One day in 1980, as he was sitting in his office talking to his boss on the phone, Lorne Braithwaite was fired. Two weeks later he would become the CEO of the furniture retailer Ethan Allan Canada. And three weeks later, he would lead what would become Cambridge Shopping Centres Ltd., one of Canada's largest retail-driven real estate firms.
Tomorrow night, he is to receive a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP) at the annual Real Estate Excellence Awards gala in Toronto.
Before the day he was fired, Mr. Braithwaite had been president of Cambridge Leaseholds Ltd. for almost two years. Then came news of the company's impending sale.
He had always wanted to strike out on his own before the age of 40, and at 39 the clock was ticking.
So, Mr. Braithwaite, along with partner Don Priddle and using capital from Great-West Life Assurance Co., decided to present a bid.
"I said to myself: This is it. I know this company. I'm ready to do it. So, I called up [then Oxford president] Don Love and told him I'd like to put in a bid. That's when he fired me," says Mr. Braithwaite, 64.
At the time, his employer, Oxford Properties Inc., owned Cambridge. And his position as president of Cambridge constituted a conflict of interest, Mr. Love explained to him during that fateful phone call.
But once freed of his post, Mr. Braithwaite and his partners submitted their bid.
To hedge against the uncertain outcome of the Cambridge bid, he flew to meet with five U.S. furniture retailers and within two weeks had signed a deal with Ethan Allen for the exclusive rights to distribute its product in Western Canada, an arrangement that would later form the national eight-store Ethan Allen Canada chain.
He had a potential lease deal in place to open his first store in Calgary when the bid for Cambridge was accepted. Three weeks after being fired, Mr. Braithwaite was now the CEO of two companies.
He left the day-to-day running of the Ethan Allen operation to Alberta retailer Bill Cook (remaining CEO of Ethan Allen Canada until 2002 when it was sold to Ethan Allen Inc.), and took a hands-on role in developing Cambridge.
The successful two-stage $500-million transaction had put Mr. Braithwaite back in his office with the title of president and CEO, directing what would eventually become Cambridge Shopping Centres. The company's portfolio of 40 regional malls would come to include successful large-scale developments such as Vaughn Mills, just north of Toronto, as well as mixed-use projects like Burnaby, B.C.'s Metropolis at Metrotown, which combines 1.7 million square feet of retail with more than 600,000 square feet of office space.
Mr. Braithwaite ended his tenure as head of Cambridge almost a year after the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec obtained a majority shareholder position and morphed it into Ivanhoe Cambridge Inc. in 2000. By the time it was acquired, Cambridge had a book value of $3.7-billion, the company said.
It's an outcome that may have exceeded Mr. Braithwaite's original ambitions, which were simply to "learn to be a really good businessman and eventually do something entrepreneurial."
Growing up on a farm just outside the 200-person village of Dewberry, Alta. (near Lloydminster), Mr. Braithwaite used every opportunity available to him, managing to parlay his hockey talent into a bachelor of commerce and an MBA.
"I think I was one of the only ones back then playing Junior A who was also at university full-time," he says.
Graduating from the University of Alberta, Mr. Braithwaite went to work for T. Eaton Co. Ltd., where he rose to sales and merchandise manager for Edmonton, learning all about mass-merchandise retailing before he moved to Oxford Properties to become a project manager.
Mr. Braithwaite attributes much of his success with shopping malls to a keen understanding of the retail trade. In the early years, he agreed to lease rates for large department store tenants at well below break-even costs to bring them out of the downtown core and into his regional centres. And unlike leasing office space to a business, he had to ensure his retail tenants could turn a profit.
"When you're developing 40 of these [malls], if the major retailer can't make any money on your projects, the next time around, he'll say, 'thanks very much, but I'm not interested.' "
In this fast-paced environment, Mr. Braithwaite benefited greatly from a reputation of integrity.
"You knew, if he made a deal on the back of an envelope, he would honour his word," says Betty Anne Millar, a regional manager for Cambridge who worked with Mr. Braithwaite for almost 20 years.
Mr. Braithwaite is a good fit for the industrial and office properties association's award, which celebrates individuals who have contributed to the community and the industry, says Philip Mostowich, president of NAIOP Toronto.
"It's not so much about a single project or the fact that he was a senior executive at one company. He was chairman of the [New York-based International Congress of Shopping Centres], and a major contributor in the real estate industry when it came to tackling government issues, lobbying as well as working with charities."
Mr. Braithwaite remains an active participant in the real estate and investment community with his company Park Avenue Consulting, serving as director on the boards of Enbridge, Jannock Properties, Northern Reflections and Bata Shoe Corporation Worldwide, as well as being chairman of a Dubai-based developer of regional malls in the Middle East and north Africa. He also is actively involved in organizing an investment fund with a focus on China.
But it's not all about real estate for Mr. Braithwaite. Every November for the past 15 years, he has traded his navy suit for a clown outfit and donated $1,000 to join other CEOs and celebrities to work as a clown in Toronto's Santa Claus parade.
Family: wife Josie, 3 sons, daughter
Born: Dewberry, Alta.
1978 - 1980: President of Cambridge Leaseholds Ltd.
1980 - 2001: President and CEO of Cambridge Shopping Centres
1980 - 2002: Chairman and CEO of Ethan Allen Canada
1978 - 2006: President and CEO of Park Avenue Holdings Ltd.
On mixed-use projects: 'I expect to see more mixed-use properties in urban clusters adjacent to strong public transit hubs.'
On department stores: 'They're no longer part of the growth curve, in terms of new retailing, so their market share is . . . dropping.'
On goods and services: 'Services is probably the fastest-growing category of retail put into regional malls in the last 10 years."