Profile: Don Ho, president, Element Lifestyle Retirement Inc.

Developer Don Ho is not the retiring type

Don Ho | Photo: Rob Kruyt

Old developers aren’t prone to fading away. Senior members of the industry – Joe Segal, Peter Wall, Nat Bosa, Michael Audain – remain ambitious, animated by the entrepreneurial spirit that’s characterized their lives.

Don Ho is no different. Physically active and sharp-witted for 73, he remains best known for developing a network of retirement communities in the Lower Mainland during the 1990s that sold to Chartwell REIT in 2005. But he isn’t the retiring type.

“If you just sit at home on the La-Z-Boy, you become old much faster,” he said, laughing, during an interview at the Yaletown tower that’s been home for the past 20 years.

But he knows the future is uncertain; his wife is battling Parkinson’s disease, and the future holds no guarantees for his own health. Having built a career housing seniors, Ho is now plotting his next move.

That move may well be Opal, a 135-unit project his latest company, Element Lifestyle Retirement Inc., is developing on King Edward Avenue in Vancouver near the King Edward transit station. Similar to his previous communities, it will offer a mix of independent-living and assisted-living units for rent or purchase, as well as 32 licensed complex-care units.

Ho knows from personal experience how tough aging and illness can be, not just on individuals, but also on spouses and families, who become caregivers or face the displacement and separation of extended hospital stays.

He’s seen it in his own family.

During the late 1980s Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s ravaged his mother and mother-in-law, respectively; their husbands were healthy, but they couldn’t provide the care their wives needed.

Ho, looking on from Canada, felt helpless.

The youngest of six children, Ho had pledged to support his family when he secured a full scholarship for engineering studies at the University of Hong Kong. Graduating with a degree in civil engineering in 1966, he practised engineering and established his own consulting firm in Hong Kong before emigrating to Canada with his wife and children in 1983. Here, he turned his attention to real estate, setting up the Trans City Group and undertaking developments in Vancouver, Richmond and with the Tsawwassen First Nation.

But he never forgot his pledge to his family.

“It was very difficult,” Ho said. “Being away from home [I] certainly had a lot of tension and wanted to look after them.”

Ho’s older siblings were scattered across Hong Kong, and – as in any family – sharing responsibilities for the parents wasn’t always an equal division of labour. Ho wondered if he couldn’t offer something better: housing that would let seniors age in place while receiving the professional care they needed.

“I thought to myself, as a developer, why can we not do something to look after seniors as they age? To allow them to stay together rather than creating a family crisis when one of them needs care and support?” he said.

While some developers were building homes providing meals and other services, Ho didn’t see the kind of residence that would facilitate a seamless transition from home to hospital, and back – what the government would eventually term a continuum of care.

“The most creative thing at that time was a gated community,” he said. “And then, on the other extreme, there were the nursing homes where seniors were only passing their last days. It was not meant to be a place where you would even want to go. … They were dumped into there.”

Ho took action, developing Crescent Gardens in White Rock, a 184-unit project that broke ground with a combination of rental units, condos and 24-hour nursing care within the same complex. It opened fully occupied in 1996, and seven other communities followed.

A public company – CPAC Care (Holdings) Ltd. – launched in 1998 and, as the sector grew, Ho established the BC Retirement Communities Association (now the BC Seniors Living Association).

But the business wasn’t easy. There was a market for rental and condo units tailored to seniors, but complex-care beds were a costly component that depended on government funding. The model was attractive enough for Chartwell REIT to acquire Ho’s business for $102.6 million, but the sector’s challenges are evident in the $65.1 million in liabilities absorbed as part of the deal.

Ho candidly concedes that juggling cash flows with his commitment to patient care was stressful; yet he remained committed to the seniors market.

While he soon took up the challenges of a controversial residential development on Bowen Island, he remained active in the seniors market through his private consulting firm, providing management services to private care homes in B.C. and Ontario and consulting on projects in Canada and Asia. The business now oversees 1,219 units at properties across the country, with more coming.

And now, with partners Huamin Chen, Kefei Deng and Michael Diao, Ho is again developing retirement residences through Element.

A minority financial partner in the business, Ho limits himself to providing guidance and oversight to an executive team that includes Diao as well as his daughters Wendy and Candy and former CPAC staff.

Besides the project in Vancouver, Element is pursuing Oasis, a master-planned community on a 17-acre site in Langley, and eyeing additional acquisitions in Canada as well as expansion into Asia.

“I just couldn’t sit down and play golf every day,” he said (though he hasn’t lost a love of soccer, which he plays with his grandchildren). “I started to think, why should I again retire that early? If you have the experience and expertise, why waste it and not pass it on?”

The business is tough, but Ho knows the need isn’t going away. B.C. is aging faster than any other province in Canada as retirees seek out its active lifestyle and temperate climate.

“You can do business, and you can do good at the same time – why not?” he said. “And there are people that really need this kind of service.”