Former Soldier turned real estate developer thrives at restoring aging buildings.

By Mary Baxter   
For the LCNews


   Just as Farhi's military experience finds expression in his manner and his surroundings, so too is this seventh generation Israeli from Petach Ticvah's profound reverence for community, culture, family and the family pet ( a Newfoundland dog named Lila).

   He's supported fistfuls of local causes and organizations like the London Chapter of The Arthritis Society and Orchestra London. When he retires, he would like to return to Israel to work on a school lunch program for children in need.

   As well, he has chosen to earn his business reputation by taking the buildings others didn't want and returning them to the London and St. Thomas communities as functional locations for business. He's discovered that in order to build community, an infrastructure is needed and an important part of that infrastructure is making sure that a community's history remains accessible, tangible and useable.

 Yet, in the mid 1980's after Farhi had completed his military duty and was working in his father's insurance business, becoming involved in property development was one of the farthest things from his mind. It was a chance meeting of London real estate broker Mary Bray on a flight to Los Angeles that planted the seed for the idea.

 The idea of becoming involved in real estate in Canada appealed to him because it was "fresh air" from what he had been doing in Israel.

   "Canada is a very peaceful country," he says, describing it as a land of opportunity.

   But there were challenges, perhaps one of the greatest being language. (Culture shock was also an issue and friends recall how the concepts of mortgages and furnaces astonished him when he first arrived.)

   Undaunted, in 1988 at the age of 27, Farhi made his way to London where he and Bray embarked on a series of real estate deals. They focused on acquiring properties in the downtown core of St. Thomas and along Richmond Street in London. Of these, it was the acquisition of the old St. Thomas courthouse that eventually brought Farhi broader recognition in the community.

His partnership with Bray dissolved in the late 1980s (Farhi kept the courthouse).

   Farhi says he has always had a love respect towards heritage, noting that it is "essential" to respect the past and its buildings for future generations.

   But doing so comes with a cost and he admits not all share his perspective on how to preserve older architecture.

   Supporters of heritage buildings usually don't want to see changes which may affect the older structures, but maintaining original appearances takes money, he explains. He also argues that restoring a building to its original appearance is a community responsibility that should not necessarily fall solely on the shoulders of the restorer.

   The practice improves the image of a block and creates a living museum, preserving physical, built expression of a community's heritage, he says.

   Consequently, "if we like to see heritage buildings continue in the future, (the governments) have to give inducements to builders and landowners, " he says.

   Grants may provide some support, but sometimes what's even more important is a long term commitment to partnership, he argues. The Elgin County courthouse is his case in point.

He would like to do more restorative work on the facility. Without a long term commitment from his principal tenant - the provincial courts- it's hard to find the financial justification to attempt other projects he says.

   Restoring older buildings also comes with unique headaches. Unlike a brand new development where the costs are known before construction begins, older buildings are always delivering surprises that an drive up the costs of restoration, explain Farhi and Muky Pundaky, the company's vice-president.

   Farhi refers to his acquisition last year of the Hyman Street block, a wedge of land and buildings north of London's Victoria Park.

So far, he' s spent $700,000 on improvements like fixing chimneys and repointing brick to bring the buildings up to standards. Yet to do a full restoration would mean even thousands more and "to spend $400,000 on a house just isn't feasible."

So what keeps him tackling these types of projects?

   Both Farhi and Pundaky point to the sense of satisfaction achieved once the project is completed.

   "We take pride in that ( it is ) not another cookie cutter (building)," Farhi says.

   The restored buildings combined with a commitment to customer service can also attract tenants and keep occupancy rates high, he adds.

   However, working with heritage buildings is only one aspect of Farhi's business. he has also developed properties in Kingston, hamilton, Stoney Creek, Kitchener and Windsor. Many of there have been for government clients.

   In London, his holdings number around 50 and along with the Hyman Street block he counts among these the Royal Bank building on Richmond Street and the TD-Canada Trust building on Dundas Street.

  He attributes his business edge to the ability to make split-second decisions and a commitment to integrity. His word is his bond, he says, "even thought it might cost me."

   He also talks about the importance of customer service and describes his goal to deliver "the utmost and not the least to our tenant businesses."

   Farhi was nominated for the Ontario Chamber of Commerce award by the St. Thomas and District Chamber of Commerce. He was one of 70 nominees sent to the provincial organization.

   Wayne Munday, a member of the committee that selected Farhi for the nomination, said it was Farhi's work in enhancing the city's community and his long-standing membership in the Chamber that earned the nomination.

   "He made a big investment in that core when nobody else was prepared to ." he said.

   While Farhi's operations are located in London, "the local chamber still feels pretty close to him," Munday said, noting that Farhi still retains about six properties in the city.  

    When you fight in a war, chances are you're going to learn a lot about survival - if you're one of the lucky ones to survive.

   When Israeli- born Shmuel Farhi was a soldier during the Lebanon war of the early 1980's, it did not take him long to learn this lesson. But what he also took away with him was the understanding that there's more to living than simply surviving.

   Watching Farhi in action in the Richmond Street Office that houses his development business, Farhi Holdings Corporation, his military experience is clearly apparent. He speaks with the authority of a leader, expecting immediate response from the staff. Staff confirms that he's a tough taskmaster.

   He is also a consummate organizer. He effortlessly takes control of the interview, collects articles for further reading, provides a whole raft of supplemental contacts for interviews and even goes so far as to call some of these right then and there.

   Obviously, Farhi subscribes to the belief that when you've got a project at hand, there's no time like the present for tackling it. This need for activity, to be in action, results in swift actions in business dealings.

   Take, for example, his acquisition of two buildings from Standard Life Realty earlier this year.

   John Mah, an asset manager with Standard Life calls the speed with which Farhi organized the transaction "unbelievable."

   "We're just not moving that fast."

   These are the qualities that have helped the tenacious Farhi hammer together a business worth millions (how much exactly he won;t say but local media reports the buildings he owns province wide are valued at more than $800 million) and which, in physical terms amounts to more than two million square feet of assets.

   But if Farhi were simply the sum of these qualities, it is doubtful he would have been climbing the stage at this year's Ontario Chamber of Commerce to accept one o fits two 2004 outstanding business achievement awards for small business.

( The other recipient is Orangeville based Woolwich Dairy) Nor is it likely he would have received recognition from London's Main Street program in 2003 for the work he has done in downtown London or from the St. Thomas and District Chamber of Commerce a few years ago for similar work.