By Benoit Poliquin
How it started
Mr. Desjardins’s beginnings were humble, yet in some ways, privileged. His father, Gabriel, was a trader – cars and scrap metals mostly. The art and science of selling assets are not learned in a textbook, but by experience.
From a very young age, he gained experience in pricing assets, adding value and selling them at a profit from observing his father at work. His father’s gift of the “business mind” is one for which Mr. Desjardins is deeply thankful, and one that continues to pay dividends today.
The construction business was a career goal for Mr. Desjardins from about the age of 12. Every day, he would walk by a vacant lot near his home that was being developed. Thanks to hard work and human engineering, it transformed into homes and a commercial building. This concept of turning vacant and unused land into a positive asset for the community enthralled the young Gilles.
At age 19, with his father as a co-signer and the proceeds from selling his motorcycle and Corvette, Mr. Desjardins started his real estate empire with one six-unit apartment building. It provided worthy on-the-job training, from building the structure right down to the finishings.
The initial idea was to build and sell, but in 1986 interest rates were around 12 per cent, which meant Mr. Desjardins lacked the liquidity necessary to keep the units empty for potential buyers. Renting became the solution – let the tenants pay the interest and some of the mortgage principal.
And it worked. Once the building was sold, Mr. Desjardins severed the lot and built a second unit. From this project came the purchase and redevelopment of five other lots, made possible by the profits from the first venture.
Mr. Desjardins then moved to building custom homes in a chic area of Gatineau in 1986 at the tail end of a housing boom. With the profits, Mr. Desjardins began to acquire and develop more parcels of land around the area. Always profitable, and always within his financial limits, the business – and more importantly, his skill set – continued to grow.
In 1989, the housing market hit a soft patch. Rising interest rates combined with political instability in the wake of the failed Meech Lake Accord meant demand for high-end custom homes evaporated in Gatineau. Many real estate promoters and investors around the Ottawa and Gatineau area were having financial trouble – but not Mr. Desjardins.
While others were selling, he was one of the few with the liquidity and knowledge to buy. In 1989, he bought 60 lots on the cheap and built semi-detached homes that doubled the number of units on the parcel of land. At the same time, the entrepreneur built his first large-scale commercial building.
Worried about the risk, he signed up two partners. However, one of the partners declared bankruptcy and the other partner reneged on the commitments, which meant Mr. Desjardins had to take on the project or risk losing it all. In order to finance this white elephant, he decided to get aggressive and creative. This is where his company, Brigil, became a leader in marketing homes, while continuing to buy land at attractive prices.
Today, Brigil is developing housing projects on land purchased many years – and in some cases, decades – ago.
Getting to the next level
While land is a key ingredient in the real estate industry, human capital is a close second. Mr. Desjardins works diligently at developing talent so that the knowledge flows throughout the organization. The goal is to have an enterprise where success is not dependent on the leader’s day-to-day decisions. The business has to be larger than its founder.
At the core of the success is one driving mantra: stay liquid. Financial solvency is the oxygen that allows any company in any industry to thrive despite the economic realities. After all, most profitable investments are made at low prices; low prices are usually a result of uncertain times when most are unable or unwilling to invest. Mr. Desjardins has understood this concept and it is a cornerstone of his success.
“A successful business leader should be able to be profitable regardless of market conditions,” says Mr. Desjardins.
Gilles Desjardins offers several clever, well-researched and actionable pieces of advice to young entrepreneurs:
Do not chase the trappings of success, as they prevent what should be the No. 1 goal for every entrepreneur: liquidity. Sports cars and large homes do not add any value to one’s business; in fact, they take away financial health and attention.
Have a dream and a passion for what you do. If you don’t have it, find it first before getting started. You must love the daily grind of running your business.
You must have and continuously develop your talent and that of those around you.
As a leader, you must have the will and discipline to succeed.
Take nothing for granted. In life, you should only choose what is good for you and leave everything else behind.
Financial liquidity is what makes business ideas develop into opportunities that lead to business success.