George Przybylowski isn’t personally involved in developing or building commercial real estate properties, but for the past 30 years he’s been one of the most recognizable faces in the industry in Canada.
Soon, he intends to be more recognizable on the golf course or the ski hill. The man behind the largest series of industry forums and conferences in the country has announced his intention to retire.
“All of this has been a major blessing. I’ve been 47 years in full-time employment,” Przybylowski told RENX prior to Thursday’s announcement.
The disclosure came at the conclusion of the 30th edition of the Real Estate Forum in Toronto, as part of a ceremony set up by colleagues and long-time friends/business associates. Overseen by REALPAC CEO Michael Brooks, it included a video presentation featuring tributes from industry leaders, followed by a speech by Przybylowski.
“A consummate professional”
“George is a consummate professional, reasonable, thoughtful, caring and surely the most successful real estate promoter we’ve ever had in this country by far. In fact, I would put George up against any other industry conference promoter,” Brooks said, noting Przybylowski showed an early affinity for organization while acting as the “bagman” for the band Lighthouse while in his teens.
“George would get the money from the concert promoter at the end of the gig, count it, and manage it on behalf of the band and the band manager while a teenager,” he said, adding what is likely a little known fact . . . Przybylowski also played in a rock band for a while.
“So he comes by his skill today, in doing what he does, from a very early age although now he’s collecting from all of us on a much more sophisticated platform.”
Brooks also talked about his volunteer activities for organizations such as the Canadian Foundation for Physically Disabled Persons, the Canadian Helen Keller Centre for the deaf and blind, and prostate cancer groups.
“There are few of us who have stood apart as George does. If you ever need a volunteer or a poster child for volunteerism, George is it.”
The 69-year-old vice-president of real estate for Informa Canada will ease into his retirement. This will give his successor, longtime industry analytics expert Roelof van Dijk, time to get a handle on all that the position entails.
“Even though we’ve been lucky enough to hire a guy who has a tremendous background in research and market knowledge . . . he doesn’t have a track record in conferences,” Przybylowski told RENX.
“We have a strong conference team that is part of our group,” he continued, “but he still needs to learn the business somewhat, so the plan is in year one I am in semi-retirement mode and he is shadowing me at events. In year two, I do it less and by year three less, less, less and then I call it a day.
“It’s like working yourself out of a job over a three-year period.”
The real estate forums and conferences
The real estate forums are a series of 19 events, most held annually but some on a rotating two-year schedule, coast-to-coast across Canada. The events cover both geographical regions and/or specific aspects of the CRE and multiresidential development industry.
Przybylowski has also been involved in numerous other types of trade shows, conferences and forums.
The real estate events are attended each year by thousands of industry executives and professionals.
Speakers include the most senior executives in the business, both from Canada and elsewhere. Just this week, Blackstone president and CEO Jonathan Gray participated as a keynote speaker at Informa’s keynote REF, held both in-person and virtually.
While the format has adapted over the years, Przybylowski’s basic philosophy has not.
“We realized very clearly that we had to make sure in any conference that we had the right topics, first, and that we were able to attract the right speakers for the right topics, and that we could offer the whole thing with a ribbon tied around it, and a bow, at the lowest possible price,” he explained.
“That has been the value proposition from 1992 right through until now.”
The forums have also attracted a long list of major sponsors. Przybylowski said the success formula is circular; large, targeted audiences attract premium sponsors and this in turn helps keep costs down for attendees. So, more people attend and the circle keeps turning . . .
The road to creating the forums
As so often happens, the forums grew out of a series of twists and turns for Przybylowski.
The son of Polish refugees who arrived in Canada after the Second World War with just their suitcases in hand, he was raised in Toronto and graduated from the University of Toronto in 1971 with a political science degree.
He worked for what is now Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, and became involved with conferences because the new ministry needed to inform municipal leaders about its programs.
“So I said ‘Why don’t we bring the people to us, instead of us going out to the people? Why don’t we organize a conference and take the municipalities which have been the first ones to use these programs and make them the centre point of the conference so they can share with their peers?’ ”
As the proponent of the idea, he was tasked with creating the conferences.
A few years later, he left the government and created his own consulting firm, but wanted to find a business which would “build equity” for his family. After running a few trade shows and conferences, the forerunner of the real estate forums was held in Toronto in 1992.
Track record of success
The one-day event attracted 311 attendees.
“It went so well that we went with a two-day event in 1993 at the behest of the industry because they said ‘You’ve got to expand it and put more in there, it’s really good.’ We had over 500 people the second year and the third year we had almost 650 people. This thing was growing like weeds . . .” Przybylowski recalled.
He then added similar events in Vancouver and Ottawa, “and we just continued to build on it.”
Przybylowski’s contributions to the industry and his community have been recognized with several awards, including induction into the BILD Hall of Fame in in 2018 and the NAIOP Community Service Award in 2015.
As in any successful business, Przybylowski said there has been a lot of help along the way. And during the challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, his team at Informa in particular has faced a gargantuan task pivoting from in-person to virtual and now to hybrid virtual/in-person events.
“I have a hell of a lot of people to thank,” he said, running down a long list that includes experts and friends who offered guidance and support over the past 30-plus years, to sponsors, speakers, attendees and his “great team” at Informa.
Family support has also been crucial, because as with most senior executive roles the time demands of running such an operation are steep.
“Don’t be a smart alec”
When asked how he’s managed to keep the forums relevant over three decades, Przybylowski said that has been simple yet complex.
“You’ve got to listen. You’ve got to be a really good listener because, in order get back to that value proposition and get the right topics, you’ve got to make sure you listen to what that market tells you it wants . . . and then, get the right speakers.
“Don’t be a smart alec. You are only as good as your last pizza. There are so many pizzerias, people don’t have to continue to buy your pizza. They can change on a dime.”
That is something that has never been a problem for Przybylowski and the forums.
– With files from Steve McLean