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Minding $1 billion.

The SMI Sunridge Group's mandate is making service offers that can't be refused

IT'S 8 A.M. MONDAY AT THE Holiday Inn Crown Plaza, and Gordon Wiebe, wearing a dark business suit, is right on time for a breakfast interview. Days before he suggested the location saying the breakfast was great. He sits down. Breakfast?

"I never eat breakfast," he says, waving his arms like an umpire signalling a base runner safe. He orders coffee and rye toast, no jam. This could be the non-breakfast of champions.

At 36, this champion is the president and sole owner of The SMI Sunridge Group, a dynamic Winnipeg-based upstart in Western Canada's property management sector.

Started in 1984, Sunridge has grown rapidly -- acquiring four other property management companies -- becoming a major player with more than $1 billion in real estate in its portfolios.

With offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon and Fort McMurray, NWT, the mini-empire is growing. Sunridge employs 175 full and part-time personnel -- directly or indirectly -- and provides fees for several Winnipeg law firms.

When asked to give a corporate profile of Sunridge, Wiebe takes a note pad and writes REAL ESTATE INVESTMENTS in capital letters at the top of the page. He draws several arrows down from the headline and the company takes form on paper.

SMI Realty Group -- leasing, sales and consulting on commercial projects and apartment blocks; SMI Sunridge Management Inc. -- property managers of commercial properties, condominiums and apartments; SMI Enertech Mechanical Services -- engineering services for buildings, and operating systems.

"We don't invest in real estate, but we treat our clients' investments as if it is our dollar," says Wiebe.

Sunridge has collected a heady list of clientele. In Alberta, they include the real estate holdings of National Trust and Metropolitan Trust. In British Columbia, the company manages properties owned by Confed Realty Services Limited, Confederation Life Insurance Company, First City Trust and the Great West Life Assurance Company. The Investors Group and North Portage Development Corporation are also on their list.

Wiebe says he came into the real estate business in Winnipeg shortly after what he called the "Lear jet era."

"I was never in on the real estate investment heyday, but I know there were a lot of guys riding around in a rented jet back then. I wasn't one of them."

This affable, but hard-nosed chartered accountant and deal-maker says the down-cycle in the real estate development market has taught him about servicing debt.

In 1983 Wiebe was employed by someone else doing "work outs"; industry jargon for assessing properties that were not servicing their debt load. "That's an experience that is invaluable today," he says.

By 1984, Wiebe, then 28, had married and was comfortable when he decided to join in partnership with Lorne Young, a go-getter and deal-maker. The two worked together well, says Wiebe. "He became more of an accountant and I became more of a businessman. We didn't do things the way they do in Harvard Business School. If you're not doing the deals you're sunk."

Tragically, Young was killed in a snow-mobile accident three years ago leaving a large emotional void in Wiebe's personal life.

He is a disarming man with an off-beat sense of humor. "I was the valedictorian of my commerce class when I graduated from the University of Manitoba," he says, smiling. "But I didn't make the Dean's honor list. After all, university has to have a fun side to it. But I find the deeper I get into business the more serious I become."

The success of Sunridge has a lot to do with Wiebe's desire to be independent. He is a bright, disciplined man, according to a former classmate. After graduating from commerce he dove head first into the chartered accountancy program. He wrote final examinations in the summer months. It was a fruitful but tenuous period of his life.

Says Wiebe, "That's tough, you know, studying in the summer. I was so depressed I wore coveralls pretending it was winter. I refused to put on my shorts."

Fifty per cent of students fail the final. Wiebe beat this gruesome legacy, but doesn't wear his success on his sleeve. "I really didn't want to be an accountant, but it helps in this business."

His education is complemented by shrewdness. When the natural gas industry deregulated, Sunridge saw an opportunity to get better gas deals to heat the large commercial buildings under its management.

Wiebe says, "No one was going to tell us how to do it. We had to start from zero, but now we're buying our own natural gas -- priced at the Alberta border -- at better prices."

A lot of innovative ideas come from his tight-knit staff. "I credit the people I work with for a lot of ideas that have made this company go," he says.
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Title Annotation:SMI Sunridge Group
Author:Gage, Ritchie
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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