Anthony Heller is the President of Plaza. With over thirty-five years of experience in commercial real estate, namely retail and residential, Mr. Heller is a widely respected figure across real estate and the greater financial ecosystem within Toronto. Since founding his firm in 1994, Mr. Heller has become involved in venture capital financing, consulting with both privately held and publicly traded companies in which he has invested.
In May 2018, Plazacorp took home Tarion’s 2018 Homeowners’ Choice Award for its outstanding customer service in high-rising building.
Anthony Heller is the President of Plaza, a distinguished real estate developer in the GTA. With over 35 years of experience in real estate development, Anthony has initiated and completed upwards of $6B of residential and commercial development.
Q: During a prominent career in real estate, what have you learned that has carried across into your technology investing activities?
A: Management is key. Throughout my career, I’ve seen projects built by incompetent developers fail, while comparable projects across the street succeed. It all boils down to how the people behind the operation manage the process.
My experience in technology investing has been very similar in that it’s not the product but management that makes the business successful. Having a good idea or product is important, but if that good idea or product is brought to market by the wrong people, it likely will not be successful.
Therefore, proper management is the key to successful business building and investments.
Q: Having worked with people for over 30 years, do you feel confident in your ability to assess an entrepreneurs potential to perform?
A: It’s very difficult to assess whether a person is capable of taking a task over the finish line upon first meeting. For me, the only really strong indicator of future performance is past success. However, even with that, you have to be careful because the single past success of an individual may be the result of other team members pulling the weight, or simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
Facebook is a good example of this. When Mark Zuckerberg first set out, he wasn’t intending to scale the company into what it is today and was generally not considered to be a tremendous leader. However, because he had the right idea at the right time, he was able to build the company into the huge fortune that it is today. But would I ask him to run another tech company simply because he was successful the first time? No. One success doesn’t necessarily prove a person’s abilities. Two successes is a much better indication.
Q: What initially attracted you to the technology space? Did you begin investing as a means of diversifying your portfolio, or because of an opportunity you observed in the space?
A: I started investing in non-real-estate companies strictly as a short-term trading strategy. While it is not a big part of my business, I do take interest in the companies that I have become involved with.
“I think the ability to differentiate between real risk and commonly perceived risk is what divides a good entrepreneur from a great entrepreneur.”
– Anthony Heller
Q: In your opinion, what sets apart a good entrepreneur from a great entrepreneur?
A: Here, I have very strong views. I have learned that the majority of people tend to go with the flow, meaning that they tend to follow the crowd. Their perception of risk is contingent on what others perceive to be risky vs. non-risky.
I’ve been told a billion times in my career that condominiums are a very risky proposition. As evidence of this, many large institutions are reluctant to put money into the condominium development business. However, in the last 40 years we have endured several recessions and the only piece of my business that has never been impacted is the residential condominium market. Real estate investments in apartment buildings, office buildings, shopping buildings and industrial spaces – all perceived to be ‘safer bets’ by others – have been the ones to take the largest hits. So, I have and continue to believe that building condominiums is a relatively low risk proposition.
I think the ability to differentiate between real risk and commonly perceived risk is what divides a good entrepreneur from a great entrepreneur. A great entrepreneur is someone that bases their risk assessment (the probability of good and bad things happening) on reality as opposed to common perception, the latter of which has proven to be wrong more often than not in my experience.
Q: What has been the best piece of career advice that you have received and how have you implemented that advice into practice?
A: I’m not sure I ever received this advice from anybody, but what I have learned along the way is that you have to look at business as a long-term proposition. It’s not about how much money you are going to make in this quarter. It’s about treating people fairly and building relationships in order to create good will for your business.
While Plaza only has about 25 people working for us directly, we have a team of 1,000+ people that we have built lasting relationships with. Recognizing that these people are as much an asset to our business as we are to theirs, we treat them with respect. Surprisingly, many of our peers in the construction industry have failed to do this – putting their own needs before the people. Fortunately, this has worked in our favour. Our tradesmen want to work with us because they have been treated fairly in the past. In return, they are willing to negotiate on better prices and we get unfettered access to the shortage of construction labour.
To give you an example, a model maker once called me up and said that I had an outstanding bill payable to him. Although he was payable in 30 days, he called 5 days after the job was completed and told me that he was in desperate need of money. He said that if I paid him a portion of the cost upfront, he would give me a significant discount. Understanding that he was in a tough spot, I paid him the entire amount owing. Because of this small deed, I now have a model maker for life.
Q: What is your prediction for the Toronto real estate market for the next five years?
A: Currently, there is very strong demand and restricted supply caused by high immigration and high net population growth in the city of Toronto. Over the next five years, this population growth will likely decline slightly due to the high cost of residential living in Toronto. To what extent, I can’t judge.
I do think that there will be a limited upside on price for the next few years because of the sharp increases in the last four or five years. I think that the affordability factor is limiting the ability of people to actually pay the higher prices, whether it’s for rent or for purchase. Therefore, I don’t think prices are going to rise in the next five years the way they’ve risen over the past five.