By Elaine Kapogines
It’s not hard to imagine Leith Moore sea kayaking in the Arctic. Long, wild hair and a beard that wouldn’t look out of place on a mountain climber several weeks into a difficult ascent are the first things you notice about him.
But today his sharp, crisp, collared shirt is casually unbuttoned at the top and his possibly designer jeans are not out of place in the business-casual setting of the Sorbara Group’s corporate offices. However, on further inspection, his bare feet in what can only be described as half-shoes-half-sandals give me a little insight into OHBA’s incoming president.
When he greets me for our scheduled interview at the Sorbara offices in Vaughan, the first thing that gives him away as a successful businessman is the BlackBerry attached to his hand. I extend my right hand to introduce myself, and he immediately reaches back to acknowledge my offering, but before our hands meet he hesitates realizing the smartphone is still firmly planted in his palm. “Don’t touch my BlackBerry,” he deadpans.
As we make our way back towards his corner office, he’s stopped by an employee. The brief exchange reveals a boss who’s both approachable and obviously well-respected — and one who returns that respect, which becomes more apparent as we begin the interview.
“We have such a stable group of really experienced people here,” he says, listing off a number of employees who’ve been with Sorbara for over 20 years — a testament, I’m sure, to the work environment, as well as to Leith himself who is now the vice president of development. “People, including myself, have been able to grow without having to leave the company.”
Leith started with Sorbara after graduating from the University of Waterloo’s School of Urban and Regional Planning with a Bachelor of Environmental Studies in 1981. Hired as “junior gopher planner” he says he learned the business of development literally in the trenches. “We started as land developers, so I learned about engineering and I was making decisions about backfill and frost and water while I was sinking up to my neck in mud.”
But he credits his quick rise from the mud to a little luck. “We grew a little bit, and I got promoted. Then I hired a couple of people to do the legwork on the planning stuff. I was lucky in the sense that the company evolved. We kind of morphed from developers into builders, which allowed not just me to get more experience and grow but the people I had with me could follow their interests and different paths.”
He found himself managing a wide range of departments including construction, sales and marketing, approvals and acquisitions. “It just seems like every five years the company grew and we did a little more, so my role changed a little bit. It hardly seems like it’s been five minutes because things have changed so much over the years.” But that five minutes actually translates into over 30 successful years with Sorbara.
Drawn to urban planning when he was still in high school, Leith seems to be the type of person who pursues his passions with vigour, tenacity and a very specific sense of humour. “I just loved the idea of city building and building better cities. I grew up in the suburbs, and for me there was nothing more soul-killing than the suburbs at the time. So I was quite intrigued by all things urban and downtown and I just knew I had to be involved in that.”
During a high school class, a visit from the town planner in Nepean — the place where he grew up and still lovingly refers to as home — sparked Leith’s interest in the subject, so he applied to one of the only universities offering a speciality in urban planning.
After graduating into a recession, it took a little time to land his first job. During his interview with Edward Sorbara, Leith recalls being asked, what is planning? “I gave him the academic answer that we’d been trained to give about feedback loops and assessing success, allocation of scarce resources, blah, blah, blah. He looked at me and said, ‘No, Leith. Planning is politics. Don’t forget that.’ And, boy, I really understand that now.”
As former chair of BILD and incoming OHBA president, politics has been on the top of Leith’s mind for a number of years. And as he speaks to me about the upcoming year, there’s no denying his firm grasp of the politics involved in the industry. “Our industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country; I’m not sure nuclear gets as much attention as house building,” he says with no sign of sarcasm. “That’s always struck me as to why it’s important to have good representation and put our information in front of government. We need to try to make sure good decisions get made, otherwise if you’re just waiting to see what comes down the pipe, all kinds of strange things can happen.”
Leith seems to be naturally drawn into leadership roles — and doesn’t take the importance of these roles lightly. Whether it’s his teaching posting at his alma mater, his strong sense of duty to the next generation of builders and developers or his top roles at the associations, Leith is never short of enthusiasm for the task at hand; it may be a laid-back kind of enthusiasm, but you only have to talk to him for a few minutes to realize his passion for every aspect of the industry.
While some may feel the burden of taking on such a large and important role, Leith says he feels like his presidency at OHBA is a natural progression from his time at BILD. “For me, when I got involved with BILD, I got a bunch of stuff done but not everything I’d like to see done, so OHBA is an opportunity to expand that dialogue at the provincial level.”
He also stresses that even though he’s a GTA builder/developer with strong ties to the local association, his interest is province-wide. “I’m really excited about having the chance to build on what I’ve learned as the chair of BILD and to take some of those projects that we got somewhat done and try to move them further along,” he says.
“Sometimes government can get lost in the success that Toronto’s had. The numbers out of Toronto have been stunning, really fuelled by condos, but that can mask a lot of problems elsewhere. It’s not the same in every market and sometimes government can forget that so, for me, it’s going to be a really interesting challenge to try and highlight the differences.”
Leith’s term as president also highlights something larger going on at the association. In the past, presidents have come in with a singular focus — something that really draws on their own interests or strengths. However, each year the foundation that has been built the previous year, in some sense, falls to the wayside. However, Leith is actually part of a three-year action plan presented by Joe Vaccaro, chief operating officer at OHBA, and supported by the OHBA board and other members of the executive.
“Every professional organization needs a strategic plan,” says Vaccaro. “OHBA developed a three-year plan to support its organizational goals and board mandate. The plan is really the blueprint to fulfilling that goal. It identifies that our core strength comes from our network of local associations across Ontario and the incredibly talented and motivated leaders who support the work they do.”
Past president Doug Tarry and incoming president Leith Moore are two of the talented leaders Vaccaro is referring to. Leith says he’s on board with the plan and agrees it really makes sense when you start thinking about leadership and change in the long term. “You need the president to come with the energy and the passion to drive it to the next step,” says Leith, “but to have a long-term plan means we’re all stepping in the same direction rather than one step forward, one step back. This way, we’re going somewhere.”
A large part of stepping forward is not to lose the momentum gained during the previous step — in this case, Tarry, as past president, will still be intimately involved in the association and will continue to grow the relationships he’s cultivated over the last year. Leith likens this scenario to having a prime minister with a cabinet, rather than simply having a single president — “People need help,” he says.
“I expect Leith to continue to build on the work of President Tarry’s ‘locals first’ approach,” says Vacarro. “He’ll ask OHBA executives, board members, members and staff to be leaders for our industry and by doing that he will get the best out of our association and our association will get the best out of Leith.”
Besides building on last year’s momentum, Leith says he also wants to focus on a number of areas, specifically increased communication with members and government. This year will also see a number of major issues coming back around, including the review of both the Growth Plan and the Condo Act.
“We’ve got a real challenging market ahead of us — it seems like my luck,” says Leith. “We’ve got the federal government pushing regulatory changes on mortgages and financing and that’s a challenge to us. We’ve got building code changes and energy code changes that are challenges. Market-slowing challenges. I don’t see the smoothest of years ahead, but it’s important that we get rid of as much red tape as we can, get as much direct dialogue going with government, make good decisions and open up the way a bit.”
A few days after our shop talk in the corner office, I meet up with Leith at his comfortable home in the Beaches of east-end Toronto. We’re there to photograph Leith for his presidential cover, but I’m also there to get a real glimpse into the world of Leith Moore outside of the silk-panelled office. And there’s no better place to do that than his beloved cottage by the water.
Although Leith grew up as a fifth generation Ottawa Valley resident, he’s certainly found his place in the big city. “I feel so claustrophobic when I get inland,” he says in all sincerity. “Living where I do now, I’m only two minutes from the lake. I watch the sun come up and go for long walks on the boardwalk with the dogs. I can’t see myself ever leaving.”
He landed in the Beaches, a unique stretch of houses and shops along Queen St. E. in Toronto’s east end, in the mid-1980s and has resided in his current home for over 15 years. It started as a small cottage, and through a number of renovations, including some extensions to the original layout, it’s now a small renovated cottage. What should be the front lawn is actually a walkway surrounded by a wild, but well-maintained, garden. And that feeling — organized chaos, might be a fair description — extends throughout his home, and, I would have to guess, probably into Leith’s entire philosophy on life.
Once inside, after being greeted by his two beloved one-year-old black labs, the first thing you notice is the lack of empty space. Every inch of the walls are covered in plaqued photographs — from a kilted Leith on the day he married his wife Melanie (in their backyard) to him proudly bundled up in the Arctic. The living room area is floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stacked with books. And in what is probably the understatement of the year, Leith casually says, “I read. A lot.” Paintings, with an obvious nature theme, are casually but purposefully hung on any wall not covered in books.
The kitchen has a renovated feel — modern and tasteful with all the details you’d expect from a successful builder. And his office, an addition on the back of the house, which looks out into his small Muskoka-like backyard, contains various trinkets from his travels, more books and more plaqued photographs. Almost as an afterthought, there’s a computer and some paperwork on a desk.
Leith lives his beliefs. We talk about the idea of how “small is beautiful” and it’s obvious that he not only believes that but lives it every day. “I’m quite intrigued by the potential to swing people back from the curve of bigger is better — I actually think we need to build to the right size. I like the size of what I live in. It suits me to a tee.”
He also finds inspiration from the Beaches area itself. “Even when I was in university, I was passionate about the idea of small communities, villages, even urban villages. I like where I live so I park my car and rollerblade or cycle. So for me the Beaches has been my prototypical, perfect neighbourhood.” That inspiration has leaked into his work as a builder/developer, as he acknowledges the need to build communities, not just houses. “Sometimes that’s difficult,” he says. “I’ve learned that the market’s the market and not everybody believes what I believe. But you’ve got to create a structure in your plan so that it can evolve into that. I may not be able to build it that way at the beginning, but in a whole new community you can create the opportunities for that to happen.”
As we wrap up the photo shoot — and Leith passes out invitations to his jazz festival party — I feel like even in few short hours we’ve spent together I have a pretty good idea of the type of person, and the type of leader, Leith is: What you see is what you get. He wears his passion on his sleeve and it’s that passion that guides every aspect of his life. And that passion will serve him well in his new position as president.
(Photos: by Margaret Mulligan)
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