Tom Schwartz: A legacy of big buildings and building relationships
Tom Schwartz accomplished a lot. But it wasn’t necessarily what he did. It was how he did it.
As someone who always took the complex and made it simple, Schwartz, the founder of CAPREIT, would appreciate that sentiment. Though, as the humble person he was, he’d probably find a way to attribute it to everyone else.
Sadly, in August, at only 68 years old, Schwartz lost his life to prostate cancer.
A pioneer that became an industry icon, Schwartz graduated as a chartered accountant in 1975, and went on to pursue real estate development, where he developed a name for himself as a leader and a visionary. He may have decided not to explore a career as a CA, but he never fell down. He fell up. Way up. Into high-rise buildings.
He saw a bunch of highly run-down properties in receivership, and saw an opportunity. In 1996, Schwartz founded CAPREIT (Canadian Apartment Properties Real Estate Investment Trust), alongside Michael Stein, and would become its president and CEO. And those buildings would become some of the highest quality residential portfolios in the world.
Saw people the same universally
Mark Kenney, COO of CAPREIT, was one of Schwartz’s first employees. He says Schwartz made this happen, because he was the first to provide service to people in apartment buildings at a standard that hadn’t been offered before.
“He saw people the same universally. The company is the same in Canada, Netherlands, and Ireland. He always said a quality home and quality service attracts quality tenants, which results in great business that we can take around the world. But he didn’t just say this. He worked hard to get there,” said Kenney.
“He was a passionate learner. He’d start off knowing nothing about something and if he felt it to be important, he studied it. I remember, he thought it was important if we sold property in Quebec that we speak French. He took French lessons. Three or four lessons a week. And he became fluent. And he did this in his sixties.”
Kenney fondly recounts many stories about Schwartz — and each has similarities. Schwartz would describe himself as shy, but when he knew people well, he was very outgoing. His presence was “tremendous.” When he spoke, people would listen. He wasn’t a salesperson, but he was so confident, so people just wanted to follow him.
Schwartz was said to authentically model the qualities we all want in a friend or co-worker. Everyone who knew him mentions his hard work, his loyalty, his passion, and his compassion.
Even at his service, Kenney remarks how everyone would speak of the first time meeting Schwartz. Because he made such an impression.
“The reason you’re hearing the same things over and over is because he was very unique and consistent. He got his hair cut at the same place for 25 years. When we’d travel, we’d go to the same places. Same restaurant. Meet with the same people.”
Interestingly, Schwartz was indeed so humble and private, that it’s only posthumously, Kenney, who worked closely with him for more than 20 years, is starting to learn more about the philanthropist, leader, friend and family man.
But what outshines Schwartz’s work and oft-silent philanthropy was the pride he took in his family: his wife Marjorie and three children, from the oldest to youngest, Jamie, Andrew and Emily.
“His career was of course important to him, but only his closest friends/associates realized how important family was,” says Jamie. “No matter what was happening he would stop what he was doing to take a phone call, help with a problem, and always made sure we had everything we needed. For all of us, including my mother, he was everyone’s mentor, advisor, best friend, and the centre of our family.”
Schwartz’s daughter echoes that.
“We all know how much he has accomplished professionally, from his early successes as a developer, to the success of CAPREIT and IRES (the Irish REIT he started). But to me, it isn’t just what he accomplished but how he did it that is admirable,” said Emily Schwartz Rabe.
“He always saw the best in people. He believed with the right support and guidance, everyone could reach their true potential. He challenged you to expand your thinking, but supported you in your decisions. And made sure to devote whatever time he could to anyone that asked. He did all of this with a calm, kind demeanour that became his signature. These qualities contributed to his success and are, to me, as big a part of his legacy as his businesses.”
Schwartz’s son Andrew also takes pride in his father’s legacy, both in business and family.
Of his father’s many business accomplishments, what sticks out to him most are the businesses he built in Europe, which were in the early stages when he died.
Ahead of his time
“He saw a real opportunity in Europe after the financial crisis, especially since the recovery had been so much slower than in the U.S. All the big private equity firms and real estate conglomerates were focused on Greece, Spain and Portugal given the high-profile distress, but he was way ahead of his time in his focus on Ireland.
“Typically during the early stages of an economic recovery, demand for apartments tends to soar (as people can’t afford to buy homes). He was one of the few to see the early signs of recovery in Ireland and act upon it, and within a couple years IRES has become the largest private landlord in the country.
“It’s too bad he won’t be around to see this company realize its full ‘steady-state’ potential post-BREXIT, but he was able to live long enough to be able to see a lot of success and milestones reached in Ireland.”
Jamie also sees his father’s standout business successes at the European expansion. And notes another huge success, “Three well-rounded, productive children.”
Business was meaningful to Schwartz, but, as Andrew says, his family “meant everything to him” because it really made him happiest. “Despite his busy work schedule he always made family a priority. Family dinners (mainly in restaurants as he didn’t love eating at home), family tennis, family vacations, family outings — sporting events, concerts, movies …”
Colleagues were also like family to Schwartz.
Jodi Lieberman, chief HR officer at CAPREIT, says, “I was a very close confidant of Tom’s and we had a true partnership in business. I always felt comfortable being completely myself and honest with him, even if I disagreed with him on something. He was a true mentor to me and wanted me to learn all aspects of the business.”
And while Schwartz was one of Gina Cody’s first clients, there was a reason the founder of Construction Control (now CCI Group) worked with him until she retired in 2016.
Integrity and honesty
“I always admired Tom for his integrity and honesty, he always respected others from the construction workers to the top professionals. He was very loyal to those who acted professionally, hence the long-term working relationship he had with all his consultants and trades. And because of his loyalty and honesty everyone loved working with him, and I truly believe that they all gave him their best efforts.”
No matter how powerful Schwartz became, his greatest power was in his ability to connect — with anyone. As Kenney remembers, he was deeply driven by relationships. “I’ve met a lot of people over the years who have known Tom since he was 5 years old.”
And more than 20 years later, Kenney is still grateful and thankful for this quality.
“We all feel a big loss. We really miss Tom.”
BIGGEST LESSONS …
“My dad was and still is my role model.” He taught me: “If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything. Take the time to think through the decision before you act on it.” – Emily Schwartz Rabe, daughter
“It’s ok to be quiet, think and share your opinion later – after you have had time to form it.” – Jamie Schwartz, son
“In order to have success professionally you need to love what you do. If you love what you do, you’ll work hard at it and therefore be successful. He really exemplified this! Also, be nice to everyone as you never know where people will end up! He had some funny stories to go along with this lesson.” – Andrew Schwartz, son
“The biggest lesson I learned from Tom is to surround yourself with strong people that you can trust when you’re in a bind and who will support you.” – Jodi Lieberman, chief HR officer at CAPREIT
“What he passed on to me most was the ability to simplify complicated situations.” – Mark Kenney, COO CAPREIT
FONDEST MEMORIES …
“Him playing with and spending time with my oldest son (his grandchild). I never thought I would see such a bond form between them, but it did in only a few years. While not an overly emotional man, his fondness for William and willingness to drop everything for him is a great memory.” – Jamie Schwartz, son
“Family vacations, of which we had plenty, were great memories. While always working, on vacations he would make sure there was time for whatever activities we wanted to do. He loved to travel and enriched our lives with travel.” – Jamie Schwartz, son
“He used to come visit me in New York to go and see concerts. One particularly fond memory was when he came to visit (with my brother Jamie) to see the Rolling Stones at the Prudential Center in Newark in 2012 (one of the 50th Anniversary shows and they had a bunch of special guests — Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, The Black Keys, etc.). We saw hundreds of shows together over the years but a few things made this one memorable.
- It was impossible to get tickets and he HATED calling people and asking for favours (despite the fact that he loved doing favours for others), especially for something as trivial as concert tickets. But he did it because it was worth it for the opportunity to come to New York and go with Jamie and I.
- He asked the hotel for a car to take us to Newark from Manhattan and they booked us this really goofy stretch limo from the 1980s.
- After the concert and when we finally got back to Manhattan at midnight, he insisted on having dinner at the Carnegie Deli, which was his favourite spot in New York (and he especially loved going after concerts as it was open all night).” – Andrew Schwartz, son
“One trip I remember particularly fondly is when he took my mum and I to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. My dad wasn’t that interested in the Olympics and he couldn’t really figure out why we wanted to go. But, I kept telling him that this was a moment in our history, something we would never do again, and that it was really cool. So, he took us. He got us box seats to two hockey games, and he wore his Canadian Olympic clothing proudly. I remember at the end of the trip chattering away about the experience and he just smiled. I knew that smile well, the one that he gave me when he was as happy as I was. It is that smile, along with his humility, his kindness, his loyalty, his passion and his spirit that I cherish and will always remember.” – Emily Schwartz Rabe, daughter
“Just being together and sitting and talking for hours. One time after a business dinner in Vancouver, we stayed and talked for three hours about the future, our lives, our families, and our camp experiences when we were young, and how they helped shaped the people we are today. I will truly miss his dry sense of humour that only a few people got to see, his generous nature and always wanting us to have fun while working hard, and sitting and talking to him for hours – that really was our favourite thing to do.” – Jodi Lieberman, chief HR officer CAPREIT
“One of my fondest memories of Tom was travelling on a regular basis for a year to oversee a project he had in Halifax. Tom and I both loved lobsters so every trip back we both would buy our lobsters, he for his family and I for my family! He adored his children and was very proud of them.” – Gina Cody, Schwartz was one of her first clients
“Everybody remembers the first time they met Tom. During his service, everyone I talked to talked about “the first time I met him.” It stuck with them. He gave me a huge break. At 30 years old, he put me in charge of the property and took a huge chance on me and mentored me as a friend. Tom treated me like his closest friend, a member of the family, as well as my boss.” – Mark Kenney, COO of CAPREIT