Christine Bergeron will tell you herself that she was not the obvious choice to lead Concert Properties.

Originally founded as VLC Properties in 1989 by Jack Poole and David Podmore, the company now known as Concert Properties has become one of the largest developers of rental housing in Canada, with a diverse portfolio of properties in British Columbia and Ontario.

Bergeron, meanwhile, has spent much of her career in finance, including at Shoreline West Asset Management, a hedge fund she co-founded, and most recently at Vancity, the largest credit union in Canada, where she started as an Investment Manager and eventually became President & CEO.

It doesn't make her an obvious choice to lead a real estate development company, but that doesn't mean she isn't qualified.

Concert Properties is unique among real estate developers in how it's structured: it's jointly owned by a group of union and pension funds — much closer to the financial world Bergeron is from.

The company now consists of several corporate entities, including Concert Real Estate Corporation, Concert Income Properties, and Concert Infrastructure, and was led by Podmore until he stepped down in 2017. Brian McCauley, previously the President & COO, stepped into the role of President & CEO, before later leaving the company altogether in 2022, prompting Podmore's return to the role until Bergeron was announced as his successor in April 2023.

Now, in an interview with STOREYS, six months after officially taking over the role in September, Bergeron discusses the jump from the financial world to the real estate world, her thoughts on some of the hot topics among those in the industry, what's in store for Concert Properties, and her position as one of the few women helming a real estate company in BC.

Why did you want to make the jump from Vancity to Concert?

I had been at Vancity for about a dozen years, including my time as CEO, and I love that organization and the people there, but I also felt that maybe it was time for something new and to shift my focus.

I would say the amazing thing about finance is that you touch so many industries and companies and people. But it also means you're one-step removed from the person actually doing the work. I had spent the earlier part of my career investing in early-stage technology as a venture capitalist, so when I was thinking about what's next, I wanted to kind of get closer to the impact. I also knew that I wanted to stay focused on really making an impact in our community.

When I think about some of the key issues for this generation, you've got climate change, housing affordability, and mental health, and that was why I thought Concert would be a good fit for me, both in thinking through how we create places where people can live and work, but also that community cohesion and built environment, which is a big chunk of countries' emissions. It was a really tough decision, but those were some of the reasons. A different perspective on the work.

Now that you're several months into your role, has there been anything about the industry that's perhaps been different than what you were expecting before you took the job?

I think it's been about the same. The transition has been good, the team here has been really welcoming, as have most people in the industry, actually. I think, because of how things have been playing out over the last little while, with interest rate changes and so many changes affecting the overall costs, I think a lot of the perspective I bring is helpful. Obviously, I'm not a real estate developer. That's not my background. But thinking about risk mitigation and stewarding assets and bringing the team together to really think about our next 10 years [is]. It's been a good six months.

Now that you're in the real estate development world, how do you view the state of the industry right now, in terms of challenges developers may be facing or things developers are paying attention to?

I was aware of quite a bit of it from previous roles. At Vancity, I had been the Vice President of what we called "community real estate" — commercial real estate — and saw a lot of those elements around construction costs going up and the inflation elements. But I think the piece that perhaps I knew about, but didn't appreciate exactly in the way that I do now is really around the development timelines that we see in Canada. It takes us, according to the stats I've been reading, two to three times longer in the development process in Canada than in the US. It's the lengthiest among developed countries. I think that's one that I definitely have a much greater appreciation for, and it does affect how teams try to think through work and the costs at the end of the day.

In January, you moderated a chat with Minister of Housing Ravi Kahlon about the various pieces of new provincial legislation. How do you think developers such as Concert Properties are viewing those changes? Are developers taking a wait-and-see approach until they're fully implemented, or is there already enough certainty?

Directionally, I think everyone agrees that we need solutions. I would say that I do think that many of the intentions of what the government has put forward — they are the right way, directionally. From our perspective, what we've been hearing from some municipalities is in the short term, [development] may be slowing down a bit. I think the hope is that it will then be speeding up later. I think most are looking and waiting for the details of a lot of these [legislative changes].

I do think that partnership with government is going to be needed, especially if you think about rental housing. It does require a shift in thinking a bit, around more collaboration, because there's so many challenges and so much demand that it really goes beyond the capabilities of any one organization. So, we do think that deeper partnerships between private sector and government and — as appropriate — not-for-profits and First Nations is important.

You may already know this in terms of Concert's history, but back in the '90s we were dealing with a lack of rental homes as well in Vancouver, and Concert was actually founded, initially, to come up with a creative solution for that. So, we actually did partner with the City of Vancouver and we put in place almost 1,000 rental homes across seven buildings and we still operate them today. We have been thinking a lot about how we [can] use that model and program and how can we update it for today. We think there is opportunity there, but it does take a different mindset.

[That model involved the City receiving initial lease payments for the lands, assuming no risk during construction and operations, receiving additional payments tied to performance, and receiving ownership of the buildings at no cost upon expiry of the land leases. Those seven buildings include the two Fraser Pointe buildings on E Kent Avenue North, the Earles Court building on Crowley Drive, and 600 Drake Street, among others.]

You alluded to some of the challenges developers are facing. How has the last year or so been for Concert and what can we expect this year?

Last year was a good year for us. We finished three projects and we delivered over 800 new homes across Canada — we do quite a bit in Ontario as well. That was over 500 rental homes and 170 were affordable rental housing, so we're happy with that. I think for us, because of the way we were structured historically, we are less leveraged compared to many, so I think that helps us and has been helping us over the last couple of years.

Today and going forward, we have around 9,000 housing units that are in our development pipeline. Our goal is always to deliver affordable rental housing in those projects. We've got about 1,400 that are under construction, eight buildings with 1,600 units that are in the advanced design and approval [stage], and we're pursuing entitlements on a lot more. That's where we've got the bulk of it at the moment. One of the large ones is with Langara Gardens here [in Vancouver]. We've also got one in Victoria and one in Toronto.

You’re one of the few women at the top of a real estate company here in BC. From that perch, how do you see the state of the industry as it relates to women and DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion)?

It's really interesting, for better or worse, because I've often been in that situation in my career, whether it was in venture capital or investing in clean energy. Finance, historically, has been quite male — although banking itself has been shifting and certainly the credit union system has a lot more female leadership — but I do think and have noticed that there are more women taking on new leadership roles and I think we're going to continue to see that shift.

I always think about diversity — I thought about it this way with Vancity as well — as if you want to create a community that meets the needs of the people in that community, then you need to understand and celebrate the diversity of that communitity. And your teams need to be able to represent that, to some extent. We've been doing a lot of work here at Concert over the last years, before I joined, and we're building out another three-year strategy on how we not just have the representation, but also really ensure that we hear the voices, and that we're thinking about how else we can create that inclusion.

I'm really happy about this — a lot of it is not my doing — but we've been a BC Top Employer for four years straight, and a lot of that we hear in the engagement around people wanting to come together to solve problems, and you're going to have more creativity, you're going to have better solutions if you've got diverse voices coming together. There's data that supports that.

What do you think we lose by not having more women in the development industry and in leadership positions?

I would bring it back to the complexity of the issues — and the projects even. When you bring people together, the more perspective you have, I do think you'll have better solutions. Perspective — it doesn't simply mean whether you're female or male, but what's your background and what experiences do you bring to the table? And certainly that includes racial diversity and so many other elements of diversity. I think when you are looking to build a community — which is our intent and certainly I think most in the real estate development world would say that that is their intention — the more you can reflect the community you're trying to build, that will pay off.

Other women leaders I’ve talked to have pointed to you and your hiring as a big positive that could inspire future generations of women leaders in the industry. I'm curious about whether there were any examples like that for you when you were rising in your career?

I would give all the kudos to Concert's Board. I wasn't the obvious choice in that sense.

The first time I reported to a women was actually when I was on the executive team at Vancity, reporting to Tamara Vrooman. I've always just tried to learn from everyone and did have many women that I respected, but they were not always in CEO positions. That just wasn't the case. I wish I had a really long list. I definitely hope that our youth today are starting to see a longer list. I have two boys and it's always an interesting perspective because they obviously see a different world than a lot of other boys would see, and I think [it's important] to not just have young girls see women in CEO roles but also for boys to see that.

I just try as much as I can to do what's right and do things with integrity, and I know that people are watching. I think a lot of people want to see me and Concert succeed, and I'm always mindful of that.

What would you say to women who are perhaps trying to get a foot in the industry, or rise in the industry, or get to where you are, but are perhaps discouraged from the lack of examples like you?

I think there's a few things. I think regardless of role models, never underestimate the impact you can have in your role and speak up as an employee. Organizations typically do want to listen to employees, and that includes asking for more with respect to diversity, equity, inclusion, and reconciliation. You do have a voice. My experience is that many organizations do take it very seriously and they want to hear.

And then sometimes what I've also said to people is don't self-select out. Data shows that, typically, women will not apply for a role because they believe they are not qualified. I was asked earlier in my career, by my other half, "why would you self-select out from a process?" after I had said, "I don't know that I would qualify." And he said, "well, why don't you let somebody else decide that?"

There's been a lot of research on it. We tend to look at the list of qualifications and try to check each box, instead of going in with "I have these experiences and I have these ideas and here's why I think that I may be a good fit" and not self-select out before you have that chance. I think that's really important for women.

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.