Self-made entrepreneur bringing vibrancy to uptown

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Keith Brideau, founder of Historica Developments, expects his company to grow “exponentially.” Photo by April Cunningham

As appeared in the Telegraph-Journal, 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.

© April Cunningham

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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?

 

Into the Night 5K

Heading to the Into the Night 5K run on Friday, I was not feeling enthusiastic. It was more a case of doing the run because I had already forked over my registration fee.

I didn’t know anyone else doing the race, I was tired, it was Friday, blah, blah, blah. 

Into the Night kicks off Marathon by the Sea race weekend in Saint John. Since I’m not doing the half-marathon this year, I opted for the 5K night run.

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I arrived at the Diamond Jubilee Cruise Terminal in Saint John early for the run I thought started at 9 p.m. I picked up my race kit and was pleased to see two glow sticks made of foam — light sabres, which I knew Silas would love.

I was, however, a little disappointed to find out the race wasn’t timed. I was kind of looking forward to pushing myself in the 5K, which is a relatively unfamiliar distance for me. But with fireworks, glow sticks and a light-hearted feel, I knew I would enjoy myself.

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Turns out the race didn’t start till 9:30 p.m., when it was completely dark. It meant a little more waiting around, but luckily the weather was perfectly comfortable and I did a little jogging to warm up a bit.

Approaching the starting line, we heard a few inspirational words from Terry Thorne, this year’s Marathon by the Sea race marshall. Thorne has run 12 marathons and was in the process of attempting to qualify for Boston when she had a brain aneurism in 2007. She now lives in a nursing home after going through years of recovery. “Never, ever give up,” she said, standing with the help of a walker.

Thorne then sounded the race horn, and with her words on my mind, we were off, carrying the light sabres and dashing into the night. I pressed ahead and fell into a rhythm, running by Market Square as revellers took a break from enjoying live music to cheer for the runners. Then it was on to Harbour Passage, where darkness cast over the course and the colourful glow of the light sticks bounced ahead. I continued to pass people, one by one, until one woman sailed by me. That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to let her win.

I don’t know who she was, but I set my mind to staying with that woman, who set a challenging pace. I wasn’t comfortable, but I kept telling myself that 5K is not far at all. I kept on her tail for most of the race, but the final kilometre was a challenge and she got ahead.

I decided to hold back then dig deep for the final stretch, and it worked. I sailed by the final few metres… and was shocked to see the clock at 24:xx. I hadn’t been looking at my watch throughout the race, instead focused on running by feel. And it turned out to be a great strategy.

According to my Garmin, my time was 24:49 — more than a minute faster than my personal best of 26 minutes! However, I believe the course was short, as my watch said the run was only 4.9 km. Still, I totally smashed my PB, and I was over the moon! Not bad for a “fun run.”

I gladly accepted a chocolate milk, ate some orange slices from the well-stocked food tent and made my way home. As I pulled in my driveway, I heard the fireworks (and wondered why they wouldn’t have gone off near the start of the race, while runners could see them over the harbour).

The run turned out to be a great experience, sailing through the dark with a sea of fluorescent runners. It felt good to be out of the blazing sun and gave me hope that I have some speed left in this mother runner legs of mine.

 

Holy hills: Marathon by the Sea Race Re-cap

The course was stunning. The hills were horrific.

This year’s half-marathon at Marathon By the Sea was challenging. At times, I hated it. At times, I was enthralled by Saint John’s beauty. At times, I questioned my sanity.

But I did it, and I’m glad I did.

It was my first half-marathon since having my son 13.5 months ago, and I’m pretty proud of that fact. My body has been around the bend and back since then, and I finished in 2:09:57, within a minute of my MBTS half-marathon in 2013 – when I was in the best shape of my life, and when the course was notably easier (but still hilly and hard!).

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The weather was ideal, starting in the high teens with clouds and a light breeze. After creeping away from my quiet house (Silas slept through the night – bonus!!!), I met up with my friends Jen and Vanessa, and we walked to the starting line together. We all agreed, the new start/finish on the waterfront was both convenient, spacious and pretty.

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At about 8 a.m., the gun went off, and we started out jogging together toward Harbour Passage. It wasn’t long before I parted ways from the other girls. We were pacing around 5:40 mins/km and I wanted to slow it up a bit and conserve energy for the many hills I knew lay ahead.

First big hill: Reversing Falls to the bridge. This is a classic, and since it was near the beginning, it was easy to tackle. The terrain continues upward until you reach Manawagonish Road, which is close to my house. Since I know and run this route often, I felt comfortable and actually started picking up my pace again. As runners near the front of the pack started passing by on the out-and-back portion, I felt motivated and cheered for people I knew. I glanced at my watch and was surprised at my pace.

After looping back to Lancaster Avenue, the route hit a prolonged, gradual downhill stretch. I let gravity do the work and rode the hill as easily as I could. I enjoyed this part, running along Riverview Avenue and its colourful wood shingled-homes, some a little worse for wear.

At the end of the street, we continued down an old, paved path that loops under an overpass and links to the Harbour Bridge. The path provided a unique view of the harbour and the port.

At this point, we were about 10 km into the run, and as I hit the Fundy Fog Chasers water station, I ate half of a gel. I didn’t want to chance eating the whole thing at once, but in hindsight I wish I did. I tossed the rest and started the second half of the course — which was nearly all uphill.

I was pumped to cross the Harbour Bridge. Part of the highway system, the bridge is not typically open to pedestrians, so this was a unique opportunity. My pace slowed significantly as I began the ascent. Once I crested the hump of the bridge, I threw my arms in the air in triumph. But there was so much more work ahead.

The next challenge was getting through the Chesley Drive exit, which includes another steep incline before dropping down to Chesley Drive, then another steep part until Main Street. This was tough, but I kept at it without walking.

I always hate the next part, past Lansdowne Plaza and up toward Mount Pleasant Avenue. I’m not sure why. It smells like dumpsters or something, likely from the mall and string of fast food joints. But to my delight, I passed a water station manned by members of Saint John city council – people I interview multiple times a week. This provided a motivational jolt – just what I needed.

The next tough part was climbing Parks Street followed by Mount Pleasant Avenue. More gradual hills. But it’s lovely along these tree-lined street filled with beautiful old homes. I walked a bit on Mount Pleasant, and my feet were feeling it by this point. But there were about 7 km to go, and I could feel the end was near.

All I had to tackle was Rockwood Park. It’s only another series of hills, some on uneven trails. Hah!

This was my low point. I walked a lot. My legs were throbbing. My feet too. My face twisted in exertion. I could feel sweat and salt sticking to my skin. Where was the next water station? Why was I doing this again? I told myself I just had to get back out of the park, then I would hit the big downhill of Crown Street, and the finish line would be around the corner.

Hah!

Crown Street, and its wicked steep descent, ruined me. My knees hurt. My child-bearing hips hurt. At the bottom, I felt as though my feet were done. Just done. I had 2 km to go. At this point, I was close to 2:00. I told myself, if you have to walk to the finish, it’s OK. But I kept on.

More hills. Three more. They were hard. Still ran. Ran slow.

I wanted to cry, but I took out and earbud and I could hear the crowd. I started scanning the sidewalks for my husband and Silas, as well as some friends who had come to cheer me on. Knowing the would be there kept me in tact.

Then I saw them, and as they cheered for me, I picked up the pace, I ran as hard as I could. I saw Silas, and waved, and recognition registered on his precious face. He gave me that glowing, toothy smile, and I pressed across the finish line, arms overhead.

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When I saw 2:11:04 on the clock, I felt a little disappointed at first. Far from my personal best of 1:59, and slower than my last Marathon By the Sea time of 2:09:09. But when I put it in perspective, and remembered to check my chip time, which was a minute or two faster, I accepted my victory.

Hills and all.

Marathon By the Sea half-marathon 2015: 2:09:57. 6:12 mins/km. 29/51 in my age category (F 30-39). 205/335 overall.

Two moms on a mission: the long run

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After a few weeks of less-than-stellar training, I credit Jackie for helping me get my butt in gear today.

This morning – two weeks before race day – we planned to try out the Lorneville Loop route. She suggested we meet up at 8 a.m. I agreed, although I was nervous about the early start and the chilly morning forecast. When my alarm went off just after 7, I was surprised that my nine-month-old boy was still asleep in his room. (He had woken up around 3 a.m. for a quick feeding). I shuffled around to make coffee and one slice of toast with honey, my favourite pre-workout fuel, and get dressed before breastfeeding him and getting out the door.

When Jackie came to get me, I could tell she felt nervous too. You see, our lives are pretty similar right now. We both have babies that are about nine months old and who don’t always feel like sleeping through the night. We also both ran half-marathons in October 2013, when our babies were just weeks along in pregnancy, and we’re both eager to get back into distance running.

We drove to Lorneville, which is at the western edge of Saint John, along the Bay of Fundy. It was cold, about -7 C, but the sun was brilliant and warm. We parked at a convenience store and headed out along Lorneville Road, which hugs the the coast for a few kilometres. There were a few big hills, but the scenery was stunning. The air was still and there was no traffic. We both reveled in the delights of running on bare pavement rather than the incessant treadmill on an early spring day.

As we looped back onto King William Road, my legs felt heavier and I couldn’t muster the energy to make conversation. I wanted to stop and walk but told myself to keep up with my friend. As we hit the 10 km mark, it was like my body knew we were headed in uncharted territory. I have not run that far for a year and a half. But we kept steady on the flat terrain and found our way back to the store. Jackie actually continued for another kilometre to make her run an even 14 km (she’s training for a half). I stumbled back to the car.

But, we did it! And at a decent pace, too at 6:28 min/km.

Not bad for two women who had babies nine months ago.

"RUN, MOM!"
“RUN, MOM!”

The Santa swagger

The day of the Saint John Santa Shuffle – my first post-baby race – my first wake-up call was around 3 a.m. when Silas decided it was time to eat. Ever since he was about three months old, I have been blessed with a through-the-night sleeper. But it looks like those days are over for now… with those early mornings getting earlier and earlier.

Silas was up and down a few times more before we finally got up around 7:30 a.m. I was feeling really spent and I hadn’t taken a step. I briefly considered bailing. Checking the weather did not make me feel any better.Screenshot_2014-12-06-08-33-45

Cold, wet, slippery. Why did I sign up for this again?

Before having a baby, I would leap out of bed on race mornings. On Saturday, it felt more like a chore. I just kept telling myself it was only 5K, and continued getting ready for the day.

Race prep with a baby is quite different than before. Not only do I need to make sure I get myself fed, dressed and geared-up, but I have another human to take care of as well. Basically it takes me twice as long to do anything. On Saturday, I got Silas dressed in his sweet “Gift for the Ladies” onesie and red plaid Baby Budds bib and then got myself ready as much as possible. The last step before we went out the door would be feeding him.

We arrived at Brunswick Square a little early so I could get my race kit. We also snapped a couple photos.

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Since the weather was so wet and mucky, Mark and Silas decided to wheel around the mall rather than cheer from outside.

I opted to lose my jacket at the last-minute. I figured it would be too hot, and I knew my hat would keep the rain off my face.

Before taking off, participants gathered for a group photo and to hear a few words from the Salvation Army, which the run supports. The event was not timed, which was kind of a relief. No pressure!

I started along Harbour Passage with a slow, steady pace, and just kept it up, watching my footing. My plan was to take a walk break every 10 minutes. After the first 10, I was still feeling good and decided to stop for a break at the turnaround point (just past Ocean Steel). I didn’t stop there either.

Running through slush, tipping my head down against the rain, I sensed a familiar feeling – I had run this route so many times before. I had run 5K many, many times before. And the feeling of running in the crazy elements made me feel refreshed and confident.

Before long, I made it back to the start/finish mark. I looked at my watch and saw it took about 31 minutes for 5.19 km. My pace was 6 mins/km – exactly my goal. I walked back to Mark and Silas with a little big of swagger in my step. Five months after having a baby, I successfully ran a 5K. Yes! I did it!

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Mama’s first race

I’ve signed up for a 5K!

It’s the Santa Shuffle, happening Dec. 6. That means I have four weeks to really get back at it.

Last week I managed three short runs, including our first stroller run, a 4K on my own, and a 20-minute treadmill run.

Between now and the shuffle, I’m hoping to get in three runs a week, plus one other activity, and a few strength exercises at home. Silas and I also usually get out for daily walks.

As I’ve learned, it’s important not to overdo it as a new mama.

And I know it’s just a fun run… but this is sort of momentous!

It will be my first race post-baby. The only race on the calendar for 2014. And, I’m hoping this run works as motivation for me to shed a bit more baby weight, gain back more running stamina/strength, and sign up for more races in 2015.

Today, Remembrance Day, was gorgeous in Saint John. It was so mild and sunny. After attending our local remembrance service, Mark and I got some chores done. Then I set out for a 4K run. It was warm enough for short sleeves and cropped pants.

I have been living by the run/walk setting on my Garmin during recent runs. For now I have it set at run 4 mins/walk 1 minute. I want to increase the running time by one minute every week and hopefully I can run 10-and-ones for the shuffle.

Hanging out with my buddy before a short run.
Hanging out with my buddy before a short run.