An international man of industry, the CEO of ELAD Canada has a lifetime of experience at the ripe old age of 37.
Born in Haifa, Rafael (Rafi) Lazer has a long view of what makes cities great, having lived in Israel, Hong Kong and Miami, to name a few, and travelling the world for business.
At only 37, his experience has prepared him to recognize good community design and advocate for it on behalf of ELAD Canada, where he is chief executive officer.
Lazer, who admits to having been infected with the real estate bug early on in life, moved to the Toronto area with his wife and two children in 2011 (a third child was born here). They quickly realized that the only way to survive this country’s winters was to take up winter sports, skiing in particular.
“My kids are experts,” says the gregarious Lazer, with a quick smile and twinkle in his eyes. “I’m still snowploughing and they’re swishing down the slopes like they were born to it. Considering that until recently they grew up in tropical climates, they’re pretty amazing.”
ELAD Canada is probably best known for Emerald City, its large master-planned community of condos, townhomes and rental buildings at Don Mills Road and Sheppard Avenue East that includes the large new Parkway Forest Community Centre and a soon-to-be-open aquatic centre. It’s one of the things that ELAD is most proud of — creating amenities not only for their purchasers, but for the entire community. Recent data has also shown that the surrounding community of single-detached homes have seen their property values rise as a result of the renewal of what was once a neighbourhood in decline.
Condo Life: Tell me a little bit about your background and history. When and why did you come to Canada?
Rafi Lazer: I’m a chartered accountant by trade with an MBA in financial management from the University of Tel Aviv. I started my career at Ernst & Young Israel, where I got my first taste of the capital markets, bonds, IPOs, dual trading, etc. I later joined ZIM, one of the largest global shipping companies in the world, where I held various leading financial roles, which involved relocations to Miami and Hong Kong and travelling all over the world.
In 2011, I got the opportunity to come to Canada when I joined ELAD Canada as its CFO, later to be given the opportunity to lead the ship as the CEO. We fell in love with this country and have happily made it our home.
CL: What inspired you to join the building and development field?
RL: I was always “infected” by the real estate bug. As I started to get more involved in various aspects of real estate, both in my professional life and privately, it became very clear to me that this is my passion.
I can certainly say that my position at ELAD exposed me to a very wide spectrum of real estate including apartment rentals, retail, office and even senior homes, both as asset managers and as developers. In recent years, the company took the strategic decision to focus mainly on condo development, which we have been doing very successfully, expanding our existing projects at Emerald City in Toronto, Le Nordelac and Cite Nature in Montreal, and acquiring new development sites in the GTA. I find this industry to be challenging and complex but fascinating and rewarding. Seeing a master community come to life is extremely satisfying.
CL: There have been a lot of changes in the industry over the years. With the province’s Places to Grow policy and the Greenbelt restrictions, where do you see the real estate and housing market going?
RL: There is only one direction for the Toronto market and that’s up. Not only in sales, also in height. With more people arriving to this great city each year, there is no other choice than to maximize density. I see the towers getting taller and units getting smaller with more focus given to finishes and amenities, rather than size.
In terms of supply and demand, I see the prices stabilizing around current levels with moderate increases in the near future and higher increases thereafter. We still have a lot of room to grow in terms of value compared to other large North American metropolitan cities, and for me the condo market in Toronto is still a strong “buy.”
CL: What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your professional career?
RL: There are too many to mention. As I overcome challenges new challenges arise. I can certainly say that switching countries and industries was quite a challenge professionally and personally, but that’s something I don’t regret for a second.
CL: What are the biggest challenges that builder and developers encounter today?
RL: The first would be the site. Finding quality sites such as Emerald City, with a large potential to increase density while enjoying benefits such as subway access, proximity to Fairview Mall and major highways, schools and parks, is becoming more challenging. Large good sites are becoming harder to find and it requires a lot of ingenuity and creativity, as well as forward thinking.
The cost of land, the complexity of the rezoning processes and increasing development fees are another challenge. The low currency rates are adding another strain on costs, considering a significant chunk of the construction material is arriving from outside of Canada.
The market is another constant challenge, as trends change very quickly. What was a huge success merely three years ago would not work today. We have to keep our hand on the pulse and adjust our project to the new tastes, trends and expectations. There is a lot of uncertainty in the market, but most buyers — whether end users or investors — come to the conclusion that buying a condo in Toronto is a sound economic decision.
CL: What is your pet peeve? Development charges, the Greenbelt, Places to Grow, transit issues?
RL: I understand and respect the need for all those things and we at ELAD support it in many ways. We realize that if we want to build skyscrapers we need the community facilities and infrastructure to be in place, whether it’s community centres, daycares and schools — like we have at Emerald City — or transit solutions and green spaces. This is why we always try to find the way to work together with the municipalities and create win-win situations in working out solutions that benefit the city, the developer and, most importantly, the purchasers.
If I need to pick one I would go with transportation, which in my view is a major issue. Trains, subways and streetcars should be extended further as we see in other major cities of similar size. I think the current coverage is not sufficient.
CL: ELAD has a great reputation for not only building quality homes, but for being community builders. How does that align with your business and philanthropic philosophy?
RL: Our ability to achieve our business goes go hand-in-hand with our contributions to the community, whether its through construction of rentals and affordable housing, a state-of-the-art community centre, new roads and pedestrians routes, retail services or public art. All of these components add to the experience of living in our community and support our project, as well as the new and existing residents.
I must point out the great support we got from City Councillor Shelly Carol and her staff, helping us get the project going while protecting the best interests of the residents. I think that was a great example of how municipalities can work together with developers and everybody wins.
Keep in mind, too, that our enhancements to the neighbourhood impact and serve not only our purchasers but also the existing residents in the surrounding area. We basically uplifted a whole neighbourhood and we are extremely proud of what we were able to achieve.
From a business perspective, we believe that when building a master community, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It allows us as developers to better design and more efficiently build our projects in such a way that would also maximize the benefit to our purchasers and the whole community. It’s not a coincidence that the Parkway Forest area has seen one of the largest value increases in the GTA in recent years.
CL: You build communities and are very involved in those communities. Why do you go above and beyond and what sense of satisfaction do you get from it?
RL: Our projects are a clear example for where philanthropy meets business. We are very proud of our projects and feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction when we see how successful our new community centre is at Emerald City, and what a community hub it has become so quickly. I visited our new daycare centre recently and spent some time with the kids. It’s a great feeling knowing we created this for them together with the city.
We know the community is anxiously waiting for the opening of the new aquatic centre, which is currently under construction, and we are looking forward to its completion next fall. Our projects affect people and these positive reactions are very encouraging.
CL: What has made you proudest?
RL: I’m blessed with many things in my professional career. I think I’ve achieved quite a lot considering I’m only 37, but if I need to pick one it would be the Emerald City project. Seeing the vision come to fruition from start to finish, with almost 1,200 units built, together with the community centre and the other amenities, makes me very proud. I’m proud of the project and I’m proud of my team, who made it such a huge success.
CL: What do you do for fun?
RL: I’m a bit of a workaholic so when I do have some spare time I like to spend it with my family as much as I possibly can. Other than that, I’m a sports fan, mostly soccer and NBA, and enjoy working out. I also enjoy skiing. However, I must admit my technique and skills require additional training. My kids are much better at it than me.
• Emerald City
• Emerald City 2
• Emerald City Condominiums
• Fifth on the Park at Emerald City
• The Colours of Emerald City
• Dream Tower at Emerald City
• The Towns at Emerald City