Finding Your Passion

How Sam Cohen moved from bread-making technology to cofound commercial real estate developer the Torgan Group

Sam Cohen has always been at the forefront of his industry. When he immigrated to Canada 36 years ago, he was given the opportunity to establish a factory developing fully automatic lines for large bakeries and ended up creating the largest industrial-baking-equipment manufacturer in North America. However, in 1983—at the peak of that company’s success—Cohen decided to sell his shares and switch gears in order to spend more time with his young family. Today, he brings his design experience to his role as general manager and co-owner of the Torgan Group, a leader in commercial real estate in the GTA. Here, Cohen discusses how his mechanical engineering background helped him establish Torgan at the forefront of its industry and how he is transferring the business to the next generation.

Advantage: Where does the name Torgan Group come from?
Sam Cohen: The name Torgan is a compound of two city names: Toronto and Ramat Gan—my partner Eli Switsky’s home city [in Israel]. Eli was already active in real estate development and operated a company named Torgan Construction. Since I liked the name, when Eli and I formed a partnership, we decided to call our business the Torgan Group.

What inspired you to go into commercial real estate?
I was looking for an area in which I would be able to demonstrate my passion for design and manufacturing. Commercial real estate development—more so than residential real estate projects—seemed the most suitable match. I am still able to actively design and develop various commercial and public projects. [Addressing] the diversity of needs [in] fast-evolving, multicultural global cities requires constant innovation and renewal.

In addition, I find it challenging and interesting to consider a multitude of factors such as green architecture, aesthetics, land resources, ethnic diversity, age and social-class demographics, tourism aspects, community, and political needs. The consideration of numerous variables, combined with planners’ preference of multi-mixed-use projects, provide me with a higher level of challenges as well as opportunities to aspire and exhibit my imagination and creativity.

Earlier in your career, you were a pioneer in developing technology for fully automated bread making. That role seems radically different from your current one, so what links the two?
Previously, I derived a lot of satisfaction from the process of designing, manufacturing, and exporting equipment to developing countries. In 1979, we built an automatic line in Cairo—which produced 6,000 loafs of Egyptian baladi bread an hour—that was inaugurated by government officials, as it solved a serious shortage of food in that neighbourhood.

Although my two roles seem different, in both I construct an answer to needs. I approach each real estate project by researching the location, demographics, politics, and the needs of the local community.

How would you characterize your day-to-day role as general manager?
Since I have a technical background, I mainly focus on the planning and the execution of new projects while my partner is mainly responsible for acquisition and the financing aspects of the business. We are exchanging information on major decisions.

Your family was an important part of your decision to move into this field in the first place. Has your family continued to be important to the business?
Yes, our grown-up children are involved in various roles in the business, based on their educational training. Coinciding with the absorption of the second generation into our company, in the past three years the Torgan Group has started to expand to Western Canada and to the United States, [and is] redeveloping some of our existing properties in Ontario.

On a basic level, what sets Torgan apart in the commercial real estate sector?
Torgan is a private company and now is even the largest privately owned developer, owner, and manager of medical centres in Ontario. Unlike the more passive approach of some other companies, my partner and I are involved in all aspects of the development and management of commercial real estate buildings. We personally know the architects, builders, and marketing personnel of our new projects. We also know and interact with many of our tenants, service providers, trades, financial agents, and community leaders. This gives us hands-on knowledge of our business, which, in our opinion, produces the best results.

Do you have a philosophy you live by?
Respect everyone you brush shoulders with, and share your success, feelings, and wealth with others. Stick to your goals, stick to what you love doing, and good results will follow.

Why do you think you are successful?
I am relatively successful, I believe, because I am energetic and optimistic. I wake up every morning with lots of joy and plans for the day. Challenges do not discourage or depress me; they provide me with an opportunity to find creative solutions.

What does the future hold for you?
I would like to see our company prosper. Personally, my goal is to see the next generation progressing on the right track, leading a meaningful and happy life.