Property Biz Canada

Over 50 years, Impark grows from one lot to thousands

In the same year that the Beatles released their first album and James Bond made his debut on the silver screen, Arne Olsen opened a surface parking lot in downtown Vancouver. The year was 1962.

The Beatles and Bond became icons of 20th century pop culture. Olsen’s parking lot became the foundation for Impark, a company that now boasts 2,100 locations in 34 metropolitan areas in Canada and the U.S.

Impark, owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan since last summer, had several events this summer involving staff and clients to celebrate its 50th anniversary, said Julian Jones, vice-president of business development. It hosted several events involving staff and clients. It was hoped that Olsen himself would be able to attend one of the company’s events. Sadly, he died on Sept. 5, after a long illness.

Filling a need

Jones, who has been with the company for 20 years, had never met Olsen, who left Impark in 1986. But the story of how Olsen founded Impark was part of company lore.

Olsen was a rising star with MacMillan Bloedel, working as an assistant to a top executive when he encountered a familiar problem: he needed a place to park, said Paul Clough, Impark’s longtime former president and CEO. Olsen noticed a burned-out house near the downtown office of Mac Blo, a leading Canadian forestry products company of the day. So he and his then-brother-in-law, John Adams, decided to knock down the house and gravel over the lot. To help pay for that, they convinced a few other people to pay for monthly parking on the site.

“They were so successful at that one, they knocked down a few more (houses),” Clough said. “So they had four or five locations and then they got a call from his boss and he said, ‘You’d better make up your mind. Do you want to be in the parking business or do you want to keep your job here?’ And Arne says, ‘Well, I think I’m liking the parking business.’”

By the time Clough joined the company in June 1967, Imperial Parking Corporation, as it is officially called, was still pretty small. It had about 11 lots in Vancouver and a small staff that included half a dozen parking attendants and a “girl Friday” in the office. Clough, whose brother Rick was then a partner with Olsen, was studying business at the B.C. Institute of Technology and joined the company mainly as a summer job, not thinking it would become his career.

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But it did. And Clough stayed with the company long after his brother left and Olsen himself sold his share of the company in 1988.

Impark today

Impark’s current president and CEO is Allan Copping, who was named to the post in August 2010 after four years as the company’s chief financial officer.

The company’s clients today cover an extensive list and include a who’s who of Canada’s leading commercial real estate companies, such as Cadillac Fairview, Bentall Kennedy, Brookfield Office Properties and Oxford Properties Group.

“Basically you name anybody in real estate,” Jones said. “We literally manage them on behalf of an owner in the same way as if you had, say, an apartment building.”

In the past, such as during the 1990s, the company bought facilities of its own. However, in 2004, following one of its many ownership changes, the company sold off the real estate and retained only the management part of the business.

“You can be an owner of parking facilities but then effectively you’re competing with clients on your own property,” Jones said. “A cleaner way to operate the business is to be a pure manager or lease facilities and not be an owner.”

Growth of the business

Throughout its history, Impark has grown both organically — by moving into a new city and building a presence lot by lot — and by acquiring other companies. Among the latter was Impark’s acquisition in 1994 of Toronto-based CitiPark, which at the time was its biggest competitor.

Impark also has several subsidiary and affiliate companies, including Advanced Parking Systems Ltd., a boutique company offering personalized service and Meridian Valet, which serves hotels, restaurants and special events.

Impark’s current owner, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund, acquired the company in 2011 for an undisclosed sum when it purchased Babcock & Brown Gates Parking Investments, which had owned Impark since 2006. Since Impark is no longer a publicly traded company, its financials aren’t publicly available. In 2002, however, when the company controlled 320,000 parking spaces in 32 cities, it had annual sales of $139.8 million. Today it has about 450,000 parking spaces.

Jones said the acquisition by the teachers’ pension fund was spectacular news for the company because “finally we now have an owner of the company who looks for the long-term hold.” The pension fund’s deep pockets ($117.1 billion in net assets) will help Impark achieve more growth through acquisition in the coming years, Jones added.

Technology continues to play a role

One key to Impark’s growing success has been its adoption of technology. The company was a pioneer in using meters to dispense pay-and-display tickets, which enabled Impark to operate with fewer lot attendants. Impark, through Clough, even held the patent for a ticket-dispensing machine that accepts credit cards.

Jones said he expects technology to play an even larger role in the company’s prospects as it approaches future milestone dates.

“How we see things change over the next five, 10 years is how cars are going to change and how people make decisions about where they’re going to park,” he said.

That will involve sophisticated navigation systems and computer and smartphone applications that will enable drivers to locate available parking spaces and to compare rates, for example. Whether technological advances will result in the science fiction scenario of flying cars by the date of Impark’s 100th anniversary seems doubtful. But the company is even ready for that.

“I don’t know,” Jones laughed. “As long as they keep parking, we’re happy.”

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