Ryan Beedie: Independent Spirit

Sep 21, 2012

A historic and record-setting $22 million gift from alumnus Ryan Beedie and his father Keith underscores Ryan’s longstanding relationship with Simon Fraser University and the Beedie School of Business.

On February 11, 2011, when Ryan Beedie and his father Keith made a record $22 million gift to Simon Fraser University’s business school, a bold statement was made not only about the future of the newly-named Beedie School of Business, but also about the school’s past.

It was symbolically captured by the euphoric response of the student body to the donation, as well as by the hundreds of enthusiastic e-mails and phone calls to the university and to Ryan Beedie himself from SFU’s alumni and the Canadian business community.

SFU was the place, after all, where a younger Ryan completed his Bachelor of Business Administration degree in 1991. Fast-forward to today, and he is building one of the largest and most successful industrial property development companies in Canada – one that is expanding eastward and returning to residential construction as well.

But more than twenty years after he walked the length of Convocation Mall to receive his degree, he still has vivid memories of SFU – from student life to friendships formed to important lessons from his favourite classes and professors.

Growing up in Burnaby – in the house where his parents still live – he could actually see Burnaby Mountain from his home. “There was that initial pull,” he says of his decision to ultimately attend Simon Fraser University. “I always gravitated towards SFU. It was known then as a great school with a great reputation. It was the combination of geography, reputation, and the benefit of living at home that brought me there.”

He was only 17 when he began his studies at SFU (he would enter the business school at the age of 19) – and like so many university students before and after, he admits he didn’t get off to the fastest start. “My first semester wasn’t the greatest,” he says. “It was a big adjustment from high school.”

As the months flew by, however, he would begin to show the traits of what he is so well known for now – quick learning, entrepreneurial instinct, and a creative application of knowledge. Accordingly, his grades began to rise in short order – and ascended with every passing semester. He achieved a grade point average of 4.0 in his last semester, making the Dean’s honour roll.

It’s a feat he remains intensely proud of to this day.

Heady days on campus

Ask Ryan about his favourite subject and teacher, and his answer never wavers: Finance, with the late John Herzog. Ryan actually took two classes in the subject from Herzog, who passed away in 2006. His lessons on life, management, and financial acumen still resonate to this day.

“He’d say to us, ‘Never fall in love with your assets’,” says Ryan. “I was 19 years old at the time – and he was talking about removing emotion from decision-making. I can visualize him today saying it.”

fisPart of the unique connection between the student and professor was their willingness to exchange different points of view on everything from fiscal policy to business ideas.

An example of this was the argument made by Professor Herzog that interest deductibility was a subsidy to business – a position that Ryan openly disagreed with in class.

“We’d argue over these points in a lecture hall with 200 people,” says a smiling Ryan. “I loved finance as a result. And I really enjoyed going to his lectures.”

He also benefitted immensely from the broader business school experience, he is quick to point out. “I learned how to learn,” he says. “And learned how to think critically. The whole way my mind would process and approach different classes, different challenges. Plus there was a maturity factor.”

These were heady days for Ryan not only inside the classroom, but also outside of it.

During his first few days at SFU, he met his future wife Cindy – during SFU Clubs Week, no less. Among their common interests, both were attracted to student politics and government. Ryan and Cindy Beedie have been married for 19 years now, and have three children.

Not surprisingly, it was in this same world of university clubs and extracurricular activities that he also formed longstanding friendships that remain in place today (he recently backed the BC Liberal Party Leadership campaign of former classmate and SFU pal Kevin Falcon, now British Columbia’s Minister of Finance).

In addition to his affection for free enterprise, the young Ryan wore his politics on his sleeve. When SFU’s Peak newspaper reported earlier this year about the Beedie gift, the student publication was quick to point out that as a student, Ryan had boldly launched a rival newspaper to counter the Peak’s leftward-leaning political perspective.

Ryan admits to all of it and more with a chuckle. “We launched our own paper called Liberte,” he says. “Nobody got paid, but there was great political and economic commentary.”

He shares an anecdote about an editorial cartoon published by Liberte that eventually reached the Parliament Buildings in Victoria.

“In one issue, we went after (eventual BC Premier) Mike Harcourt,” says a smiling Beedie. “We did a comic ridiculing his stance on a particular issue. He came to speak at SFU as NDP opposition leader at the time – and he was holding the comic up, showing it to the audience.”

Harcourt’s public disapproval of the newspaper cartoon only buoyed the spirits of the student journalists.

“Getting under his skin made us feel like we were having some kind of impact. Actually lots of positive impact,” he said.

In spite of – or maybe because of – his high-profile media activities, Ryan’s world of student government and senate included those from all stripes of politics.

“We were a broad-based coalition when it came to student government at SFU,” he says. “We had Conservatives, Liberals, Socreds, even softer NDP-types. It’s fun to look back on those days. And you look at what happened – you have the Premier of British Columbia (Christy Clark) and the Finance Minister at the same school, on the same team, politically active 25 years later.”

Beyond the classroom and the Keith Beedie impact

After completing his Bachelor of Business Administration degree in finance and accounting, Beedie then enrolled in UBC’s MBA program. “I was going to be a Chartered Accountant – my planwas to practice for a few years and then come back to the BeedieGroup to work. So I decided to do the MBA.”

He was becoming more focused on real estate, and was drawn to the combination of finance, accounting, and real estate coursework – all areas that he would soon be able to put into use.

It wasn’t long before he was putting both degrees to work with his family’s real estate business. His father Keith, the founder of the company, wasn’t nervous in the least bit of giving the young graduate growing responsibility within the firm. He notes that his father really let him call his own shots from the very beginning. And much of that confidence stemmed from Ryan’s education.

“He and my mom, they had a great respect for it,” says Ryan. “And seeing me get a bachelor’s and master’s degree, he found that very impressive, and that gave me decision-making freedom, and a respect that resulted from his respect for education.”

“I’d make the business case for this or that, and he’d say ‘go-ahead, go-ahead.’ I think he overruled me on something once, back in 1996.”

Keith’s confidence in his son has paid off in droves. Since Ryan joined the firm, the company has grown to seven times its original size – and much of that can be attributed to Ryan being able to deploy his strategic vision and business creativity. Ten years after he was named president of the Beedie Group and assets have soared to over $1 billion – a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the Canadian business establishment.

“He’s done so much for me – it’s been super,” says Ryan of his father. “He gave me the freedom, the space in order for that to happen.”

Like his father, he’s also appreciative of the education that helped launch his career. “Without my education experience at both SFU and UBC, but primarily SFU, our company wouldn’t be where we are as a company,” he said.

That brings Ryan to the topic of his historic gift to his alma mater on Burnaby Mountain – and the decision-making that went into it.

It turns out that a year previous to making the gift, he had read an article in Canadian Business Magazine by the prominent Canadian philanthropist Seymour Schulich. The central premise of Schulich’s article was that Canadian business leaders didn’t donate to charities or the community in the way they could or should.

“It was a challenge to people,” says Ryan, looking back. “I think when I was reading that, the light bulb went off.”

Given his longstanding affinity and affiliations with Simon Fraser University, it was natural for him to think about giving back to the place where he grew as an individual and as a business leader.

He first raised the idea of a historic gift to SFU’s business school with his father. Keith was caught off guard by the idea. “Wait until I’m dead,” was his response. But that reaction only created the urgency in Ryan’s mind. “I absolutely wanted to do this while he was still alive,” he said.

Keith Beedie never graduated from high school, but there is no bigger proponent of higher education. Keith and Betty Beedie have been longtime supporters of Simon Fraser University, among other community institutions. The Keith & Betty Beedie Foundation, which focuses on health, education, and crime prevention, has in fact made over $2 million in charitable giving. More recently, they donated the $1.3-million, NCAA-sized Beedie Field to SFU – which is already being dubbed the university’s “Field of Dreams”.

Interestingly enough, Keith attended high school with the late William Sauder, for whom the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia is named (they were both enrolled at Magee Secondary School in Vancouver’s Kerrisdale neighbourhood).

But, as Ryan points out, it was in Burnaby where Keith really charted his way in business. “He really did his own thing – he wasn’t a Vancouver establishment guy.”

That independent spirit explains in part why Keith wanted to think through Ryan’s idea. After a follow-up discussion around naming the business school, Keith began to warm to the idea. “The Beedie School of Business at SFU – that really struck a chord with him,” said Ryan. “I was really pleased with his reaction the second time.”

A business school renamed

On February 9, 2011, SFU announced that it had received the largest gift in its history. A record $22 million had been donated by Ryan and Keith Beedie to rename SFU’s business school as the Beedie School of Business.

The response from the student body and wider SFU and business communities wasn’t just enthusiastic – it was ecstatic. News of the gift garnered attention across British Columbia and Canada, and euphoric students helped make the news a trending topic on Twitter, while creating a stampede of 1,000-plus followers to the newly-created Beedie School of Business Facebook page.

After Ryan fielded interviews from a throng of media outlets at a morning press conference at SFU’s Academic Quadrangle, he joined waiting students, staff, and faculty for a celebratory reception, where he received a long ovation from the crowd gathered in the West Mall Complex.

Six months later, Ryan remembers the day’s festivities and excitement with a touch of nostalgia. “I look back on that day… the presentation with the cake, the emails, the phone calls (there were hundreds of messages, of which he responded to every one).

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime event. You can’t appreciate it fully in the moment, but upon reflection, it’s like wow, that was really amazing.”

SFU will use the gift to create an endowment for the business school supporting students, professorships, and research chairs.

“What’s great about our donation is that it’s an investment in the future,” said Ryan. “The endowment will be there for generations to come, to give students the SFU education that I was fortunate to have had and to enable the university to attract the best teachers and researchers.”

The Joe Segal influence

A special storyline arising from the Beedie gift is the unique friendship between he and Joe Segal, who donated the state-of-the-art heritage downtown Vancouver campus to Simon Fraser University that is now the Segal Graduate School of Business. The two extraordinary business leaders have met for lunch on several occasions to discuss business leadership, community engagement, and philanthropy.

“I have learned a lot from him about giving – the importance of giving,” says Ryan. “He has had a huge impact on me.” He cites Joe’s philosophy around business and giving: “You make X and spend Y, but when there’s a surplus, you are in a position to do a lot of good.”

“He is a real motivator for me going forward and a real inspiration for the wonderful feeling of giving back and touching people’s lives.”

The relationship between Ryan and Joe is symbolic of the emerging role that Ryan has taken on as a young leader in British Columbia – carrying on the traditions of the community-engaged business leaders that have come before him.

In a recent interview with BC Business Magazine, Joe didn’t mince words when asked about Ryan’s philanthropic efforts.

“Charity is really charity when you give it and you’re going to miss it,” he said. “Not too many people give anything they’re going to miss. Ryan understands that at a very young age. He has a good heart.”

That same BC Business Magazine article, authored by Gary Mason, noted that Ryan has emerged in the past decade as a true leader in British Columbia – particularly for the new generation of CEOs and entrepreneurs.

As Mason put it, “His bold business gambits and generous philanthropic endeavours had, in some ways, made him the poster boy of a new generation of business leaders taking its place atop the hierarchy of Vancouver’s power structure.”

It’s a responsibility Ryan isn’t shying away from – though he embraces the role with modesty and care.

“It’s true that I have so many colleagues in business that are stepping up and playing an active role in the community, in business, and politics. It’s a naturally occurring thing. These are active people who are connecting with so many others… and you’re in a position where you may be looked at as a community leader.”

“If you look at some of the elder statesmen – Joe Segal, Bob Lee, Jimmy Pattison – it’s unbelievable what they have achieved for themselves and for the community at large. These are massive shoes to fill. There is so much to learn from them, so much inspiration. They give so much of themselves, and that’s why they’re such happy people.”

It turns out that positive outlook is part of the advice Ryan gives to young people – including students in the Beedie School – who are just starting out in life and careers.

“It’s important to stay positive,” he says. “Find areas where you are passionate, focus in an area that you really care about, and differentiate yourself from others. Differentiation and work ethic are the keys.”

And looking around the business school that now bears his family’s name, he likes what he sees.

“I’ve been blown away by the students I’ve met at Beedie. What a group of dynamic, intelligent students. It makes me feel optimistic for the future.”

This story was first published in the summer edition of Ideas@Beedie magazine, the Beedie School of Business’ new iPad and digital magazine showcasing the business school’s academic research, industry impact and engagement with the community. The iPad app can be downloaded at the Apple iTunes store, at http://itunes.apple.com/az/app/ideas-beedie/id532907167?mt=8. The magazine can also be viewed on the web with most browsers at http://beedie.sfu.ca/ideas

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