‘Mr. Ottawa’ just wanted a place to live

I was contracted by the Ottawa Citizen to write a series of profiles about prominent Ottawa business people. This article profiles Regional Realty founder Len Potechin.

‘Mr. Ottawa’ just wanted a place to live

By Laurie McBurney

It’s difficult to imagine gracious real estate magnate Len Potechin as angry. However, one thing upsets the founder and chair of The Regional Group of Companies, Inc.  — a person who breaks a promise. As a matter of fact, Mr. Potechin is in the process of taking legal action against Alexei Yashin, the errant captain of the Ottawa Senators hockey team, for just that reason. The businessman filed a suit alleging breach of fiduciary duty against Mr. Yashin on behalf of fans like himself who have faithfully bought season tickets since the Senators came to Ottawa in 1992.

“We put out money in good faith. We think it’s wrong what he’s doing. He let the team down,” Mr. Potechin says of Mr. Yashin, who is embroiled in a contract dispute with the team.

The matter is simple in Mr. Potechin’s eyes. A man’s word should be his bond, and it should be possible to conduct business on a handshake and a promise.

Mr. Potechin’s company opened its doors in 1958 as a small family real estate firm known as Regional Realty Limited. Now, the company is a realty giant headquartered on Catherine Street which sells commercial real estate and manages millions of square feet of business space in major Canadian cities from Ottawa to Victoria. It has also developed a significant business helping such public organizations as Canada Post and Navcan negotiate the most reasonable grants in lieu of taxes on properties across the country. Mr. Potechin’s son-in-law, Steve Gordon, is now at the helm of the family-owned firm.

Regional Realty’s success is even more surprising when you consider that Mr. Potechin got into the business more by accident than design.  He was born in Montreal, the son of a Russian immigrant who operated night clubs in the city. After a short stint in the Navy in 1944-45, Mr. Potechin moved to Ottawa with his family in 1946. He and his older brother, Norman, helped his father run the Golden Grill, a  restaurant specializing  on Bank Street.

Mr. Potechin’s first dealings in Ottawa real estate were not particularly pleasant.  There was an acute shortage of apartment space and renters were expected to pay what was euphemistically called “key money” to get an apartment.

“Bribery,” snorts Mr. Potechin.

Shortly after that experience, the family bought a triplex on Renfrew Avenue, which it still owns.  For the next five years Mr. Potechin worked in the restaurant and saved.  “I lived at home and worked seven days a week. What did I have to spend money on?” he asks rhetorically.  He found something to buy with that nest egg when he married in 1951, and it became the catalyst for his new career.

“We couldn’t find any place to live, so we bought a six-unit apartment building on Chapel Street. We owned it for one month and then sold it. We made $8,000. It was then we took real estate seriously. You’d have to sell a lot of toast and coffee to make that amount of money,” Mr. Potechin explains.

Experience also taught him that he would have to sell a lot of houses to make the same commission that could be made on one apartment building. “In those days, you made 3.5 per cent commission on each sale. Houses sold for about $15,000. An apartment building could sell for $310,000. You do the math,” he says. He formed financial partnerships with other business people to raise the capital to buy more apartments and office space.

However, “nothing is as dead as yesterday’s sale,” in Mr. Potechin’s view. He quickly saw a way to keep a financial interest in the apartment and office buildings he sold — providing managers to look after them properly. He had to seek out courses in the field, but he eventually became a certified property manager. His training helped him turn places like Ottawa’s infamous drug- and crime-ridden Pestalozzi College into respectable and financially-viable apartment buildings. 

Mr. Potechin can sum up his success in a few words.  “The way I built this firm was property management and syndication.”

Despite a busy professional life, Mr. Potechin found time to devote to his city and community activities. He is influential in the capital, in fact, former Ottawa mayor Jacquelin Holzman dubbed him “Mr. Ottawa.” A strong supporter of a one-city model for Ottawa-Carleton (“It should have happened years ago,” he says), Mr. Potechin is a source of economic know-how for political leaders in the region, and has sat on several task forces on business development.

“He is a knowledge bank and he’s willing to help. He believes that Ottawa is the best place to live,” says provincial MPP Brian Coburn, who in his former role as mayor of Cumberland asked Mr. Potechin to sit on a task force charged with mapping out the city’s economic future.

 A tireless promoter of projects ranging from local charities to direct flights between Ottawa and US business centres, Mr. Potechin’s dedicated service has led to an honourary lifetime membership in five esteemed real estate bodies, his selection as the Ottawa Board of Trade’s business person of the year in 1984 and the B’nai B’rith Lodge’s citizen of the year in 1986.

The Regional Group recently formed Canadian Gateway Development Corp. with several other local firms.  The business consortium, tired of seeing big firms run away with the lucrative public projects, bids on the development of prime pieces of public real estate. It recently won the contract to develop the Daly site in downtown Ottawa, ensuring Regional Realty will continue to play a significant role in the capital’s commercial real estate scene for the foreseeable future.

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