Paying It Forward

William Wong instructs a team during a construction project.

It would be easy for a rental-apartment owner the size of Boardwalk Real Estate Investment Trust to sit back and rake in the dollars. As one of Canada’s largest providers of apartment leases, the Calgary-based company has carved out a sizeable market niche, but at the core of the business, there’s more than four walls and a roof covering tenants’ heads. William Wong, Boardwalk Reak Estate’s CFO (pictured above, at centre) helps run a successful operation helmed by engaged citizens who have determined to make a better life for their neighbours.

Boardwalk is an opened-ended investment trust that owns and operates about 225 multifamily resident properties. In 2002, I was finishing up with a condo conversion company, and I thought it was time for a change of scenery. I joined when the company was maturing, and it’s been an exciting and rewarding 10 years.

A large part of the emphasis is on making sure our associates can develop a healthy work-life balance. You hear that at a lot of companies, but it’s not always something you can see. But here it starts at the top, with our CEO. When I joined, we both had young kids, and what attracted me to Boardwalk was the fact that family always comes first.

That idea of balance extends far beyond our employees. We’re not just renting apartments; we’re providing homes. It’s not just a place to hang your hat. Since 2008, we’ve done a lot of projects to help the homeless. We want to build a better community, and that means treating families and individuals as human beings. And that idea pays huge dividends because we think we’re helping others, but we’re really helping ourselves by making the world a better place.

One of our major initiatives is Homes of Hope, a trip to Tijuana to build homes. It began when our CEO, Sam Kolias, started the program as a private project with his family. Eventually it expanded to Boardwalk associates and their families, too. Now, we build nine houses there a year, over the course of three trips, with the help of about 60 associates per trip.

It’s a character-building experience. I just took my two 15-year-old boys on a trip in June, and we built a 10’ x 20’ house—very small. I didn’t even have to prod them; they worked hard alongside the Boardwalk associates and were constantly looking for more ways to help. We took care of the framing, painting, and drywall—and by the time we were finished, a family in need had a place to live.

For any parent, there’s the question of how to keep your kids grounded. We take so much for granted. And you really have to get out of your normal, comfortable existence. I watched my boys from afar, and the ownership they took of this project was inspiring. Every time we go, it’s a reminder of how amazingly fortunate we are in Canada, and you can’t help but want to share yourself and your resources.

The husband and wife we helped had five children, and there were some disabilities involved: one of the children can’t speak or hear. For the past 11 months, they had been living in a borrowed trailer. Before that, they’d been living in a makeshift shelter with a dirt floor. The father makes $80 per week as a farmhand. The mom cleans house for $60 per week. They’ve been together for 17 years. But despite these challenges, they have an immense devotion to their family.

The wonderful thing about this program is that it’s not a handout; it’s a hand up. There’s a monthly land payment, so there’s responsibility that goes along with it. And these families can be proud because they’re working very hard to improve their circumstances.

At the heart of our company is the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would like to be treated. The Tijuana program is just a by-product of the culture we try to foster back in Canada with our own associates and customers. Many companies have long, meandering mission statements, but for us it’s simple: We’re all trying to make the best life we can. If we can create even a small impact, then we’ve done our job as human beings.