By Susan Doran
Fort McMurray, Alta. Realtor Julio Florez has won so many awards he has trouble keeping track of them.
Recently he hit the mother lode as the national winner of the first-ever A.E. LePage Realtor of the Year award, presented to him at Royal LePage’s national sales conference as homage to his productivity, community service, leadership and brand engagement.
A dedicated fund raiser for the Royal LePage Shelter Foundation serving women and children who have experienced domestic violence, earlier in 2018 Florez was also named Realtor of the Year for the Prairie region. (As for his other various accolades past and present, when reminded by REM that he’d won these, he replied, “I did?”)
Florez, who has an associate broker’s license, has been with Royal LePage True North Realty in the notorious oil boomtown of Fort McMurray for the entirety of his 14-year real estate career. He’s participated as a director on the local board and provincial association and is well known in the community for his work with everything from charities and soup kitchens to sports teams, the arts, the hospital board, new immigrants and youth.
He’s happy to be considered an inspiration and his colleagues certainly seem to have no trouble singing his praises. Says one: “I’m not sure I have known anyone else who simply naturally attracts admiration from people. Julio is first in line to volunteer to do almost everything.”
On a charity fund-raising trek in Peru a few years back, even the contents of Florez’s pack turned out to be an indication of his character.
“I had one of the smallest packs of anyone, but out of it I pulled things for everyone – water, Band-Aids, anything at all that was needed,” he says. His carryall was pretty much a bottomless source of goodwill. His fellow travelers took to calling it the “magic pack.”
Florez’s broker, Marian Barry, says: “He’s a true treasure. His positive attitude is contagious. Over the years I have received so many compliments on his willingness to help others.” She recalls that Florez was “a strength and a calm” for all during the record-breaking wildfire that ravaged Fort McMurray in 2016, resulting in the reported loss of about one-fifth of the municipality’s housing.
Barry continues: “On a personal note, Julio suffered an incredible loss with the death of his son two years ago. How he maintained his composure and good nature, I don’t know.”
Florez clearly is no stranger to hardship and heartache. Originally from Bogota, Colombia, where he served with distinction on the national police force, he was appointed as a deputy district commander with the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Cambodia.
“Terrible,” he recalls. “Ever since then I have realized the importance of helping others. There was no food to buy. I would see people spending hours beside a pond trying to catch a frog to eat.”
Even he wound up eating snake. He had been having it for lunch for quite awhile in fact, before someone explained to him that that’s what it was. “It tastes good,” he says, laughing.
He wound up in Canada over 20 years ago and was soon supervising an oil plant camp in Fort McMurray, the heart of Canadian oil production. Later he worked for the municipality as a network analyst. He credits his interest in finance and his love of learning with giving him the confidence to eventually jump into real estate and rise quickly through the ranks, to the point where he has often been among Royal LePage’s top salespeople provincially and nationally.
“I am a huge fan of this beautiful country,” Florez says, adding that to prove it, he has a Canadian flag painted on his left big toenail and is planning to get another one tattooed on his calf.
“Coming from Cambodia and Colombia, the tranquility, the sense of peace and safety we have here, is huge,” he says. “Most Canadians would think that living in Fort McMurray is not ideal, but it’s a great community. We were hurt by the fire, but we continue to move forward.”
He recalls that the local Canadian Tire outlet was a trailer when he first arrived in town. Now it’s “a beautiful store.” The local recreation/leisure centre is among the largest in the country, and the community has plenty to offer, he says.
When he was a new agent in 2005, the real estate market in Fort McMurray was crazy busy.
“There was huge demand. Places were selling so fast,” he says. “Times have changed with oil prices coming down so much. The value of condos has come down 50 per cent since the peak prices of 2012 to 2014. Rental prices as well are down 50 per cent. And single-family homes are down about 20 to 25 per cent.”
It’s no skin off this optimist’s nose.
“New rules come and go. We find a way of adjusting.”
The Fort McMurray market is unique, with a large proportion of residents sticking around for just a few years while working for the oil companies, some with housing programs provided. Florez has noticed that there tends to be a five to 10-year rotation.
“You have to identify this type of market and you must keep in contact because when they sell you want to be there,” he says. “I work a lot. I put in the time. It’s a job that requires proper follow-up and putting the customers’ interests above everything.”
Florez is impressed with the Canadian real estate system, believing it to be among the best organized in the world.
“We have to care for the industry, give back to it, get involved in organized real estate,” he says. “We have to co-operate with each other and think about what kind of profession we want to leave our children.”