Home Month and Year September 2022 The Kaiser

The Kaiser

Self-made businessman still values hard work and commitment

Bill Kujat, photo by Riverwood Photography.

Sometimes the real race is getting to the starting line. For Bill Kujat, truer words cannot be spoken. The German-born Canadian is living proof that through hard work, grit and determination, one can blaze his own trail.

As an 18-year-old, Kujat arrived in Canada in 1957 with -$192; while he had $37 to his name, he owed the Canadian government a $229 sponsorship fee to immigrate as part of a youth movement to stimulate the national economy.

For a few years he worked odd jobs including hauling sacks of potatoes at a Chinese restaurant, counting 2x4s as a labourer at a lumber mill, operating a powerhouse at Lake Louise and working weekends at CP Rail. It did not matter, though. He was in Calgary and that was all that mattered.

“I read about the Calgary Stampede,” he says. “Every German boy’s dream was to go west and experience the spirit, excitement and promise of the wild west as fueled by the many books we had read as young men.”

He hasn’t lost his love of the West either. His office is festooned with artwork and sculptures depicting the spirit of Alberta and cowboy culture. Aside from that, pictures of his wife, three daughters and four grandchildren make his corner office feel as close to a living room as possible while being in downtown Calgary.

He was enamored with the romantic notion of the wide open Prairies, which was not too different from growing up in Gronau, Germany, 130 kilometres north of Dusseldorf. He set foot in Calgary with a grin, cocksure as any cowboy could be.


Subhead: The business machine is born

The trajectory of his life rose dramatically upward when, in 1961, he accepted a job as operations manager for Modern Building Cleaning Services, a full package janitorial business. For 17 years, day in and day out, Kujat worked to oversee many sites and guarantee quality above all else for customers. It’s his penchant for going above and beyond that ultimately led him to become the vice-president, western region of the national company.

One of the buildings he managed was Elveden House, on the corner of 7 Avenue & 7 Street S.W. He cared meticulously for the tower, which carried an appropriate level of prestige considering it was the only high rise – 20 floors – west of Toronto, at the time. Little did he know the major role that building would later play in his life.

“I knew the building, I knew every square foot,” he says with confidence. For years, every Sunday he would drive a group of German-Polish ladies from Forest Lawn to Elveden House to clean it. This was a cleaning service above and beyond the daily cleanings, a detailing of sorts for the tenants of Elveden House. He would bring the ladies sandwiches and later drive them home. “My early history to this building goes way back.”

As he began to save money, Kujat branched out into real estate, something he had learned was important in his European upbringing. He bought two modest houses and rented them out, including to a pair of English friends he played soccer with on the local team, the Calgary Kickers. After renovating and selling the properties, he built a duplex and later used the equity from those properties to invest in an 18-unit apartment building, which kickstarted a lifelong foray into real estate.

He told his boss at Modern of his passion for real estate and the company president had great faith in Kujat’s abilities. He made him a deal, offering to be the first company to sign a lease on a new industrial building if Kujat could build it. You can guess what happened next.

“That was our first industrial building,” he says with a quiet pride. “I was still working for them and continued to work for them all along the way.”

By 1976, he had learned all he could and stepped away from Modern to form his own janitorial operation, Focus Building Services. Everything he had learned at Modern – how to be a good businessman and what made for new and repeat customers – he applied to Focus.

For the next 21 years, Kujat poured every fibre of his being into the company. Focus would become responsible for more than 50 clients, including housekeeping services at the Rockyview General Hospital in Calgary. It had offices stretching from Vancouver to Winnipeg and at one point and ran 2,600 employees. Kujat was awarded the Pinnacle Award in 1990 for his commitment to Alberta business. You couldn’t talk about cleaning services without talking about Bill Kujat.

It wasn’t as though it was easy, however. “I had always wanted to be on my own, but then again, it’’s a tough business,” he explains. “I would work six to seven days a week, minimum of eight hours.”

He took absolutely nothing for granted and built a business empire modelled on austerity rules to rival Greece in 2010. He lived as though he was always playing one goal behind, which he believes gave him the humility to never stop trying his best. His ethic of hard work and smart decisions proved to be the golden ticket for Kujat, and he continued to acquire buildings and structures around Calgary.

“Don’t get into deep debt, be very cautious, very conservative,” he advises. “I watched a lot of friends over-extend themselves and said, ‘That’s not what I want to be.’”

With Focus firmly established by 1995, a unique opportunity presented itself. A previous owner of Elveden House had gotten himself into financial trouble. Through connections in the business world, Kujat learned of the situation and was fortunate to be able to make a move.

“It just made sense to try when the opportunity came up to acquire it,” he explains. “It was a dream, a dream come true.”

By 1999, Focus was established as one of Canada’s premier janitorial services providers and it attracted the attention of an American company. This was not the first offer to purchase Kujat had received, but the timing seemed auspicious on this occasion.

After the sale, Kujat focused his time and efforts primarily on real estate. “If you build it, it’s never going to cost less,” he says. “It only goes up, so I always had a special love for real estate and built quite an empire.”

All Kujat’s real estate holdings are run through a limited company, Estancia Investment.

Today, given the situation in downtown Calgary, Kujat is glad he chose a strategy of being a long-term holder, rather than a flipper.

“We are not buyers and sellers,” he says flatly. “Very seldom we do sell, but generally we believe in hanging on to what we’ve built. We always say, ‘If things really get bad, I want to make sure I don’t lose what we built up over the years.’ So, being conservatively funded is always very important. That is a belief I had as an early child. Always make sure that you don’t buy something if you cannot pay for it.”

His primary goal of being the best landlord possible has given him a bevy of long-term clientele who remain loyal through thick and thin. Kujat’s financial philosophy of never just living in the moment also helps weather such storms.

“I always worry about tomorrow, next week, next month, next year,” he offers. “You’re happy when you get a tenant that at least covers your operating expenses, so you can survive in the long run. That has been a real, real challenge and it’s going to be a challenge for the next 10 years or so.”

Still, with rock bottom rates, Kujat has seen new people moving into the city’s core and Beltline and knows that there will always be innovators and excited company presidents looking to make a splash. It’s a movie reel he’s seen time and again after being in business in the city’s core for more than 50 years.

To Kujat, it comes back to a work ethic that is perhaps somewhat taught, but mostly something a person is born with. The drive is simply there or it’s not. It takes a rare breed to not only leave things better than when they found it but also to treat people the same if not better than themselves.


Subhead: Out of office

Throughout the years, Kujat has worked just as hard away from the desk as he has behind it. He and his wife Ruth have been married for 53 years and make a point to take annual holidays and spend time at their self-built cabin at Panorama, B.C. Kujat is quick to recognize and compliment Ruth as he knows the importance of a strong relationship and partner at home.

Their daughters Heidi, Krista and Karla live across North America and have made lives for themselves that are as unique as their father’s, who also spares no time talking about the accomplishments of each one and their wonderful grandchildren. Karla, in a tribute letter to her father written as a 20-something, wrote: “You have been a part of my life and have been quietly instrumental in me learning many different lessons.”

One of those lessons is to simply push away from the desk every now and again. “You need diversification, you don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” he says. “I needed to get away from the office, I needed something different.”

His key activities away from work include hockey, tennis, golf and soccer, all of which he has happily played for more than 50 years, and still plays today. One of his soccer teammates has been playing alongside Kujat for 62 years. Aside from being active with his friends, most of whom he has had for 50-plus years, Kujat is very active through the Kaiser Charitable Foundation, the philanthropic wing of his business established roughly 20+ years ago to give back to the community that has given him so much over the years.

“I look at Canada, I look at Alberta. The country has been good to me and it’s given me a chance and an opportunity to do something. If I work hard, then I’m in a position so that I can share with people that truly need help. And that’s always a very big thing,” he says.

Kujat supports Inn from the Cold, Woods Homes, Meals on Wheels, Resolve, both the YMCA and YWCA, the Alberta Children’s Hospital and specific schools in the city. “We are under the radar,” he admits. “We do a lot of things that people don’t know about, but those are my beliefs.”

He hopes that his daughters will be involved with the Kaiser Foundation for years to come and will continue Kujat’s legacy of charity and helping others.

And no matter what Kujat’s next chapter is, rest assured it will challenge and stretch him in new ways. It’s simply his nature. “What would I do if I don’t go to work? I love to get up early in the morning, work out, then go into the office. Yes, I have to have the balance, but why wouldn’t I do it? I am so fortunate to have the great mix that I do.”

“I’ve done so many different things,” he reflects. “I’ve enjoyed life so much and appreciate things and you just should never forget about all of that. I mean, it’s a gift.”


Keepin’ up with Kujat

It would be a dull world to simply focus on just a single business. That’s why Bill Kujat has made sure to lend his experience and expertise to many different companies across multiple industries.

Here is a snapshot of some of his other dealings.

Chairman and founder: Safeway Holdings, a private real estate firm with two million-plus square feet of residential, commercial and industrial structures in its portfolio.

Focus Building Services: Founder and president (1978 – 1999). The company was successfully sold to an American buyer. At the height of its operation, the company boasted more than 2,600 employees across Western Canada.

Alberta Security and Investigation: Kujat owned a security company with more than 300 employees and sold it off about the same time as Focus in 1999.

Safeway Well Services: Former president and CEO of the oilfield services company between 1997 and 2005 with operations in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Kaiser Investment Inc.: Current president and director of the Arizona-based real estate holdings company in both Arizona and California.

The Kaiser Charitable Foundation: Since 2013, the Foundation has donated millions of dollars to countless charities and groups around Calgary.

Estancia Investments: Current president of the inner city- and downtown-focused real estate company with more than 700,000 square feet of space.

Canstone Energy: Since buying the company in 2014, Kujat has been Canstone’s president. The company’s assets are primarily in natural gas.

Taku Gas Ltd: Once a partner, Kujat has now been the sole owner of this company, which specializes in heavy oil production, since 2015.