stories about the Bruce Peninsula for the local tourism organization sometime around the year 2001. It was a student’s dream job: all kinds of latitude and time to write about the beautiful land I grew up in. I learned how to generate stories, how to interview, how to use the inverted pyramid, and I realized that writing, a thing I loved, could become a path to a career.

My editor was Phil McNichol, a retired journalist from the Owen Sound Sun Times. He would land in the office with his dog and a straw hat, and cut through my writing with a red pen. It hurt, but it was a necessary pain. I had to learn that I may have been a decent writer, but I had a lot to learn. I could always get better.

We grew quite close that summer, as he figured out I had thin skin but someone with passion and a drive to make a difference. I started thinking about applying to journalism school.

But he warned me, clear as day: Journalism can be amazing, but hard. It can be a grind. It’s not your job to make friends. The pay isn’t great, and you put in way too many hours with no thanks. It can take over your life and use up all your head space, hurting your personal relationships.

I heard him, and I felt a little concerned. But I grew up on a farm, and all of it sounded vaguely familiar. On a farm, there is no such thing as 9 to 5. Stress is a given. Hard work is valued. Because what you do is important. It has meaning. And money isn’t everything.

Still, I wasn’t sure I was cut out for journalism, especially in the big city. So I went to Wilfrid Laurier University and took Communication Studies. I got involved in the Cord, the student paper, and quickly got addicted to the news business. I was proud of the fact that I pulled all-nighters every week on production night. I loved running out of class to get an all-important interview with the university president. I loved challenging norms and asking tough questions of the student union. There was nothing like seeing people reading my articles in the student lounge. This felt like the most important, meaningful work I could pursue. I went on to study journalism at Western, and eventually got intern work at a handful of southern Ontario dailies.

In 2009,  when the Waterloo Region Record went through a series of lay-offs, I was not spared. Desperate to stay in the business, I sent my resume across Canada, and ended up getting a summer internship at the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.

I drove 1,600 kilometres in a 1997 Volkswagen Jetta, bringing two cats and a few belongings (including a vacuum and my Canadian Press Style book). I found a furnished apartment and thought I’d give it a go here, for $12 an hour. It was the right time in my life for a big change. Before long, it felt like home.

Over more than six years, I’ve had the privilege to follow many stories, big and small. I’ve written about everything from stray cats to crime and city politics. I’ve interviewed mascots and premiers and war veterans and police. I’ve laughed and cried with my interview subjects. I’ve convinced them to tell me their stories, their secrets, their frustrations and fears.

Having the chance to craft and share these stories has been a true honour.

But life happens, and times change.

I still love journalism. I believe in its power to provoke, move and entertain. Community journalism is particularly important as the world gets smaller, and the channels of communication become more cluttered. We need a way to make sense of our world, and our place in it.

Yesterday morning, I clicked on my voice recorder and flipped to a clean page in my Telegraph-Journal notebook for the last time. It was a fairly typical day, but I find it fitting that my last interview as a city hall reporter was with the mayor.

In my new job at AdvocateDaily, I will still be writing and interviewing experts on a variety of legal topics. I’ll be building sources in a new way. But I will no longer be a newspaper reporter – something I once believed I was destined to do for a very long time.

Still, I’m thrilled to have a new opportunity at my feet. A chance to build new skills and put my existing ones to the test. I’m ready for a change.

To everyone at the Telegraph-Journal and throughout Greater Saint John, please know I am forever indebted to you for welcoming a girl “from away” and accepting her as your own. For allowing her to participate in the community from such an incredible standpoint. For allowing her to ask questions and trusting her with your words.

Signing off for now,

@reporterapril

It’s how I learned to write

Writer’s Craft was hands-down my favourite class in high school. The class taught me what English didn’t: how to write, and how to put heart into it. But now, it seems the popular course has come under “a bit of an attack,” as my beloved teacher has said. She asked for letters explaining how the class has helped former students in real life. This was my response.

I’m sorry to hear that Writer’s Craft is coming under fire. There are so many practical ways that class has helped me in my career. As a reporter, I write every day. Writer’s Craft was my first introduction to writing daily. It encouraged me to write often – creatively or otherwise – as a way to practice and improve. Writing and sharing creatively also boosted my confidence. This is integral for a reporter whose work is read every day by thousands of people. Learning to take feedback and criticism is also important.

Other practical ways: learning to write concisely, descriptively, actively are all so important in journalism. “Show, don’t tell” echos in my head almost every time I sit down to write. Better grammar and vocabulary are givens.

But most of all, writer’s craft taught me to feel what I write – to look deeply inside and write from the heart. That may sound cheesy but whenever I feel passionate about what I am writing, that feeling seeps into the words on the page. This has practical ramifications for anyone who needs to reach and resonate with their audience.

And I must say, writing is a skill that not just a journalist must master. Language and text and information are ubiquitous. Effective communication is a must in our digital world.

Please feel free to use my name or submit any of this if it helps keep Writer’s Craft around! That course gave me such a love of writing that has never gone away. I think I have the best job in the world. Writing is such a gift.

I could go on….

April

A newborn blog, even if blogs are dead

I was an early adopter of blogging, setting up Sink or Swim in June 2004, a whopping seven years ago. As much as I hated to see the old blog go, I decided it was time for a change.

But it wasn’t without some thought. With Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media, is a blog really necessary?

I can see both sides to this. Why write prose when you can get it across in 140 characters or less? Who will really read the blog anyway?

After playing around with the format for years, I’ve come to the conclusion that a blog without focus is quite useless. That’s why I’ve decided to make this blog more professional, less personal, but still personal enough to make it interesting.

This is the place where I’ll share the stories that didn’t make the paper and the inspirations I meet along the way. It’s a place where I hope to share photos, videos and stories about the people I meet (both on and off the clock). It’s both resume and Facebook friendly.

So if you want a peek into the life of a young journalist, someone who just broke into the industry three years ago after pining for a reporting job for years, someone who loves her new Maritime home and still has so much to explore, please bookmark me and read on!

– April