There are many property development companies operating in Southern Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe, and some would argue that it is an oversaturated market. If you want to make it in Toronto, you are competing with an established list of developers. But, we spoke with Liaquat Mian, the President of LJM Developments, of Burlington, Ontario, and he shed some light on how he blazed a trail within the industry by focusing on some neglected markets.
LJM Developments was founded in 2001, and the company founders brought much development and project management experience. Liaquat was trained at MIT in Boston and had done a lot of work with various financial institutions from around the world. He was the chief financial officer of a very large corporation in Pakistan for twenty-five years.
Liaquat also worked for the Army Charitable Trust, and he was the general manager for the implementation of some mega-million dollar projects. When he landed in Canada, he used that background and his training as a chartered accountant to his advantage.
“We knew what it took to be proficient with financial engineering, financial planning, project management, and implementation. That was the work I knew, so we started in Mississauga with a small commercial complex of two and a half acres back in 2003. It was completed in 2005, and was a great success,” says Mian.
This first foray into development enabled LJM to understand nuances in municipal laws and the market. The next step was to acquire strategic land sites in different parts of the Greater Toronto Area and Mississauga as well as some townhouses and high rises in Burlington. The idea was to gain a good portfolio of the four segments in construction: detached homes, town homes, commercial plazas and high rises.
To establish itself, LJM not only needed to know municipal laws but also innovative financing arrangements and customer requirements. It also needed to develop a name in this area. The focus was more towards the west of Toronto because LJM did not, at the time, have the kind of resources to buy the necessary amount of land in the city of Toronto. So, investing in Burlington onward became the goal.
This company strategy went very well, and what followed was the purchase of six acres of land in Burlington in 2005. A commercial complex – Uptown Centre – was built, and it was a beautiful project that garnered awards.
“Just opposite the centre, we planned on constructing the tallest building in Burlington. This was accomplished in a joint venture with Davies Smith Developers, with equal equity partnership. A lot of experience was gained, and we completed that in 2013. Ironstone is now called ‘The Jewel of Burlington,’ with 225 units,” says Mian.
Mian felt that high rise construction held the most challenges, so the focus of the company shifted. High rises demand innovative techniques and practices, and doing the most stimulating work appealed to him.
“We were not into run-of-the-mill work. Anybody can build homes and townhomes. So, with this strategy of accepting challenges, we started moving forward. From Burlington, we went to Grimsby in 2014. We bought property on the water between the QEW [highway] and the lake,” says Mian.
LJM Developments was the first company to build a high rise in Grimsby, and the project would be called the Waterview. People were very sceptical in the beginning because there was no existing market for it, so there was no data to examine on how to proceed. Mian and his team saw that this could be an area with a great future for residential developments like those found in downtown Toronto.
The launch in 2014 was a great success and LJM was able to sell a great product at a very affordable price. It was an innovative product and something that was never done in Canada before. “It’s called a single-loaded building. Every unit faces the water; there is nothing on the other side but a walkway. This is a very unique feature, and people really liked it! We spent approximately $7 million on the amenity area that has a green roof garden. There are a lot of green features here,” says Mian.
It was advanced; it was challenging, and the leadership that moved it forward is responsible for the second phase, a much bigger, fifteen-storey building, of which eighty percent is already sold. There are also plans for two more phases of the project.
There are a host of other projects for the future in Hamilton. LJM has secured a property in Stoney Creek on Highway 8, and received approval from the city of Hamilton, for a ninety-three-unit, six-storey building. And in Burlington, there are plans for a twenty-storey building which will be the first in the city to incorporate geothermal heating. The land has been acquired, and applications have been put forward to the city. At this point, there are one thousand units in the planning stage, so the company has grown fast, by concentrating on pioneering exclusive, quality products.
“We have lands acquired for the next decade, but our focus and our specialty is on high rises because we feel that is the name of the game for the future. The policies of the government centre around intensification and going vertical. If we gain that specialization beforehand, we will be very successful,” says Mian.
Mian explains that there is much competition, and being new in the field means that success will only come if the product is unique and of good quality. LJM does not take on many projects, and that helps in selecting the architects and in developing a philosophy that will attract customers.
Part of that philosophy entails the use of concrete only. LJM does not believe in using wood at all, even if it is allowed in buildings up to six-storeys. Mian will not accept anything that is of mediocre quality; it has to be an extraordinary product. People are willing to pay the price for something that is very safe and strong for the long term.
“Concrete gives a lot of peace to people. There is no noise, and it is very safe. We will always build from concrete. I tell customers to be very careful about what they are paying for because with a wood structure there could be issues,” says Mian.
People approach Mian and want to invest in the company, but that is not how LJM works. Everything is done with its own resources and funding, and more projects will be undertaken in a phased matter. There are deadline and cost challenges for this sector because it is booming, but LJM accepts and enjoys that.
With a competent team behind it, LJM is certainly not scared of a challenge. “Every business, job and activity has challenges. You have to accept it; face it; do it. Nothing scares me. I don’t work under any pressure or threat. We just tackle it and do it in a professional manner,” says Mian.
“We have army training, so we can do whatever it takes and fight it out. I can’t take a vacation as the head of the organization. I go only once in December, and the rest of the time I am here 24/7. That is my commitment to the company, and my team is also working very hard,” says Mian.
Mian strives to hire bright young people and train them directly from university and co-op programs. He has also worked with many engineers from different institutions. On the technical construction side, LJM has a very experienced vice president of construction and site supervisors with twenty to twenty-five years of work under their belts.
He wants people to come in the morning laughing and leave at the end of the day the same way. He does not want anyone leaving for home under stress and makes great efforts to keep his people happy. The company will sponsor employees in their quest to get a higher education. One member of the staff just got married and was on a cruise for two weeks. LJM offers paid vacation for all staff.
“We have a goal: anyone who retires from LJM completing outstanding service will get a free condo. We are also the first builder to donate a condo to Habitat for Humanity in Grimsby, and we will likely do that for every building we finish,” says Mian.
On June 22, 2017, LJM won the Business of the Year award from the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce. Five hundred participants were present, so winning it was quite an accomplishment. Grimsby has become a hub of activity mainly due to the efforts of LJM.
A factor that Mian says has been very important to the success of the company is Chairman of the Board for LJM Developments Mussarat Mian, his wife. “She is the force behind us always. She identifies the land and gives us motivation. She is a Re-Max broker and a mortgage broker,” says Mian.
LJM Developments has tremendous plans for growth and has projects earmarked for the next ten years. The younger employees can see a future in this organization. The focus is not on the bottom line, but on the quality and legacy being created.
LJM participates in every activity in Grimsby and is often the largest contributor. “We request that people let us know of anything we can help with. We will be there to repay the community; that is our obligation. We approved $100,000 to a Stoney Creek church for their parkette development,” says Mian.
Soon, a third office will be opening in the Niagara region as part of the goal to move further that direction. Beamsville and Niagara Falls are next, and land has just been purchased in Dunnville on the lake. A GO Transit train route extension has been announced, so that area is getting a lot more attention.
“We are currently building a centre for teens, with exotic and affordable cottages. There will be one hundred cottages in total, about an hour from Mississauga on Highway 3. It is a very scenic area on Lake Erie with seventy acres of land and a private beach. We also plan on doing something for seniors, retirees and professionals,” says Mian.