Zehr Group CEO Don Zehr got into the family business back in the 1980s—starting when the company was focused solely on real-estate development. Since then, he’s acquired a real-estate license of his own and is working to build the company into a one-stop shop. Zehr spoke to Advantage about the strategy of building his family’s legacy.
You actually started out as a pilot—what did that experience teach you?
That’s a funny question. Nobody’s ever really asked that before. Being a pilot taught me how to be conscious of procedures and organization. It’s also made me a bit of a perfectionist.
What made you shift to the family business?
I went to university at what was then called the Florida Institute of Technology—now Florida Tech. They have a bachelor of science program that’s more or less a business degree stuck together with aviation training. When I graduated in March of 1980, the aviation industry had significantly changed six months before I graduated. I thought I would be flying for a major company like Air Canada. They weren’t hiring, and I ended up working for a smaller airline. I wasn’t fortunate to fly a small jet, but I was still flying. I did that for about three years.
I’m an old guy, so that’s kind of the thing. As the three-year mark hit, I met a woman, who is my wife today. I started thinking that I could work in the family business on the development side—then I could sideline as a pilot as well. As I got busier and busier with Zehr Group, I realized flying on the weekends wasn’t going to work. I made the conscious decision to leave aviation.
REAL ESTATE RISING
How Zehr Group is successfully transitioning into a one-stop shop
1. Started from the development side
2. Added on project management and, from there, went into construction
3. Now has a financial analyst and initial site planning team
Since you started at the beginning of 1983, you’ve evolved into the role of CEO. How have you grown in that time?
You’re always learning as new opportunities and relationships present themselves. I said to my wife recently that in the last three to six months, I’ve had a burst of new experiences and understandings of conceptual ways to construct deals. That comes from dealing with different experiences.
I’ve learned to create strong relationships. Zehr Group’s values are built on that. I really enjoy that part of the business. It’s fun when you get to be involved in it all—in that entrepreneurial spirit. We’ve had tenants for 30 years that I still assist. We’re like a family. As we’ve continued to grow, I’ve had to step away from some of these roles. It can be a difficult part because I like to make, foster, and maintain these relationships.
I’d also like to think that I’m street smart. I’m not an academic by any means, but I get stuff done. That comes by fostering relationships and creating win-win situations for all my clients, partners, colleagues, and employees.
Speaking of getting stuff done, you’re making Zehr Group a one-stop shop. Tell us more about that.
We’re definitely not the only company to offer all disciplines, but we are working to make it unique. Essentially, one division feeds into the other. It keeps going in a circle. Let’s say we start off with a property-management project, and it turns into a large construction opportunity. We have the ability for that turnover, so the customer doesn’t have to go to a million different companies to complete a project. It’s fun and exciting because we can offer a greater set of services, which means we’re their partners through the entire journey.
How did you come up with the idea, and how has it expanded?
The idea was kind of intuitive. Growing up, I saw my dad partner with a guy in business to start his own construction company. It was always something I wanted to duplicate again. We started out as a development company, and we used to self-manage in the ’90s. I decided to create a separate entity to manage our properties. What happened then was that people would come and ask us, “Hey, will you look after our stuff?” That led into the property-management side.
About seven or eight years ago, we started our construction division. That led to adding a couple more components like property management, a development arm, and asset management. Recently, we’ve added a financial analyst, and my son has been onboarded. He’s an architect who specializes in initial site planning. That, combined with my Realtor license, helps us foster long-lasting relationships.
The newest arm of the business is construction. How are you looking to build it out?
We’ve continued to grow by bringing good, hard-working people who are very faithful to us. We’ve done some cool projects in the past, like one for Google. They could have gone to a much larger company for their project, but we were excited they came to us. We’ve expanded to car dealerships, and we want to continue to work on our reputation by doing quality work, on time and on budget.
What are the challenges of being a one-stop shop?
From the industry or client-side, I can see how there could be a perceived conflict of interest in the property-management role. If a client had a building down the road from our own properties, and I have to make a decision on a tenant placing, I could see how they would ask which way I was going to go.
We’ve probably lost some opportunities, but I think if you’re really thoughtful about it, it’s a matter of trust and being an honourable businessman. There are a lot of opportunities to screw people over in this industry, but you don’t need to sell your reputation to the highest bidder.
What about the solutions for this model?
It all comes down to efficiencies. If I had to, I could call a meeting with all facets of a project and make a decision in a short time versus trying to contact several different companies. Our best-team list is getting longer, and it’s adding so much more opportunity and meat to the plate.
What’s next for Zehr Group?
We want to continue to grow organically. Building our brand is important. As far as diversification goes, we’ll add other skill sets in the office that will lead to a more full-service company for the customer.
Our growth is dependent on creating and maintaining our good relationships. If we have good relationships, those partners will recommend us or ask if we can work on more projects ahead. We’ve been fortunate enough that that’s happened up to this point, and I hope that continues to happen.