Never underestimate the power of a green tea. After all, it was a green tea (and the conversation that accompanied it) that brought Lisa Russell out of her short-lived retirement as both Jason Fleury and Russell discussed their shared vision for building a cover-to-cover real estate company. It would start from a blank canvas, building an investment, development and property management company offering a one-stop shop. By the end of that visit in August of 2021, Russell and Fleury had mapped out their vision and set out to put together the ownership team that would bring that vision to life.
“Unitii Corp was born from a vision where ‘unity’ symbolizes the power of community coming together and ‘unit’ signifies the essence of multifamily real estate.”
On top of offering an investment and development division, Lisa Russell, CEO of unitii corp, felt that property management was underserved in Western Canada so by adding the property management division, it would complete the true cover to cover real estate offering.
Jason Fleury, president of unitii corp, and Darcy Durksen, VP developments, had worked together for much of their careers and they were excited to start a company that would add their expertise to complement unitii’s cover to cover real estate strategy, building multifamily housing in Western Canada’s communities. The team connected with Lizaine Wheeler, unitii COO, and it didn’t take much to convince her to take the entrepreneurial leap along with them. Within a month of that green tea meeting, the quartet had formed unitii corp’s ownership team.
The formidable foursome pooled their decades of experience in all areas of real estate, creating in essence three separate entities under the unitii umbrella; Russell is in charge of investment, Fleury and Durksen head development and Wheeler handles property management.
The unitii team has the full package. They can take a piece of land through rezoning, vision and design to the build, lease it up, property manage and asset manage, or they can buy an existing asset, renovate and refinance, all under one roof.
The combination of skill sets of the ownership team, along with the collective relationships they had fostered over decades in the business, meant unitii wasn’t a standard startup. The company came online armed with a robust contacts list made up of previous employers and colleagues, vendors and professional services, all of whom were key in unitii’s successful growth to date. Their individual reputations transferred to unitii, and clients and vendors didn’t hesitate to get onboard. The unitii team together has bought, built and managed thousands upon thousands of units throughout their careers.
That’s saying something, as unitii is already one of the emerging leaders in third-party property management companies in Western Canada, handling more than 2,500 units in about 30 properties across Calgary and Edmonton, with another 1,000 coming on shortly. On the development side there are about 1,200 units currently under construction, building for institutional companies, REITs and private companies. Unitii is building in coveted communities in Calgary’s Mission, Kensington and East Hill, as well as View Royal in Victoria, B.C., and there are another 1,000 units in the pipeline.
Unitii reached the goal of acquiring its own building as well. In 2022, the company’s investment division put its first offer out to acquire Chelsea Estates, an asset in Calgary’s Beltline with 179 units. That acquisition perfectly illustrates the collaborative nature of unitii; the company bought the property, completed suite and common area renovations, is currently refinancing the building, as well as property managing and asset managing it. The investment team has already successfully subdivided the excess land since the January acquisition. This acquisition is the first of many to come for unitii.
“We can replicate this process over and over again. We really complement each other’s different divisions. It’s a great example of how our entire team has been instrumental in the success of the Chelsea Estates value add project,” says Russell.
Each division shares their expertise with owners and developers and is proud to provide top service to every client. The development and property management divisions pass along their volume discounted savings to their partnerships, both owner and residents, from operating expenses such as insurance and utility expense to volume rates on development such as concrete, lumber and mechanical/electrical.
“It all stems back to the vendors and relationships that we have established over our careers, allowing us to share these partnerships, discounts and team expertise with the owners and residents,” says Wheeler.
Relationships are critical, and unitii’s portfolio shows how strong the founders’ industry relationships were before striking out on their own. Their professional careers have allowed them to work with many of their past colleagues. These strong relationships helped launch unitii corp quickly and contributed to its incredible growth in its first two years in business.
In those early days, they didn’t draw a salary and just dug into the work of building the company from the ground up. They wore many hats and found themselves in unfamiliar waters as they prepared their website, set up their IT systems, got the required brokerage and property management licenses and brainstormed the kind of people they would need on their team to make it all work. They met in their first office and set out their goals for the first year: to acquire one building, manage 1,000 rental units and have 250 units in construction. They achieved that and more, and the phone starting to light up with not only clients wanting unitii to build for them or manage their properties but also industry professionals who wanted to be part of the journey and partner with them. The founders were not interested in growth for growth’s sake and from the beginning they carefully curated the unitii team as well as the clients they’d pursue to ensure they’d be surrounded by people who embodied what the company was about.
“We’ve all lived pretty full careers and we’re doing this because this is what we want to do. We want to align ourselves with people who have the same vision and values,” says Fleury.
Three of the four were at a stage in their working lives where the glimmer of retirement was becoming a bit brighter. It took something special for them to transition from winding down to building something from scratch, and unitii provided that draw for the founders as well as the team they’d come to build around them.
Even in a challenging hiring market, unitii attracted the cream of the crop of both younger professionals starting out and seasoned industry professionals eager for a fresh start at a fresh company. The owners slowly assembled an incredible team of like-minded, talented people. As the business rolled in, the company grew exponentially.
Today, unitii has a head office in southeast Calgary and a regional office in Edmonton to accommodate its 75 employees, many of whom worked with one or more of the executive team over the years and some left higher paying jobs to be part of what the unitii team were doing and how they are doing it.
“We’ve created an environment where our employees feel they are part of a team. We’re a mid-sized builder and our new hires are looking for growth and opportunity,” says Durksen. “Our staff has a feeling that they belong.”
It’s in the corporate DNA to create an environment of collaboration, respect, excellence and a lot of fun, all the while passing expertise on to the younger generation so the company will flourish over the long term. Because of that, the founders’ vision of creating a generational company that will positively impact the industry and the community is being realized.
“If we can teach them to be corporate leaders, good corporate citizens, and show how they can give back to their community, we’re doing something that will outlast the company,” says Fleury.
The staff is truly a team, working together to better serve the needs of the Alberta and British Columbia markets as the company grows. The founders know they couldn’t have grown unitii so quickly and enjoyed such success without the people who have shaped their careers over the decades and continue to support them.
The unitii team is grateful to all of the iconic real estate mentors who have impacted their lives over the years, sharing leadership skills and their deep understanding of the real estate industry. As well, they want to thank their industry friends who have been supporting them along their journey: legal, financial, property tax experts, insurance, brokers, consultants and engineers, suppliers and trades, and of course their team.
The multifamily industry is full of opportunity and unitii corp is looking forward to a very bright future delivering exactly what the founders envisioned: a cover-to-cover company built on a foundation of service, community and relationships that are built to last.
#101 253 62 Ave SE
Calgary, AB T2H 0R5
877-460-2910 • unitii.ca