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"Just like we thoughtfully model and underwrite projects, we thoughtfully review the feasibility in a lot of different areas to ensure that we can truly unlock the value and have a clear path to a successful project." — Elliot MacNeil
Adaptive reuse is better for the environment, contributes towards increasing supply in densely populated and competitive urban centers, presents interesting design challenges for architects, and saves developers money. At least, that is what today's guests believe! Please join us in welcoming Joe Nickerson and Elliot MacNeil. Joe is the Vice President and Partner and Elliot is the Founder and President of Bruno Group, a Nova Scotia-based design-build company that helps growing families and businesses reimagine and expand their space.
In this episode, we reflect on the case that they make for adaptive reuse versus new construction and learn how the Bruno Group is creating memorable spaces that highlight existing features, preserve historical structures, and focus on character as part of their creative vision. We also touch on the affordable housing crisis, what they are doing to combat it, and the pros and cons of converting commercial spaces into mixed-use or residential, as well as the impact that COVID has had on Joe and Elliot's mixed-use area redevelopment strategy. Joe and Elliot also share their advice for those looking to build or invest in Nova Scotia and the role that knowing and understanding their market has played in their success. Tune in today to learn more!
Key points from this episode:
[0:00:40.2] NS: Welcome back to Sync or Swim. I'm your host, Nicolina Savelli, and in this show, I take a tactical approach to helping those in multi-family and prove their marketing and advertising efforts. Today, I have two very interesting guests with me, Joe Nickerson, who is the Vice President and partner at Bruno Group, and Elliot MacNeil, who is the President of Bruno Group. Welcome to the show, Joe and Elliot.
[0:01:03.1] EM: Hi, Nic.
[0:01:03.9] NS: Hi.
[0:01:05.1] JN: Thanks for having us.
[0:01:07.2] EM: Thanks for finding us out here in the east coast.
[0:01:07.8] NS: Yeah, absolutely. No worries. Glad to have you. Obviously, I'd like for both of you to introduce yourselves. We typically don't do two people at the same time on this podcast. So, we'll take a different approach to kind of introducing everyone, but if you could provide a bit of background on your careers, and basically what eventually led you to where you are today. Elliot, I believe you are the Founder and Creator of Bruno Group. So, do you mind going first?
[0:01:35.1] EM: Sure. Thank you. My name is Elliot MacNeil, I'm, as you mentioned, the founder of a group of really incredible companies here. We're in the we're in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is the east coast of Canada. We're about a 12-hour drive from Boston, I guess you'd say, going east.
My background, I grew up probably three and a half hours from the city we live in now. I grew up in the country, a firm country where you really had to fend for yourself, build everything from scratch or fix or repair. I think, growing up that way, I became obsessed with building things to be honest. Coincidentally though, pursued marketing and communications design in college, which was a complete departure of other construction related paths that one would may take from the country. I had a great career in the marketing and design world. I actually created an agency here in our city and exited that about 10 years ago.
But as soon as I got into that world, I started building homes and taking on really aggressive renovation projects and additions and creating smaller duplexes and triplexes and buying them and selling them. Eventually, after doing that alongside of the ad agency world, the creativity bug was me and I just decided that I was ready for the next chapter in my life and I pursued the construction real estate thing full time. Being on the owner or client side, working with construction companies, I saw huge opportunities to do things differently, present yourself in a different way, really just deliver on the small things that you should in business.
I first started a construction company here called Bruno Builders. At the same time I was slowly getting into development, it's really tough to get going. I'm sure a lot of your listeners have read the book, Rich Dad Poor Dad, but I actually did at one time and it really inspired me to just go for it with a complete focus on development. I built a lot of great relationships through my business career in the marketing world and was able to attract some high net worth individuals to help get going and it was a big ask, way back then, when I look, but I started small and kind of crawl walked and now we're running.
One thing that made a difference was having a handle on what was happening in construction and understanding construction myself, the ability to hunt and gather opportunities for deals, and one of those things was simply understanding zoning and bylaws and finding little loopholes or workarounds or areas that were overlooked by others, on a small scale, and being able to carve out an additional unit or two here and there. That's where I started to create value when I was young.
Here we are today. We have a we have a group of companies focused on construction management services, design-build, general contractor that works with residential and commercial clientele. We have a property management company with a real estate development company. We have some design expertise here. So, we're just north of 40 people, I guess, in our group and it's growing rapidly here. in this market. That's a long-winded background on myself, but –
[0:05:02.9] NS: That's okay. I think that was great. Joe, feel free to jump in on how you guys kind of came together and kind of your career and how it led you to Bruno Group.
[0:05:19.2] JN: Yeah. So, it's definitely a slightly different path than that. We've got pretty, pretty diverse backgrounds. But Elliot had grown up in Cape Breton and moved to Halifax. I grew up in Halifax, went to Dalhousie, and actually met Elliot through my sister in high school. We go back along a longer path, but we had known each other in a different context for about 15 years. Like I said, I went to Dalhousie, I studied finance there. I always had an interest in real estate and design, but when I was kind of coming into that world in like the mid-2000s, it was pre-real estate crash and pre kind of bubble blowing up 2008.
It was still a time of sales and trading was kind of a sexy business to be in at the time when I was studying finance. I initially took the path out of school of going capital markets. I worked – ended up working at post Dalhousie finance grad for RBC capital markets, and then went to a more independent sales and trading shop. But did that for a couple years with the intention of always getting back into real estate after that, and just kind of like, the idea was make a couple quick bucks and get back into something that I was more passionate about.
I would say that the crash sped up that timeline a little bit, the want to make the move sooner rather than later. So, after RBC and the independent sales and trading job, I started working in real estate, targeted, family owned real estate developer in Toronto. He had a portfolio of kind of like 100 million to 200 million, so not tiny, but not huge, by any means or by standard. He was a bit of a kind of a one man shop with third party relationships and I worked with him exclusively to kind of show me the ropes and show me what it takes to be more entrepreneurial on the development side.
Then, from that role, I ended up working – I did an MBA in real estate and at Schulich and started working with kind of a next level of family run, or private development companies, by the name of Pomeroy Lodging. They were a hotel and resort developer, worked with them for about three years. We repositioned some pretty large-scale assets in the Rocky Mountains and BC and Alberta, and then transition from there to more of a pension fund-y feel, at Slate Asset Management. I did that for a little while. I got a really good understanding of what it takes to transition office buildings and things along that line and work in a large portfolio structure. I was more on the private side, then the read market. But big company, good experience, and then I ultimately worked for Starlight as well in the US, doing multifamily, gained some experience there for a couple years.
Elliot, we had reconnected prior to that. I was really looking to do something entrepreneurial, and loved what Elliot was doing with the area redevelopment strategies and the target markets he was in Halifax. So, a lot of opportunities there and synergies and that kind of relationship that we had and opportunities kind of fostered into this. Then, we branched out and formalized the development arm of the company and started going after bigger and bigger assets. This is kind of where we're at today.
[0:08:59.3] NS: When was that? How many years ago did you guys kind of reconnect and start doing that?
[0:09:05.7] EM: Probably two and a half years. Let's just say, I guess, we kind of landed on a deal four or five months before COVID hit.
[0:09:13.5] NS: That's what I was going to say. Was it nearing COVID?
[0:09:16.8] EM: Yeah. And then then Joe decided to move out during COVID, which was an interesting adventure as well. But he moved his whole family back home. I think that was April, beginning of COVID, I guess.
[0:09:30.2] JN: Yeah, I would have been about 10 years. And then we made the decision to move back pre-COVID or anything happening, and then we went through the same question mark that everyone else did with COVID. But yeah, it was definitely a great move and we've been able to do some pretty exciting things.
[0:09:48.1] NS: Yeah. So, I guess, I mean, before I get into the second question here is did that change anything or did it just kind of set you on more of a different trajectory, with COVID happening? And I guess what the question is, really, you know, something happened with commercial real estate, took a huge hit and there was a mass exodus, and developers like yourselves are now capitalizing, I guess, on buildings and transforming them into residential housing. So, was that because of – I mean, obviously COVID has giving you some opportunities, but it sounds like you were already kind of working in that direction?
[0:10:29.1] EM: I'll jump in. Prior in here to Joe coming on board, I had already set out on, as Joe mentioned, an area redevelopment play. So really kind of trying to transform an area here called Dartmouth which is the Brooklyn of New York. It's literally across, it's a ferry ride across. I just saw a huge opportunity here and started working over your six years ago and acquiring as much as we could to really transform this area. A big part of our strategy was mixed use, midsize mixed use.
We were acquiring many retail type locations, ground floor retail with some other mixed, and then really just increasing the density in those areas. So now, our focus or our track record has, for the most part, been focused on adaptive reuse projects or conversion type projects where we are converting commercial properties to a mix of residential and or commercial, and then growing that – now, we've since started to grow out of this area, and taken on and acquired some larger buildings where we'll continue to convert, but we also own a fair amount of land here where we have a pipeline of approximately 600 units to build now, ahead of us probably over the next 10 years.
It is a combination, but our focus definitely has been the commercial area districts and converting what we can, essentially investing in the commercial, which attracts the residential through curating new entrepreneurial tenants in these retail spaces. It really creates a groundswell of interesting people wanting to come together and rebuild an area, so we've been quite successful with that and it's difficult to find those areas in the world but we lucked out with the perfect location.
[0:12:33.5] JN: I was going to say, just to add to that from a COVID standpoint and before that, getting back to commercial that you were mentioning in the question. That was initially kind of one thing that really attracted me what Elliot had done is he was working with – he had brought in well-known entrepreneurs and cool restaurants and was creating this unique mix of commercial retail and largely kind of what had been a tougher area to make those type of businesses work, and had kind of fallen out of favor to some degree prior to going in.
That was one of the unique things that I really respected and liked about the opportunity and saw what was building there with the mix of retail tenants that was there. So COVID was an initial kind of big question mark on how that was going to be impacted. I think what we were able to do, I think for one, Halifax fared better than a lot of other areas through COVID. There's like something to be said for that. But the other thing is, we have entrepreneurs as a target mix of our commercial and those people were less likely to fold up shop. For some people, it's primary businesses and different things, so there was a lot more working with people and figuring things out with you know, not 10 other locations to worry about and things like that.
[0:13:53.9] NS: Of course.
[0:13:56.5] EM: But it was a scary – I mean we went through all the feelings just like anyone else. We stepped back and we're, "What is going to happen here?" And then at the same time, we're sprinkling seeds around and trying to find opportunity. Everyone stepped back, it felt like, in a lot of ways, from everything and everybody paused on how to make a decision. We were approaching other owners trying to acquire other property and no one could make a decision and then, I would say, this spring, so a year later, all of the opportunity opportunities just came together at one time and then it was just – but that was the pent-up demand. I think that most industries experienced and it's a lot of pressure.
[0:14:42.3] NS: We even see from from the rental side too. Everyone stopped looking kind of for a while, and then all of a sudden, in the last three months, it's just been go, go, go with just movement and demand and demand changes and places. Obviously Halifax has been impacted by that significantly, which I will also talk about. But before we get to that, I kind of want to just talk about some of the advantages of basically converting commercial spaces into mixed use or residential. Is there any advantage to doing that? Obviously, when you already have kind of some things in place that might help, but then I'm sure there's some disadvantages there, too. So, do you mind just sharing some of those experiences?
[0:15:28.4] EM: There's probably more disadvantages than advantages.
[0:15:32.9] NS: I had a feeling you were going to say that. I did.
[0:15:35.3] EM: This is a movement that's been happening over the last number of years in different markets. It sounds really simple when you think about it, anti-commercial converted to residential. Bob's your uncle. But when you start to get into zoning, and permitting, and code and life safety, and existing leases, just the mix of the commercial and residential components, and then you get into – as everybody, most people have experienced the unforeseens even with a home residential project. So, multiply that by how many on on taking away the layers of a large building that you're not in control of from new construction standpoint.
Lots of challenges and hair on that kind of approach and opportunity. But at the same time, there are a lot of advantages. We've just acquired a large 13-story office building across the harbor here, right in the downtown at center ice. We have no parking. So, we are center ice, it is downtown steps from the waterfront. But that's a big challenge. Would we have no part over to build new construction, probably not. But at the same time, that is a small challenge in the grand scheme of the opportunity over the next 10 years. We couldn't be in a better place to not have –
But to answer your question, definitely, from a risk standpoint, to be able to control the general contracting or construction management side of the development and not be at the mercy of a larger GC that has the capability of taking on a large multi-million-dollar project like this, that is a huge advantage for us and it's a competitive advantage. Also, to have the relationships we do in the design world and familiarity with building code and safety, and all those technical challenges that come with the building, just like we thoughtfully model and underwrite projects, we thoughtfully review the feasibility in a lot of different areas to ensure that we can truly unlock the value and have a clear path to a successful project and close.
Yes, lots of disadvantages. And to be honest, most developers here are new construction developers. Competitively, we're uniquely positioned there for this type of approach to work in this market and it would slow most down, I think.
[0:18:06.9] NS: I was going to say, it's just not for everyone, by the sounds of it.
[0:18:13.0] EM: The other advantage – advantages, I mean, obviously, we don't have we don't have to excavate in the downtown center and blast and do all the site works and civil work required to get a parking podium in, which could be a couple of years. It could be a year or two depending on what's required. Then, by the time you get out of the ground, there's 30 tower cranes in this small little city of – we're 450,000-ish in our city and there's probably 300 of those are in the core urban center, and there's 30 tower cranes trying to do projects here and there's not enough cranes, there's not enough foreign workers. We're going to have another whole show about labor shortages and that's not just the East Coast, that's something being experienced from here to Germany.
Yes, lots of disadvantages, lot of advantages. Not sure if you want to anything there, Joe.
[0:19:02.7] JN: I mean, I think it's definitely it's not for everyone. I think that's good point. There are advantages there, like Elliot said, like you're purchasing an existing building so there's time benefits, there's revenue attached to that for the existing. There's lease hair and different things involved in that. But if we approach it, we see like, we obviously see the advantages and the opportunity on our side so there's uniqueness of product. It's not being built to the same spec as all that other stuff like Halifax. One of the big things here is height restrictions for view planes.
[0:19:32.7] NS: Oh, okay.
[0:19:34.5] JN: The building that Elliot's talking about with the limited parking, it has that limited parking aspect, but it has 11-and-a-half-foot ceilings on every floor growing up to 14-foot and it is concrete construction. So, that's an example of something that no one's building in the market because you're effectively giving up floors of residential to do that, but we're purchasing so we'll have a uniqueness of product and –
[0:19:58.3] EM: Yeah, maintaining the original character is part of our strategy with every conversion or adaptive reuse play, taking institutional style buildings, commercial buildings, really respecting the character that exists there today and really just growing on that, growing that with them.
[0:20:16.0] NS: Yeah, so I mean, that kind of answers some of the the next question, but maybe you can expand slightly on it, and basically, what you guys look for before investing into, into a new development. Are there any things that you're like, "No, I won't touch it if that's what I'm dealing with," or you guys, like, "You know what, we can figure it out?"
[0:20:34.6] EM: That's a doozy.
[0:20:37.7] JN: I think the starting point for us, though, is location, like if you see that. But we do target areas more. We consider ourselves area redevelopers, like what we're saying in Dartmouth. So, location is a good starting point for us. We look at anything and everything within a location and we're not in a very small box, we have a wide berth of what we look at, but it is location specific. I would say to start though.
[0:21:03.9] NS: Okay. Anything to add there, Elliot?
[0:21:05.9] EM: The numbers need to work.
[0:21:08.4] NS: The numbers need to work, yeah.
[0:21:11.7] EM: What's interesting, even in this market, there's quite a large development community, to be honest. If you broke it down, everybody has a little bit of a specific thing they do a little different, and luckily, therefore it works. With ours, I would definitely say that the focus has been more conversion type projects that look complicated, and technical, and difficult. Oftentimes, they create the most value sometimes, if you have the experience.
[0:21:44.7] NS: If you have the experience, yeah. I'm sure you're you're saying, you know, I know no one else is going to do this, so this is a great opportunity for us to get in there because we're not going to have too much competition moving into that area.
[0:21:57.8] EM: Although, the activity here right now, both from local development, and investment investors, now combined with COVID really put our city and our province on the map as far as popularity and just quality of life. It's an incredible place to live. It has checked all the boxes.
[0:22:21.6] NS: It really does.
[0:22:22.0] EM: So, it's attracted a lot of attention from a way. I think, we generally grow by 5,000 net new people, approximately a year, I believe. We used to lose more to Alberta, but I think we gained almost 4,000 people from Ontario, just between the months of April to June, I believe, in the past. We're now benefiting from a whole lot of great people coming back, as well as new people that have never visited here once and just said, "You know what, I can't afford a home in Toronto anymore, and I don't want to grow up with no yard and my kids grew up with no yard."
[0:22:53.7] NS: Yeah. Well, it's funny you say that because my parents, their neighbors sold their house kind of mid pandemic, moved to Nova Scotia, they both have remote jobs. But also, were nearing retirement and sold their $850,000 home for a $400,000 property, and they'll retire on that and they're going to be happy for life. But it's also created a bit of a pain point for locals and real estate and I'm sure rental housing as well.
I'm kind of skipping over some stuff here but, basically, there's been a report that says, Nova Scotia has gone up 12.5 percent over the last few months in terms of the cost of real estate, which is the most out of any other province in Canada. We've seen on our – we do a rental demand report here. And Halifax and even Dartmouth have risen dramatically. Halifax wasn't even on it before COVID and then, all of a sudden, it's like 11th in demand on the list. Almost top 10 kind of in demand.
I'm sure that's impacting rent rates and what you're pricing things at, and then there's the backlash from the locals, saying, "Well, we can't even afford to live here anymore." Would you have any opinions on that? And what developers can do to help or create some affordable housing or price things right? Or at least fair?
[0:24:38.2] EM: So, all those things are correct. We experienced a massive influx of new people. It put a ton of pressure on the local housing market. The actual numbers are closer to 33 percent, I believe, of the increase in value in the Halifax area.
[0:24:56.2] NS: Year over year. Okay, sorry. Mine was just for the last few months.
[0:25:01.0] EM: It started to price out some locals, created a major bidding war. The agents changed their approach to even how they sell a home and adopted the model of other provinces in bigger cities. But yes, we're actually in an official housing crisis here right now. So, our vacancy rates are hovering around one percent, and that's only because there's a delay in actually getting the data. There is no inventory. There is waiting lists at every property management company or landlord in the city. That's good. It's bad.
[0:25:35.0] NS: It's good for you. It's bad for others.
[0:25:37.9] EM: This affordability and housing conversation is a daily thing, I think, around the world even right now. There's no easy answer. It's a really big problem that needs a large collaborative effort, I think, between governments, private. It's not going to be figured out for a little while. I mean, that's just a whole another conversation.
[0:26:04.8] NS: I guess, I can say, is there anything you guys are specifically trying to do? You grew up in Nova Scotia. You know, the area. Obviously, you don't want to push people out of their homes or out of the city, you want to attract people. So, is there anything that you guys are kind of preparing or doing and when you're thinking about these developments and how you'll price them, and how you're going to do it so it benefits both in some way? I mean, everyone's talks about big, bad landlords and big, bad developers, is there any way to kind of say that you're not that necessarily?
[0:26:44.2] EM: Yeah. I think it's a psyche. Developers build big buildings that looks like it's worth a lot of money, therefore, they're rich. But you look at the cost increases that we're facing now to build something. We have to overlook most opportunities –
[0:27:03.0] NS: Because of that.
[0:27:04.3] EM: Yeah, literally, the costs are so high, whether it's the property taxes that are getting pushed on you, or it's truly the cost of the lack of labor, therefore, the higher the build costs, and therefore, the more the economies of scale, you need more units to overcome that. So, the discussion around, can you get your rental rates lower?
[0:27:28.1] NS: Not really.
[0:27:30.4] EM: You can't do that without any pressure on the other side.
[0:27:31.2] JN: Yeah, it's a function of a bunch of different things. I don't know what the perfect solution is to affordable housing, but there's definitely a lot of driving factors that are causing rents to be where they're at. Outside of just trying to push rents, like there's increased costs, there's increased land values. It's a function of what is happening in the market. But I think there are things that you can do to help affordability. Supply and demand is the easiest one. The more supply that we can get into the market, then the less one percent and sub one percent vacancy rates we are going to have, and the less ability there is to push rents to those degrees.
[0:28:07.4] NS: Absolutely.
[0:28:08.0] JN: I think supply is one constraining factor to it. One of the things that we're doing, I think that will be a big help, like there's an abundance of office vacancy in the market. There's a lack of residential supply. We're doing some larger scale conversions. We're doing the 175,000 square foot one that Elliot mentioned in Halifax, which is taking a portion, not the full building, but a portion of the vacant office and converting that to residential. So, that's one that helps with the immediate supply, rather than taking three or four years to build a new 100 or 200-unit building, we're going to be doing that in kind of like a year and to two years. We're doing the same thing in Dartmouth, which was a strategy we had started before COVID with an 80-unit building, with 8-story building, in Dartmouth, like a hotel, we're converting that.
I think that will help supply and we're working with government groups and programs to talk about affordability and grants and different things that are out there that we could employ it in some of our buildings, and we're seeking out that grant money and trying to get that that will help us offset the cost of some of these units. So, we're doing things but there's no perfect solution. I don't know that anyone's figured it out quite yet.
[0:29:19.1] EM: Yeah, we care about affordability and we care about housing for all. The last thing we want to see is – there are people living in tents in the park behind my house. That really hit home the most and struck a chord. But at the end of the day, we need something to help create buildings to be more affordable, whether that's funding or subsidies or some kind of grant format. We're applying for that money, but there's so little available, there's so much red tape, that sometimes, the time isn't there. Or you need to have a project shovel ready or permit ready to then ask for the money that may not be available anymore, so you missed that window.
There's not enough available yet to really actually make big change, but we hope there's more tools for us to leverage as we grow to make a difference and really do what we can with the buildings we own.
[0:30:22.2] NS: And by the sounds of it, you are taking the right approach. You are doing what is necessary in order to to create that supply, which I think like Joe said, that's the easiest lowest hanging fruit in order to create that affordability or at least more inventory so that people have a place to go. So, there's not bidding wars on rentals, which is crazy. I've never – that's crazy to me. I have friends that are trying to move back to Toronto right now. They're bidding on their rentals. I lived in Toronto for five years, about five years ago, and that was something I never ever thought would happen.
I mean, I knew that real estate was expensive, I just didn't know – I always thought that rentals were priced the way they were priced. There was no bidding war on that. I think you guys hit a lot of important points there and I kind of want to steer away from this melancholy discussion on that and really just focus on kind of your buildings and how you create them and your vision and the design.
I saw a social post and it said, I quote, "Before we got our hands on it, this building was voted the ugliest in Halifax two years in a row by the Post, and since we never shy away from a challenge, we turned it into a modern, sophisticated North End hotspot." Do you mind telling me a little bit about kind of the creative vision behind these projects and how you get your inspiration?
[0:31:45.1] EM: Yeah, I think Joe and I really connect on the business side, but also the creative side of life. That's why we love existing buildings, I think, because they are their own – they have a personality just like a human being and they're all different and they all have opportunity to be groomed into something different. So, we look at each of these opportunities as a canvas. How can we create something that the neighborhood gets behind and appreciates? Art is really important to us. How can we influence these existing buildings with with our special touch that it creates something that people want to talk about?
There's that example you just mentioned, or taking – we took the old telephone hub from the old telecom company that used to run hard lines for operators and whatnot. Big old brick building, and we added a 75-foot wood addition on the top with a great architectural firm here locally and we just won in a best adaptive reuse project in the Local Design Awards.
We created 16-foot loft units where you sleep above your kitchens. It's got nail laminated timber floors. It has the brick. It has all those little features that are not a new construction building down the street. There's this character, and people are willing to pay for character and this work-live concept, working from home, to have that really unique space is inspiring. We look for that every time.
We also just acquired an eight-story concrete hotel, a brutalist style building and we're converting that to a micro suite concept. Again, really unique features. There's a six-story atrium in the center. We're going to create a hotel lobby bar concept. So, a very social focused building, or experience. Of course, we just mentioned we just successfully acquired this larger office building a few weeks ago. Again, a huge opportunity to do something different and make a mark on the city again. There are just so much opportunities, buildings to be creative, and we're blessed to have such great architecture and design firms here locally.
Of course, everyone's tapped probably a year out right now. We've built relationships here and we're lucky to work with everyone we do and there's still lots ahead for us to do.
[0:34:10.9] NS: For sure. Now, is there something that you have looked for that you just haven't found yet that you want to – your dream project? What would really kind of get you excited and out of bed in the morning? I mean, I'm sure you're already feeling that way about some of them, but is there a vision that you have that you're like, "I'd love if that place went up for sale and I could get my hands on it."
[0:34:34.8] EM: Good question. I don't know if there's one right now that's on the board. We're chasing in here. But we've been blessed with such a variety of cool buildings that we've acquired from old strip joints, to old Chinese restaurants, to telephone buildings, to hotels, and office buildings, and everything in between. It'd be cool to get our hands on a church.
[0:35:01.9] NS: That would be very cool.
[0:35:02.6] EM: I think we could something with a church. That's been a big movement over the number of years and we haven't landed on something there yet. But that would be interesting. Again, starting with some great character.
[0:35:13.9] JN: I think character is key. Every building has different elements of character for us and we try to suss that out. But yeah, I think church would be really cool. There's some cool church developed –Toronto's had some really cool church redevelopments. Anything brick and beam, we like. It's less abundant than it was in Toronto and Montreal. But brick and beam is interesting. I think we've just done a bunch of – and this office building will be the next one. But we've done a bunch of brutalist style buildings, stripping back to concrete, and kind of highlighting those, those raw, lofty, concrete elements. So, probably a natural shift would be something with brick and wood elements into it.
[0:35:54.3] EM: Yeah. That's not anything that hasn't been done before. But there's so many other things you can do to add a twist to the overall concept. Again, to this micro suite concept, this conversion of this hotel, we discovered an atrium. So, there's these old hotels in the US is my memory of them. But yeah, essentially, you're on the seventh floor, you exit your room, and you have a balcony. You look down into a busy, alive atrium, or ground floor lobby of some sort.
We discovered that in this building, so we're bringing that back. That's something we are really excited about right now as far as projects go, is that we're peeling this back, we've gutted this building, it looks like parkades on each floor, and we're adding a story and a half to the top of the building with a greenhouse concept, commercial concept on the top, which opens itself to a bunch of different options. But this lobby is truly going to be this incredible – Think of it as a hotel lobby, open six stories in height, lends itself to great art opportunities, wall graphics, types of amenities you can put in this space.
That's one that's really exciting right now, as well as this office tower, obviously, we're coming up with some really great ideas for that. It's fun. We're blessed to be doing what we're doing and started when we did and got in when we did. It's hard to get going in this business. Once you do, hold on tight, there's a lot, things come at you quick.
[0:37:23.5] NS: That's good advice. That's good advice. Pretty much my last question really is, do you have any advice for those looking to build or invest in Nova Scotia right now? Are there some untapped markets or opportunities that they should be looking at and creating that supply in the area? Yeah, that's pretty much my last question here.
[0:37:45.2] EM: So, one benchmark, I guess, that would be interesting for your listeners is, what are per square foot rates? Where are units landing right now in value? It's safe to say new units are pushing. On the high end, there's some high-end units pushing five bucks a foot around here. It was two bucks last year, $2.50 in a lot of places. Now, it's over $3. So, you'll find units for 1,500 bucks for a 500-square-foot unit. So, that's expensive.
But you know what, millions of dollars to put a hole in the ground and its pyretic slate, and you have to get it shipped to be dumped in a qualified dumping location that costs $250 a ton. I mean, it is crazy the costs that add up on you and the delays in permitting and the cost of permitting. Our costs of one single unit cost $4,000 in permitting fees here. So, if you have 100 units, you can do the quick math.
It used to be, when I got going, it used to be $800. So, there's another great example of cost getting on our end of new costs and increased costs.
[0:39:05.5] JN: Yeah. I think like in terms of advice for someone looking to get in or or what not into different markets, a lot of it has to do with knowing the market and being boots on the ground and knowing what you're getting into, rather than parachuting in and reading some and thinking that this is a good investment.
I think, if you're doing that, with all those costs and different things that Elliot had mentioned, the challenges involved, I think if you want to be successful at something, you really have to spend time in the market and know and understand it. That's what, I think, has allowed us to be successful. We spent multiple years here. I grew up here. Elliot has been here for many years. I moved away for a bit, but always kept a finger on the pulse and know it well. So, if you're trying to get into any area, I think just being boots on the ground and feeling things out rather than reading reports is a good start, for sure.
[0:39:54.7] EM: Yeah. If you're referring to first, people trying to get in the business, I would say start small, hopefully you understand construction, because that will provide you – it's almost a requirement now, I would say.
[0:40:09.8] NS: Yeah, by the sounds of what you're saying here, it's almost unwise to go in when you're green at all in the area that you're describing.
[0:40:19.2] EM: Yeah. So, start small, understand, study the zoning, find high net worth individuals that are interested in what you're doing. Prove to them that you can do what you say you're going to do by starting small. That will attract, and then slowly build. And as you build, you'll attract more, but don't be afraid to ask for money. The whole challenge in scaling in this business is you need cash, you need a lot of cash at one time. You need to have several projects on the go at one time. You need to be very creative with putting structures together.
But it's the ones that figure it out that actually proceed and grow and scale. The ones that don't understand that or don't find a way or put the resources together to figure it out usually stay and they can't scale. So, that would be a couple of my thoughts on getting into that space. Then, as far as the market here, it's never been this competitive. But we have a 10-year window ahead of us right now where it is – this is the roaring '20s and it's not slowing down anytime soon. Our biggest challenge is labor. It is finding the resources to get the capacity to get these projects done. Everyone's fighting for the same people. So, that will limit growth, which limits housing –it's a complicated web of things happening.
[0:41:45.4] NS: So, with that said, I do have another question and you've kind of alluded to some of it, but future plans for the Bruno Group in terms of company growth and expansion. What is the direction you guys are willing to share with me right now that you'd like to go in?
[0:42:04.1] EM: Yeah.
[0:42:05.4] JN: Yeah, it's a good question.
[0:42:08.6] NS: You're like, "I can't tell you."
[0:42:12.0] JN: I mean, I we definitely have a lot of things that we're very excited about. Definitely scaling. We've been scaling, like Elliot mentioned, we have a pipeline of 600 units of new build that we're building out in addition to all of this kind of adaptive reuse product that we're doing as well. So, we're opportunistic investors. We'll always search out opportunities. We're going to continue to do what we're doing in downtown Dartmouth with the area of redevelopment and kind of long-term old strategies that we're employing and delivering cool units into the market.
But future direction I think, we're definitely going to have quite a bit of local presence here, continuing to scale here. We may look at other markets or do different things that present themselves if we like the market the same way we did initially in Dartmouth and we've developed a bigger a model for that. So, there's opportunities where we may look abroad. We definitely are continuing to focus here and build their base, but it could be a variety of those two things.
[0:43:08.7] EM: Yeah, we're long-term hold investors, but maybe things change there. Maybe we look at other opportunities to sell off components of what we're doing or future projects. I think what's important is, we talk about this often. Every week, there's new opportunity, and that new opportunity could take you in different directions. So staying focused, understanding what you do, what you don't do, and not getting ahead of yourself with what's possible because you need to be able to execute – you need to be able to build a team around you in a manner that is not too rushed, and so you're not playing catch up all the time and it could get messy.
Yeah, all of that sounds easier than it is. But who knows where this will take us? But we check in on it often and what we've proven here and what we've accomplished already – what will be really interesting is doing this somewhere else.
[0:44:03.7] NS: Sure. Absolutely. If there's opportunities that are as nice somewhere else that would – yeah, absolutely. Well, Joe, Elliot, it's been a pleasure chatting with you today. I feel like we could probably go on about a lot of stuff for another hour. But before you go, could you each let listeners know where they can connect with you or the best places to connect with you in case they want to reach out?
[0:44:29.2] EM: Absolutely. As I mentioned that we have a group of companies, so it might be difficult to focus in on only one there. But for myself, hit me up on LinkedIn. My name again is Elliot MacNeil. I believe my title in LinkedIn right now might be President of Bruno Builders currently. Just inbox me and we're open, collaborative. We love the community we work in, and totally open to helping others. I think there's so much knowledge and secret sauce that we have, but also there's so much to share. So, getting going is really tough, unless it's a generational thing or you've been mentored by somebody, and that's not easy to come across that. So, happy to communicate with any of your listeners and it was great to chat with you as well, Nic. Thank you for having us.
[0:45:19.1] NS: Awesome. No problem. Joe, do you want to share –
[0:45:24.0] JN: Yeah, for me. LinkedIn is probably the best way to get in contact. It's Joe Nickerson and I think title on there is VP and partner at Bruno Group. So, that's the best way to find me.
[0:45:34.4] NS: Yes. I can confirm your LinkedIn titles. I looked at them yesterday. Well, awesome –
[0:45:42.6] EM: I would like to thank Montreal for supporting us all these years.
[0:45:48.2] NS: That's awesome. Thank you both again for taking the time to join me on this episode of Sync or Swim. Until next time, keep swimming.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
E56: Why Affordable Housing is Within Reach for Canadians with Mark Kenney
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