Whether you’re driving into or out of Waterloo, Ont. the one thing you’re guaranteed is sightings of massive red and white Whitney Commercial Real Estate Services’ signs with John Whitney’s name dotting both sides of the road at frequent intervals. Through her high school years, Ginger Whitney would often “hear from everyone about how many signs you see around town that have the big Whitney name. It’s pretty cool to see that impact,” she says. Announcing leasing opportunities for small, middle and large retail and commercial properties, the Whitney footprint in this small town’s real estate landscape is unmissable.
Growing up as the fifth-generation Whitney, Ginger became aware of her family’s 100-year real estate lineage from a young age. As she rode in the back seat of their family car, she’d often hear conversations between her father, John Whitney and her mother, Colleen, begin and end with real estate. But like most teenagers trying to figure out their next career step, Ginger wanted to “do my own thing and not what my parents did.” That is, until she went to university.
While getting her degree from Wilfred Laurier University in communication studies and geography, Ginger joined a co-op program through which she got the chance to work in Blackberry’s facilities department. It was then that she saw her father step into the Blackberry boardroom and deliver an inspiring presentation of his astute knowledge and understanding of various types of property.
By then, as CEO of Whitney & Company, John had been managing the real estate portfolio for Waterloo-based telecom giant Research in Motion – later known as Blackberry – for over 20 years. He was instrumental in moving the company from their first 5,000 to 11,000 to three million square feet.
It was then that Ginger decided to follow her father’s career footsteps, which traced all the way back to 1911.
Charles Isaac Fenwick Whitney was the first Whitney patriarch to come to Toronto from Nova Scotia in 1911 and lay the foundations of the family’s real estate heritage. Before arriving in Toronto, he owned a dry goods business with his brother in Lunenburg for 23 years. In 1930, he moved to Kitchener and soon his son, George, joined the business as salesman on duty at a King Street office in Kitchener. John often wonders how his grandfather moved to Kitchener in the middle of a recession in the ’30s and built a successful business. “And my only answer I can come up with is they persevered because that’s what I would do.”
From 1932 to 1938, George branched out, forming his own brokerage, George Whitney Ltd., dealing in local residential, commercial and industrial properties. “George became president of the Kitchener-Waterloo Real Estate Board (KWAR) and was the first Canadian member to serve on the Governing Council of the U.S. institute known as the Society of Industrial Realtors (SIR),” says his bio on the company’s website.
Named after his grandfather, Charles Richard Whitney ushered the third generation of Whitneys into real estate as president of KWAR and the Ontario Association of Real Estate Boards (now the Ontario Real Estate Association). And in 1975, John followed suit.
In the early days of his career, after selling a few homes it quickly became apparent to John that he wanted to carve out his niche working with the business community. Businesses made objective decisions when buying a property, rather than subjective ones “like, oh, I really liked the colour of that wall”, John says. Although that may be an important selling point for a residential client, it’s not so much for a business looking to lease a 10,000+ square-foot retail space, he says.
As he walks past the corridors of the 3,500 square-foot office at the end of an industrial cul-de-sac in Bauer Place, Waterloo, John tracks his 40+ year career achievements through frame after frame of sold or leased commercial properties in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, ranging from 30,000 to 850,000 square feet.
“In my lifetime alone, there’s been a hundred million square feet of space that we’ve sold, leased or been involved with. It’s kinda cool,” he says.
John says the company competes against the best and the brightest in their business, and that’s what keeps his feet on the ground. The company’s client roster has included Communitech (of which John was a founding member and chairman for 10 years), The Cora Group, Marsland Centre Limited, Greenhouse Juice & Co., Benton Medical Centre and Catalyst, to name just a few.
“You’re dealing with a lot of money. You’re dealing with a lot of opportunity.” He says you must make sure you are giving people the guidance they need. “I’m proud to say, we do have a good reputation and it’s all those years of working hard and providing the right answers that’s gotten us here,” he says.
In 2018, KWAR honoured the company with the 80-year member award.
Today, Ginger is carrying the Whitney name into its fifth generation as the company’s broker and vice president, with mom Colleen as the head of its residential arm. As the company’s president, Jane Klugman is the only non-Whitney in the executive team – a position that’s been in the works for the past 30 years. “Jane’s not family, but she is family,” says John.
Back in the ’80s when Klugman worked in the City of Kitchener’s economic development, she met John, who often visited their office. As director of business development, Klugman worked with John selling substantial land in the Huron business park, the Lancaster Corporate Centre, the Bridgeport Business Park and one which they monikered the “pork chop” because it was small and a tough sell.
John’s ideas on how to sell “pork chop” resonated with Klugman’s team and in short order, it was sold. After successful stints at Communitech and Deloitte as vice president, and several nudges from John, she finally joined the Whitney business, bringing in years of corporate experience that only strengthened the company’s foothold.
Surrounded by three women at the helm of the company, John is often humbled by their expertise and intelligence and recognizes that only of late has the industry opened to more women being in leadership. And all three women agree when Colleen says, “John has very high standards and pushes us to learn, grow and expand. He won’t ever give me an easy answer. He’s never held my hands. He’s encouraged me to reach out, and beyond.”
Back at his desk, a red-and-white poster next to a wall of Whitney family portraits reads, “Keep calm and Whitney on” – a way of life heralding the sixth generation.