Some people have a rags-to-riches story, and you’d think David Kent would be one of them. After all, his life in Alberta started on a cold, winter day. He had arrived by bus in Fort McMurray, transplanted without prospects from his university in New Brunswick. His possessions? Nothing but $11 and change in his pocket and a cup of coffee in his belly. But this isn’t a rags-to-riches story because Kent had something far more valuable on him that day than $11. He had vision, talent, optimism, grit, determination, community spirit and a work ethic that spanned the next four decades. With that, he built Nearctic.
Nearctic is a property development and management firm with industrial, residential and commercial properties in its portfolio. Pelham Master Builder, Nearctic’s subsidiary company, develops new townhouse, apartment, and condo projects.
Five years ago, Kent shared the story of Nearctic with Business in Edmonton magazine as the real estate company was celebrating it’s 35th anniversary. Today, as Nearctic celebrates 40, what has changed?
“We have a new building! We built the whole complex,” Kent says with excitement of Vantage Business Park. Although the charming prior headquarters with its red brick walls, white picket fence and flower shrouded gazebo remain just steps away, Nearctic started construction on a new head office in July 2017 and moved in during December of that same year.
“We do things relatively quickly,” laughs Kent. He’s lost none of his zest for life over the past five years. If anything, he’s younger and more energetic than ever.
The new office is a testament to what Nearctic and Pelham can do. Open web joists, a beautiful living wall, wood cross laminated glue lams from Alberta, open industrial ceilings in some rooms and dropped ceilings in others show potential tenants the many stylish options available.
“What this [new office] allows us to do is bring in potential clients and show them three or four options all in one space and at varying cost points,” confirms Kent.
The new office and business park are not all that Nearctic has been up to.
“We have continued to build through the recession,” Kent says. “We have very good working relationships with our existing clientele, some who needed to expand. “We just did a deal with a company that has a working history with us; we built another 60K feet with them as the lead tenant.”
“Part of the ongoing success and long-term relationships we have is due to remembering that ‘the wheel does turn.’ Sometimes you can’t accommodate a client’s expansion or contraction, but they remember how they were treated. Things come around. When they need new properties or an opportunity, they approach us.”
He provides an example.
“Recently, Nearctic bought 50 acres near the airport from a well-known industrial auctioneer. We closed the deal in December 2015. Some people thought we lost our marbles, but we really liked the land. Since we are a revenue producing corporation, we had the ability and capital for the project. We saw an opportunity that other people were not prepared to take. Within 364 days, one day short of a year, we were able to finance, rezone, build, service and sell 25 of the 41 net acres.”
“We have the ability to do things and react very quickly due to our long history and good working relationships with the counties, City of Edmonton, and others. We have often built in tough times using our reputation and finanical strength.”
Another example of the strength and agility of Nearctic is seen in the second phase of Commerce West Business Park. This project entailed creating 60K feet of commercial space, at a time when few builders were creating commercial spaces.
“We started construction in March of 2018 and achieved substantial completion by November 30. We opened on January 1, 2019 with 60 per cent of the building live. Now, we have 80 per cent of the building committed and hope to be at 100 per cent by summer when we finish the landscaping.”
Ah, yes. The landscaping.
Nearctic is famous for their beautiful landscaping. Kent draws inspiration for Nearctic’s landscape designs from his mother, who was a prolific gardener. The Kents also have direct ties to noted gardeners on both sides of the family, boasting the likes of Lois Hole on the family tree.
“I’ve always been passionate about trees and landscaping,” Kent admits. “Around here I’m known as ‘Johnny Appleseed!’
“The city has a minimal standard for landscaping, which we just generally throw out. We substantially upgrade that minimal standard. I’m always very particular about how our buildings look, both inside and out. Our buildings are coordinated for colour, functionality, aesthetics, and practicality. To achieve this, we work with architects, engineers and designers for the look, and brokerages to see where the missing pieces are.”
By missing pieces, he refers to common design flaws that don’t serve the tenants. After consulting those in the know, Nearctic innovated small commercial spaces (3K- 4K square feet) with a difference. Each spot received a dock and grade access, and power distribution 50 per cent above standard. This enabled the complex to easily take on tenants with high electrical component needs. As Kent notes, this helped the building’s rapid lease out.
On the residential side, Pelham Master Builder is putting the finishing touches on 180 upscale apartment units in Summerside. The Village at Summerside is set for completion this summer, with the first building ready for occupancy this spring.
“We continue to work on sound transmission. One of the innovations we have both in Grovenor Manor and in the Village at Summerside is floors with up to 11 layers. You do not hear people walking above you. Our walls are physically separated and insulated with Roxul, which will not mould and has a higher sound transmission density. With those two things alone, we far exceed sound transmission minimal standards. Our joists do not bear on the walls internally, therefore, the floor cannot transmit the sound directly into someone’s living room. That costs more to do and it is not visible to the public, but the quiet enjoyment in each unit is felt.”
Kent continues, “In almost all properties we have 36-inch doors and wide bathrooms to accommodate aging in place. We won an award for that adaptability in Grovenor Manor.”
While many have driven past, or are tenants of, a Neartic or Pelham property, few realise the full range of the company. Neartic and Pelham have been involved in everything from Nisku Crossing to projects in the United States. In Edmonton alone, a mix of own-use, build-to-suit, residential, retail and industrial properties add up to 185 commercial tenants and 800 residential units.
The vast number of projects, innovative building designs, and firmly established relationships contribute to the builder’s success, but a great deal is also attributed to the fact that clients can contact Kent and the management team directly.
“If you have a problem, you won’t have any trouble getting a hold of me,” he confirms. “This is a very open office. Everyone has a direct line of communication.”
You also won’t find him moving head office to another city.
“There are a lot friendly and easier places to conduct our business, but what I love about Edmonton is the depth of the knowledge of the design, engineering and construction industry out there.”
In 2015, Kent received a Business in Edmonton Leaders award.
“I’m proud of that award because it recognized our contributions in the community as well as our business acumen,” smiles Kent. Giving back is a very big part of Nearctic and Pelham’s operations, and also a large part of his personal philosophy.
Although Kent cites “too many to count” when he looks back on all the people that are a part of Nearctic’s success story, he is especially grateful to those he’s worked with over the past 40 years, including past and present staff, and denoted special thanks to Guy St. Germain, the VP of operations for 25 years.
“I’ve been very fortunate, working with people internally or externally – consultants, planners, engineers. I also thank my longsuffering wife of 30+ years! She has her own business background and is a wonderful supporter that helped us keep the doors open over some of the more difficult periods of time. I’m very grateful to Pat Grant of Sunlife, who taught me as well as many others in this market. He’s one person that helped give me some bedrock on how to run a revenue producing portfolio.
Looking to the future Kent has a clear goal: continue to build the team, the buildings, and the Edmonton region.
“I guess I’m still a little kid at heart!” he concludes with a laugh. “Completing a project and putting people in it, be it a commercial space, condos or an apartment, or a build-out in an industrial space, I love having people say, ‘wow this is exciting!’ Gratification is starting with an idea, a nugget, working with the iterations, completing it and turning over the keys.”