REALtalk – with Toni Rossi (Infrastructure Ontario)



On this episode of REALtalk, Toni Rossi, President, Real Estate Division at Infrastructure Ontario, joins REALPAC’s CEO Michael Brooks and COO Carolyn Lane, to talk about choosing a career in real estate, being a woman in commercial real estate, professionalizing government real estate, and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion initiatives.

The episode covers:

  • Toni’s journey to joining the real estate industry
  • Lessons learned from the sporting world
  • Public sector real estate mechanics
  • How to thrive in a male dominated industry
  • How to bring others along: ensuring an equitable approach
  • Professionalizing Government real estate
  • Being the first woman Board Chair at REALPAC

About Toni Rossi:

A 30-year real estate professional, Toni Rossi leads the Province of Ontario Real Estate Portfolio – one of the largest in Canada – and served as Infrastructure Ontario’s (IO) Interim President and Chief Executive Officer. Toni was also President of IO’s Lending Division and a key member of the Executive Team merging the Ontario Realty Corporation and IO in 2012.

Prior to joining IO, Toni was with Oxford Properties and Cadillac Fairview. Having her ICD Designation, Toni shares her knowledge and experience with industry and community. She is a Director for Habitat for Humanity Canada. Toni also served as Board Chair for Habitat Toronto, was the first Chair of the largest Canadian Women Build and the inaugural Board Chair for a Canadian Olympic Athlete’s Fund, ULI’s Women’s Leadership Initiative, was Board Director for Toronto CREW, and a member of Toronto’s Legacy and Toronto CivicAction committees.

Toni currently serves on Ryerson’s Realty Advisory Board, ULI’s Advisory Board, co-chairs the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Realty Committee, co-chaired the 2017 Toronto Real Estate Forum and is Chair of the REALPAC Board.

Podcast transcript: 

Michael Brooks (REALPAC): Hello everyone, thanks for listening and welcome to REALtalk, the show that brings you unique insights from leaders in Canadian and international commercial real estate. I’m Michael Brooks, CEO of REALPAC.

Michael Brooks (REALPAC): I’m pleased to welcome Toni Rossi to REALtalk. Toni is the current President, Real Estate Division of Infrastructure Ontario, where she has been for the last 10 years, maybe 13 if you add in the Ontario Realty Corp experience to it. Before that, she was Director of Development for two years at Oxford, and before that, a 17 year stint with the Cadillac Fairview Corporation in three roles as General Manager of the TD Center, as Director of National Operations, and as Director of National Marketing. Quite a tour of duty there. She’s a past Director of Toronto Crew, a co-chair of the Women’s Leadership Initiative at ULI and is a Director at Habitat for Humanity Canada.

Michael Brooks (REALPAC): Fun fact. Toni was a professional beach volleyball player, as was her husband. But most importantly, Toni is our current REALPAC Board Chair and our first woman Board Chair ever. Welcome, Toni.

Toni Rossi (REALPAC): Thank you, Michael.

Michael Brooks (REALPAC): I’m also pleased to be joined today by my colleague and co interviewer Carolyn Lane, the Chief Operating Officer at REALPAC and the Vice President of Member Engagement. Welcome, Carolyn.

Carolyn Lane (REALPAC): Thank you. Michael, I’m happy to join you today.

Michael Brooks (REALPAC): All right. Today, Carolyn and I will be talking to Toni about her journey from the sand to the bricks and mortar, a career in a male dominated business, Canadian commercial real estate. We’ll also talk about themes of bringing others along, which we’ll explain as we get into the discussion, the lure of public sector real estate and Toni’s view of the way forward. So with that, let’s get started, Toni. Question on top of people’s minds, how does one jump from playing beach volleyball on tour to a career in commercial real estate? Are there any parallels between the two?

Toni Rossi (REALPAC): Yeah, well, you know what? Before we get anyone’s hopes real high, the tour that we had when I was playing beach volleyball years ago was a very small one today. Today, the tour is huge. But so it was, I’ll call it an extracurricular. I love sports. I’ve always been a sport individual. You can call me a tomboy from the get go. So I spent a lot of time as a kid playing in every sport possible, spent a lot of time in high school. I went to an all girls school, so I was on every team. And fun fun fact as well, I wanted to be a lawyer, believe it or not! But when I was in high school, I had a lot of my teachers saying to me, don’t waste your mind. Why would you ever want to be in sport? So being a little bit of a rabble rouser, I ended up not going into law school. I ended up actually taking science and kinesiology at the time. It was physical and health education. But but at UFT which which truly helped. If I take a look at all of the things that I had done from a sport perspective in what I am doing today, it truly helped in all of the elements. It helped with respect to, you know, how I lead the team that helped with respect to including people. It helped with respect to helping your teammates and working as a team always in getting the best results. It was always excellence driven and very focused, as in making sure people bring their best self and and support brings that out in people.

Michael Brooks (REALPAC): Carolyn, over to you.

Carolyn Lane (REALPAC): Thanks, Michael. OK, so, Toni, during your career, you’ve been in the private commercial real estate sector and in the public real estate sector. How do you manage your career in what has been and largely still is an industry dominated by white men?

Toni Rossi (REALPAC): I guess I have to step first and say I actually have a ton of respect for old white men. I’ve lived with them. I grew up with them, and I spent all my time around guys. And I talked a little bit earlier about being a tomboy. Well, I’ve had a great role modeling right through from my dad to my brother, who really exhibited an ability to actually include women. So my dad obviously coming as a young man over to this country and starting with nothing, building a great home. And my love for real estate probably came a little bit from my dad in his ability to make a home, the place where people gather to understand what it takes to build equity. My brother is almost seven years older than I am, and maybe I got my love for sport from him, and he would be always playing with the guys, street hockey, basketball, you name it. And of course, being the annoying little sister that I was, I constantly would be at his coattails and never let him go at anywhere without me tagging along. And I would find myself being the only girl ever going out at one point after three, four or five, six times going out and watching and cheering and doing everything you could. Somebody didn’t show up, so I got the honor of actually being shoved in for one of these games. And I think I surprised not only myself, but I surprised all the guys that were playing hockey that day. What I found was, as I became part of that group, in that team, conversations occurred and and inclusion occurred. And then the following year, I found other brothers had their sisters coming. So we really had almost the makings of a beginning of hope and inclusion and diverse group on our street.

Toni Rossi (REALPAC): And I think that to me has helped me along the way, both in the real estate world in my career, I’ve always found myself being at boardroom tables, normally with men older than I was, and always found myself being very curious, being very respectful, but also just doing the work and wanting to be at that table. So my career has certainly benefited from a ton of great guys. But probably my love of real estate, funnily enough, has come from a great woman. My grandmother on my dad’s side was the sole survivor of 11 children and so found herself to have land. And she would always talk to all of her grandkids. I thought she gave them all the same advice. But I find out later that the advice that she gave to me was only to me. And she would say to me, look, I may not have been the prettiest woman in town, but boy I had land and I had brains. And because I had land, I had a choice. We’re talking early nineteen hundreds in a small town in Italy. And my grandmother happened to be one that had choice of her future because she had land. So she instilled in me right from the get go, you know, the desire, the love of land and real estate. And then it was blessed with having just great people around me my whole life.

Carolyn Lane (REALPAC): Well, that’s great, Toni. Thank you. Those are those are excellent stories.

Michael Brooks (REALPAC): Yeah. One of those stories kind of ties into one of the other themes, the idea of bringing others along. What does that mean in the context of being a woman or indeed any visible minority in commercial real estate? How do you bring others along in this industry?

Toni Rossi (REALPAC): Well, I think, again, when I started in my career, there wasn’t a lot of women in senior roles, period. There was a few. There always needs to be someone that is first. And the one that is first is an incredibly important individual. But what’s more important is that first can’t be last. So I would say part of the the important thing for bringing people along is making sure that you’re not the only, making sure that when you are the first at something, you then find ways to bring others in. So if I was the first at the hockey for REALPAC, as we all know, being the first female chair – I wasn’t the first on the board, but certainly the first afterwards – and made sure that we spent time to make sure that I’m not the only. So as you both know as well, now we have the first female vice chair, but thankfully not the only female vice chair because Natalie is now in play. And I may be the first female chair, but I’m confident I won’t be the only. So I think it’s very important that truly, when you bring others along, no one does get left behind.

Michael Brooks (REALPAC): Yeah, that’s great, that’s a great phrase, “you can be first, but make sure you’re not the last”. Carolyn over to you,

Carolyn Lane (REALPAC): Toni. I’m going to go in a little bit of a different direction now. So working in commercial real estate in the public sector is probably not that well understood by most people in the private sector. So how important is professional public real estate management? And is Infrastructure Ontario a model for other governments?

Toni Rossi (REALPAC): Yeah, that’s a great question. So, I think real estate in general is the backbone of almost a lot of things that most businesses and certainly from our perspective, what we do. But there is not a lot of difference in public and private sector, but there is a fundamental difference in that in the public sector. Real estate tends to be used for program delivery or tends to be used for a reason of executing on taxpayer dollar. So by way of example, obviously there’s a lot of crown lands that are out there that are used for courthouses, jails, hospitals, schools, you name it. And in many cases, it’s not the same return on investment that we all look for when we’re doing a real estate deal and holding real estate holdings. But what I have found the importance of public sector real estate is especially now with the amount of need that most jurisdictions, whether it’s in Canada or across the world, there is a huge need of public sector delivery programs. And the bubble hasn’t really dropped or the nickel hasn’t dropped for people in that the actual holdings that most crown have is land. The holdings that they have and they’ve used over time is land. But it’s a huge deficit for a lot of governments because they haven’t actually looked at a lot of their real estate in the same way that a private sector, a real estate company would to be able to value it in a different way and then obviously sell it.

Governments sell their land when they are no longer needed for those program purposes. So most of the holdings that governments have is because they’re needed. But over time, if they don’t need them, the surplus lands come up. How do you value those surplus lands? How do you appraise them? How do you actually work through the whole process to get them ready? Even a zoning process, value enhancement, find a way to get them ready to go out for sale so you get top dollar to invest, which is what we would obviously do in the private sector and what is occurring now in most public sectors. But I would say IO through or see at the time and then when we merged with IO, IO takes a full lifecycle view of the asset, kind of like what a private sector real estate company does. And that full lifecycle view includes the front end of what is the need, who’s the client, what does the tenant need, what does a future client for a piece of land want, how do we actually broker that deal so the client gets whatever that need is? That’s the same in public and private sector.

Michael Brooks (REALPAC): Great. Thanks, Toni. Let’s finish off with a final note. What’s the way forward for CRE in Canada? What’s important in the near term for the industry, public or private?

Toni Rossi (REALPAC): You know, this is where I think REALPAC actually just stands out and where we have an important opportunity here as leading in not only in the real estate sector, but perhaps leading across in helping a number of fronts. So to me, one of the big areas that I care a lot about and I know REALPAC does as well, is certainly on the on the Equity Diversity and Inclusion initiative. I think it’s interesting, as we are in this COVID world right now. COVID I think is going to be the great equalizer. And it’s been difficult over this past year for individuals to really be able to do things from a physical perspective. But what is occurred is all of the various Zoom calls, as annoying as they have been, have been pretty amazing. When you think about how individuals who normally have not been at the forefront, who normally may not have been in meetings, and I would say to you in many cases it tends to be women or it tends to be those that are underrepresented are black or indigenous or BIPOC community. COVID has actually found a way to include. And I think I think that’s a huge message and mantra for us at REALPAC to take that. I’ve been very, very impressed with what we’ve done, frankly, at REALPAC over the last number of years in helping to lead the EDI area for our industry.

Toni Rossi (REALPAC): When you look at the ability to attract and retain people to an industry that is so important, getting the best minds come from diversity of thought and come from diversity of backgrounds and so we looked at our policies, we looked at our bylaws, we looked at what the barriers were that were potentially not allowing something as small as the REALPAC board to not have women on it. And we changed them. And so here we are three years later from no women as an example on the board to four. From no youth, we’ve got a few younger board members. And I think our next big opportunity is making sure that we start to reflect on that board and others, the fabric of our country. We’re seeing that’s obviously even at IO. I am very proud of the work that we’re doing at IO on the EDI front and trying to get an equity, diversity and inclusion individual into our company. We spent these past years, as I’m sure many other real estate organizations have done, to make that forefront. So spending a lot of time on this particular initiative, because I think it is actually the baseline and the fundamental and just where we need to start for the next big wave in our industry. And I’m thrilled that REALPAC is taking that lead and I’m thrilled to be a part of that.

Carolyn Lane (REALPAC): Thank you so much for sharing your stories, Toni. You know, seeing is believing. When women and people from underrepresented groups see others like themselves in leadership positions, they’re more likely to get inspired, to imagine themselves in those roles, believe that they can achieve it and put themselves forward. And you’re clearly a leader that others can look to for inspiration. So thank you.

Toni Rossi (REALPAC): So, Michael, Carolyn, look, I’m really, really thrilled. Thank you so much for having me. I am thrilled that the commentary that we’ve had today has allowed us to have, you know, a female co-chair. And you, Michael, today in the podcast, grateful that I had the opportunity to share some time.

Michael Brooks (REALPAC): Well, this is Michael Brooks, and that’s it for this week’s episode of REALtalk. Be sure to visit us at realpac.ca/REALtalk and subscribe wherever you get your favorite podcast. If you have an idea for a topic or a guest, please send me an email at podcast@realpac.ca. And if you like what you hear, give us a five-star rating. Thank you for listening and tune in next time.