Q&A with Brandon Donnelly, Managing Director, Development in Toronto, Ontario

Friday, July 14, 2023

“Slate’s development group began with me and one other partner. Our goal was to add an entirely new capability to Slate’s fast-growing platform. It was an opportunity to build a team from the ground up and expand upon Slate’s identity as an owner and operator – adding ‘developer,’ too.”

What led you to your job at Slate?

I was initially trained as an architect, which makes me somewhat unique in terms of the typical Slate employee profile. However, studying architecture for my undergraduate degree really catalyzed my interest in real estate development and led me to pursue a Master’s degree in architecture and real estate from the University of Pennsylvania. During the summers, I worked for various real estate developers, which solidified my ambition to become one after graduation.

In 2016, I was introduced to Slate by a mutual friend. At the time, Slate was looking to execute ground-up developments and grow the firm’s development expertise internally. I joined that same year and started the development department, where I now serve as the Managing Director based in our Toronto office.

You helped build Slate’s development group from the ground up. What experiences or characteristics have you looked for in key hires as you assembled the world-class team we have today?

Slate’s development group began with me and one other partner. We had a few sites that Slate had just acquired and a few more on the horizon. Our goal was to add an entirely new capability to Slate’s fast-growing platform. It was an opportunity to build a team from the ground up and expand upon Slate’s identity as an owner and operator – adding ‘developer,’ too.

Our approach to hiring began with identifying the right fit in personality and cultural alignment and prioritizing this element relative to core competencies. Development is like conducting an orchestra; we understand all necessary roles, but rather than engaging in the activity that creates the music, we guide all relevant parties through the process. You have to be knowledgeable about varying aspects of the development process, without being an expert in every single area. It’s a role where people from different professional backgrounds can excel, so we look for people who possess critical core competencies, and if they are the right cultural fit, we will help them grow.

You’ve overseen some of Slate’s earliest and most influential development projects – which project is your favorite?

Junction House is a favorite development of mine, as it was the first development project Slate undertook. I happen to also be moving into the building upon its completion. With construction set to wrap this year, Junction House caps off a meaningful milestone for our team.

With all projects, we try to push the boundaries of innovation and creativity. With Junction House in particular, we introduced the ‘House Collection,’ a series of larger, two-story suites designed to act as a substitute for low-rise housing. This idea was inspired by the fact that low-rise housing is currently priced out of possibility for a large proportion of Toronto’s population, so we created an alternative option for buyers within a multi-family condominium. This was core to the philosophy of Junction House, and ultimately inspired its name.

Describe the life cycle of a development project and the phase you most enjoy working on.

In simple terms, the process begins with the acquisition, which leads to rezoning the site and obtaining the necessary entitlements. In Toronto, each individual site is rezoned through an approval process in order to be able to begin construction. In the case of building a condominium, the next step is marketing it and preselling units before construction begins—in Toronto, this is required to obtain construction financing. In short: we’ll launch, presell the project, finance it through a construction loan, begin construction, build it, and finally fill it with occupants.

I love the construction phase because it’s the time when all the other elements of the process really come together. It takes many years for new projects to materialize, and seeing it start to come to life is so rewarding. It signifies the building’s shift from a simple concept to a dynamic reality.

What major trends do you see shaping the development industry over the next 5-10 years?

Cities have proven to be resilient throughout history, and we believe there will always be a desire for people to cluster and congregate together. One of the fundamental truths of cities is the cultivation of “agglomeration economies,” where people and businesses group together and yield higher productivity and outputs.

A trend we’ve identified in cities is the proliferation of urban infill projects next to transit, especially over the next 5-10 years. This plays into a larger movement across North America to intensify low-rise neighborhoods and develop efficient housing. This recently materialized in Toronto, with new policies passed allowing fourplexes in all low-rise areas.

Sustainability is another trend of increasing importance; mass timber construction is becoming more and more common and is an emerging area of interest for us in our construction. And trends in advanced technology developments such as AI, augmented reality, and even 3D printing are exciting for our business in processes like construction. Historically, construction has been highly inefficient, making it ripe for innovation and change.

How has Slate helped you grow as an individual?

My personal and professional growth is directly correlated with the amount of responsibility and autonomy Slate has increasingly entrusted me with – from the moment I started as a VP, all the way to today as a Managing Director of our business.

To me, this is the real strength of the Slate platform: each business within Slate is accountable to the overall platform, but each is given significant freedom, allowing people to be entrepreneurial and innovative. As the business grows, keeping decisions decentralized helps us stay competitive and nimble and gives our team members a sense of ownership and accountability over the work they do.

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