Judy Leung: Building cities

2018 BC CFO Awards winner oversees developer’s high-profile projects and takes leadership role in company’s philanthropic projects

Judy Leung, Chief financial officer, Westbank | Chung Chow

With more than $10 billion worth of project financing experience under her belt, the CFO of Westbank has been an integral part of the real estate developer’s operations for the last 18 years.

Judy Leung became Westbank’s controller in 2000 when the private company had eight employees, a handful of properties and a net worth of just a fraction of what it is today. She became CFO in 2004 and has since played a large part in helping the corporation grow to an estimated worth of more than $1 billion, with holdings of about 40 properties and a workforce of nearly 1,400.

Westbank is known for high-profile developments including Shaw Tower, the Woodward’s redevelopment, Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, Shangri-La hotels in Vancouver and Toronto, Telus Garden and Calgary’s Telus Sky.

Leung is most proud of Woodward’s, a project that involved 10 different components in four buildings along with community spaces, heritage structures and shared underground parking.

“The financing was one of the largest ever insured by [Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.] at the time, and it wasn’t a straightforward project that fit into a box,” recalled the Hong Kong-born Vancouver resident. “It required so many groups to come together, share in costs, schedules, and have a common vision for a project that arguably transformed the Vancouver Downtown Eastside.”

Leung’s list of major milestones is long. In 2000, she led a takeover bid of shopping centre owner Abbey Woods Developments Ltd. while handling the privatization procedure and negotiating equity financing.

In 2004, she organized the joint bank financing and refinancing of Shaw Tower, completed in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour.

When Westbank expanded east in 2007 and Shangri-La Toronto commenced pre-sales and construction, Leung set up processes for construction, reporting, accounting and human resources and arranged project financing. She also later oversaw the completion of Shangri-La Vancouver.

During the financial crisis in 2009, Leung was tasked with leading the Woodward’s redevelopment while the Fairmont Pacific Rim project was underway.

When Westbank began expanding into China in 2012, and into Japan in 2016, Leung oversaw the establishment of several new office locations and developments.

And in 2013, she was instrumental in leading Westbank’s acquisition of regulated utility Central Heat, rebranding it as Creative Energy.

Leung, 43, said she was first attracted to the field of finance to learn how to help run a successful business, and focused on real estate because she had a natural affinity for the sector.

One of her early influences was a Grade 7 teacher who encouraged her to enter math competitions, starting her off along the path to her successful career. Later, after earning her bachelor of commerce degree at the University of British Columbia in 1995, Leung articled at KPMG, specializing in real estate, hospitality and Asian business.

With projects underway in the United States and Japan, Westbank has been growing globally in recent years, an expansion that has presented both challenges and opportunities. Some of the challenges include getting comfortable with the controls, functions and processes remotely while also trying to overcome cultural, language and regulatory differences.

“The opportunities though are learning from those experiences, and seeing how everyone in the organization rises to the challenges and works together as a team to overcome them,” Leung said.

An accomplished piano teacher, Leung also takes time to give back to the community. She sits on the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation’s finance committee, was the fundraising chair for the 2018 Vancouver General Hospital and University of British Columbia Hospital Foundation Time to Shine Gala and co-chaired the 2017 gala. The 2018 gala raised more than $4.3 million in one night, breaking the previous year’s record of $2.8 million.

She organized Westbank’s donation to Emily Carr University of Art and Design, and the company’s involvement with non-profit World Housing to finance construction of homes in Cambodia. Leung is establishing the Westbank Foundation, which is aimed at streamlining charitable efforts, including building affordable housing developments in several Canadian provinces.

For those considering a career in finance, Leung has some sage advice.

“Just figure out what you are good at and keep working on getting better at whatever that is, every day,” she said. “A career will follow if you are truly passionate about contributing what you are good at, into your team, environment, company and community.”

Jasen Kwong, tax partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP’s real estate group, nominated Leung for a BC CFO Award.

Kwong said he nominated her because he witnessed Leung’s accomplishments as the corporation’s “gatekeeper,” transforming Westbank from a small, local real estate developer to a large, internationally recognized organization.

“I have always been impressed with [Leung’s] advancement in an industry that has historically been male dominated, and I admire her perseverance, no-nonsense attitude and ability to adapt and connect with everyone from different levels, backgrounds and cultures,” he said. •

Business in Vancouver and the Chartered Professional Accountants of British Columbia will honour the province’s top CFOs at the BC CFO Awards gala dinner, being held June 7 at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. For more information or to register, go to biv.com/bc-cfo-awards.