Toronto’s Front-Runner

CFO Chad McCleave’s dedication to Waterfront Toronto is effecting the city’s next wave of economic and cultural success

Queens Quay Blvd. is one of the major projects under way for Waterfront Toronto. When completed, the project will feature lanes for multiple transit systems, furthering the value of the land for mass use. (Rendering: Waterfront Toronto)
Chad McCleave
Chad McCleave, CFO.

It takes most people years of arduous schooling, research, exploration, and real-world work experience before they decide what career paths their lives should take. But for seven-year-old Chad McCleave, it took a board game.

“This is great—I should try finance!” McCleave recalls himself thinking after winning his first round of property trading in Monopoly. Little did he know how indicative the statement would prove to be: today, McCleave serves as the CFO of Waterfront Toronto, the organization responsible for carrying out various revitalization projects along the city’s lakefront. Started as a partnership between three levels of government in 2001, Waterfront Toronto has grown into the largest urban redevelopment project in North America, enhancing the area’s value through brownfield revitalizations and other projects. The organization has generated jobs—the equivalent of more than 16,000 people working full-time in a single year—and $3.2 billion in output for the Canadian economy.

McCleave joined Waterfront Toronto in 2010, bringing with him a unique mix of private- and public-sector experience. “It’s about trying to run the organization like a business,” McCleave says, “but still keeping in mind the government’s multiple objectives.” Before joining, McCleave encountered Waterfront Toronto while working for PricewaterhouseCoopers as part of its municipal government advisory practice. Before that, he did something most finance professionals have never done: he was the municipal councillor for the Town of Newmarket, Ontario, which not only gave him experience working with a wide range of government projects but also fine-tuned his ability to communicate complicated financial information in layman’s terms for the general public. This skill helps him in his current role because it enables him to present financial ideas to his board so that they can make more timely and better-informed decisions.

McCleave had also previously served as the CFO of the Highway 407 project, the first toll highway in Ontario and the largest public-private partnership in Canada at the time. He was brought in to take the project from the conceptual phase through construction, operation, and eventual privatization.


What’s around the bend for Chad McCleave and Waterfront Toronto

1. Shift from public funding to other revenue sources

Continuing to sell property to generate revenue.

2. Keep communicating with stakeholders

Try to align the agendas of the federal, provincial, and municipal government with the board of directors.

3. Finish work in the remaining eight years

That means staying committed and identifying the greatest risks to success.

So, with a slew of relevant experience already under his belt, McCleave was the ideal candidate when the opportunity at Waterfront Toronto arose. Like his previous employers, Waterfront Toronto had to deal with unusual transactions. In addition to redevelopment, the organization was dealing with district energy, intelligent community, and innovation centres—outside-the-box methods for enhancing the lakefront.

One of the earliest examples of McCleave’s efforts to introduce unique value to the organization was a public-private partnership he spearheaded with a fiber optics company. The company installed commercial high-speed broadband into residential condos—something no one had done before—and thereby enhanced the condos’ value. This in turn created an environment that could draw a knowledge workforce to the waterfront, further increasing the land’s value and creating a triple-win scenario. “Because it was a public-private partnership, it was done at no cost to the taxpayer,” McCleave says. “And we secured a low residential rate, so it’s actually cheaper than buying your Internet connection at a telecom company.”

A project of this magnitude doesn’t come without its challenges, but one of McCleave’s strengths is working in both the public and private sectors as Waterfront Toronto transitions its funding from one to the other. “The three levels of government that are funding Waterfront Toronto view us as a catalyst to get the necessary public infrastructure in place so that the private sector can continue on that momentum and finish building out the waterfront,” McCleave says. In total, the project will require nearly $35 billion of development to be completed, and government agencies will only contribute $2 billion of that.

For the project’s next phase, McCleave and his board have identified about $1.6 billion of additional projects that need to be done in order to complete the mandate that Waterfront Toronto has been given. The organization is currently talking to its government partners about how best to fund the work, specifically the flood protection of the Portlands, which will cost nearly $1 billion. “We have to argue to the government that they should be proactive instead of reactive in order to mitigate the risk of a disaster that could cost three times more to clean up,” McCleave says. It’s that kind of strategy that helps the organization secure additional funds.

Challenges aside, the work that Waterfront Toronto is completing for the City of Toronto is enlivening. It has created a wave of reinvigoration and investment in restoring the city’s lakefront. And though Waterfront Toronto is scheduled to dissolve in 2022, there’s no doubt that its work will live on in perpetuity.

Before-and-after views of Waterfront Toronto’s Sugar Beach project. The project was completed in advance of private-sector development in order to demonstrate value enhancement of the surrounding lands. (Rendering: Waterfront Toronto)
Waterfront Toronto’s Sugar Beach project was completed in advance of private-sector development in order to demonstrate value enhancement of the surrounding lands. (Rendering: Waterfront Toronto)