The Macdonald Notebook has added a Search Button to its website, giving the reader access to over 2,500 published articles since we launched in March 2017.
The news articles range from Business stories & Inside political coverage, and here’s an example of our archived journalism, published originally in January, 2018.
How Andrew Metlege Built Up An Apartment Empire
By Andrew Macdonald
Andrew Metlege is perhaps the modern day dean of the Lebanese development community in Halifax.
The development community in the city, which in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s was the domain of Jewish apartment developers like Simon Spatz, Ralph and Frank Medjuck and the Wolfson family, today finds most developers are most often of Lebanese extraction.
There are now close to 40 Lebanese developers active on the landlord scene in Halifax, folk like Metlege, and Louie Lawen and Danny Chedrawe.
I chatted for an hour this week with Metlege on his life and times, reaching him where he winters in Miami. He also spends many months in the summer in his native Lebanon, and autumn in Nova Scotia.
Metlege in the 1970s was the first Lebanese developer to build a concrete high rise structure. Until then Lebanese landlords such as Fred Ghosn were content to erect six- to 12-unit wooden framed buildings.
The late Fred Ghosn is the father of prominent developers Nassim and Sol, who re-invested their inheritance into real estate.
Nassim Ghosn is building a 15-storey rental where the Discovery Centre once stood, and just finished the Pearl rental on Rainnie Drive.
Sol Ghosn built the high rise Vince Coleman in Fairview. That large apartment, near the cemetery holding graves of Titanic victims, is named after Coleman, a train dispatcher in 1917 who saved hundreds of lives after telling a train from Moncton to stop because of the risk from two ships burning in the Narrows of Halifax Harbour.
The burning ships led to the Halifax Explosion, and the deaths of 2,000 people — including Coleman.
In 1995 at age 44, Metlege — after building the Prince Matthew on Hollis Street — packed up his growing and robust development firm and retired so that he could spend more time with his four children — “and smell the roses.”
Today, the Metlege family owns 700 rentals, and now Metlege is chairman of Templeton Properties, which is largely operated by his 35-year-old son Joe Metlege.
Like many of today’s Lebanese developers, Metlege immigrated to Halifax with his parents as a 12-year-old, and with no command of the English language.
“That was 1963, the year John F. Kennedy was killed. We became hooked on him. He was such a young and nice looking president. That night I remember we were glued to the TV,” Metlege tells The Macdonald Notebook.
He came from the village of Diaman, with a population of 800. The same village is also the home town of many of today’s high powered condo and apartment builders, and the Lebanese centre at Kearney Lake is named after Diaman.
Metlege was forced to drop out of school in grade 9 so that he could go to work and provide a living for his family, toiling as a bus boy at a busy downtown eatery known as Stephen’s Lunch Counter, where office building 1801 Hollis & Duke now stands.
He did not like the job, waiting on tables, and cooking in the kitchen – and today when he discusses that job, it still depresses him.
“I had to leave school in grade 9. My parents had returned to Lebanon, and I was left with my older brothers, who were 20-years older than me,” says Metlege. “I had to go out and work and make money.”
At Stephen’s Lunch, “I worked there as chief cook and bottle washer, short order cook, making fries, and washing dishes,” he remembers. “I hated that job then, and when I recall it now, I still hate it, for a couple of reasons.
“Number one, I thought what kind of a future would I have doing that job. Number two, I would wait on wealthy folk, like lawyers, and accountants and other professionals. They would take coffee breaks, read the newspapers and some of them were fairly bossy to me. My English was still somewhat limited.
“That job tore me apart inside of me,” says Metlege.
In a life’s defining moment — a pivotal game changer — as a teen at the eatery, a well dressed top notch corporate lawyer, a frequent diner, made a disparaging comment to Metlege. The lawyer said he was successful and that Metlege was only a bus boy.
The rude comment changed the future for Metlege and largely spurred him on to become a leading developer. He told the lawyer he was just as smart him, and he went on to complete his grade 12 GED, and then decided to go back to school in grade 12, to better prepare for university.
“I came out with pretty good marks in 1969-70. I was 19.”
From there, Metlege went to Dalhousie University, and graduated with a commerce degree, doubling up on six or five courses per semester. “I graduated in 1974.”
In his first year at university, Metlege was encouraged by his brother Joe, who was a developer living in Australia, to acquire property and have his name on real estate.
“He said, ‘You need to have property in your name’,” recalls Metlege.
“So he gave me $1,000, and my brother Anthony in Halifax gave me $500. And I saved $2,000 from my restaurant job working for two years, so I put a deposit on a small green coloured bungalow on Oxford and Cork streets. The civic address is 3011 Oxford Street.
“That was my first year at university. I was studying but I needed to increase income from that property. The easiest way to do that was to put in an apartment on the basement.”
But the basement had to be dug because its height was only five feet. So with help from two other students, Metlege took a shovel and began digging out the basement, dumping the soil out a four-foot basement window.
“I was digging two and a half feet in the basement. It was quite a challenge, but life is full of challenges,” Metlege tells The Macdonald Notebook.
“I made that space eight feet high and put an apartment in there, to give me some more money.”
But then he wanted to make more money, and added an apartment on the top of the home, and eventually during four years of university, he turned the single family home into a four-unit rental.
That property is still owned by his firm, 40-year-old Templeton Properties — via ownership held by his son Joe Metlege, who now largely runs the rental empire.
“There was a Bank of Montreal branch on Dal campus, and its branch manager was Reg Smith. I still remember his name.”
The bank provided Metlege was a small loan to buy that first property. “I explained I wanted to put an apartment on top of the home. He saw how aggressive I was and he agreed to loan me $10,000,” recalls Metlege.
“It was a bit of a chance, and I built the apartment on the top. I got more loans from him to expand the units to four apartments.”
In 1974, he graduated from commerce at Dal and planned to enrol at Dalhousie Law School.
But after visiting Lebanon in 1975, where his father and mother had returned, he got trapped in the civil war in that country, and missed out of the first semester of law school.
“There were snipers on the way to the airport, and shooting and killing. Eventually, I got out eight months later but university was well underway, so I needed something to do as I waited for the next school year to enrol at the law school,” he says.
“So I thought, here is a chance to do another development. So I put an offer on a lot at 20 Evans Avenue.”
He acquired the property, got a building permit, hired then provincial government engineer Surrender Bhallah, and a brother co-signed a loan.
Upon completion, Bhallah ended up buying the property, and is now a leading landlord in the city in his own right.
As part of the purchase price, Balah agreed to design the next Metlege project for free.
“I then bought a lot on Duffus Avenue and built a 16-unit rental, and then helped my brother Anthony build an apartment in Spryfield, to pay him back for loaning me money.”
In 1977, when he was 26, “I wanted more of a challenge and I decided to built a high rise concrete building. I was the first Lebanese developer to build a high rise concrete building”.
He acquired three homes on Tower Road, and would go on to build the seven-storey Queen Sana, which he named for his new bride Sana, who also grew up in Diaman. They actually met in Halifax.
That construction poised problems with the underground, hitting a water table, and having constant flooding as he tried to put in the building’s footings.
He hired labourers to pump out the water, but they would quit after one of two hours of work because the mud was up to their waists. Determined to fight the flooding, Metlege decided to work in the mud himself, with water up to his knees and sometimes his waist.
“It was either sinking or floating — and sinking was not an option for me, so I put on some rubber boots and jumped in with mud to my knees and almost waist high, struggling with it for a month, but we ended up getting the footings in place. It was a huge challenge for me,” he says.
“Dealing with the south end of the city was more of a challenge back then to get building permits. It took me three years to get approval for the Queen Sauna.
“We ended up completing that building and it was a huge success. It is a 52-unit building,” and it was completed in 1979, when Metlege was a 28-year-old.
That rental is still part of the Templeton Properties empire.
He married in 1979, “and we would go on to have four lovely children,” including eldest daughter Veronica, a dietician, who is married to prominent second generation developer Louie Lawen.
Joe was the second child. He is now 35, and controls the company. Then there is Matthew, who is vice-president at Templeton, and another daughter Andrea, who is leasing and marketing guru with the family rental business.
“After I got married and at age 28, I wanted more challenges, and I wanted to work with the provincial government building seniors’ complexes because I thought that would teach me how to build more professionally.”
He ended up losing his first bid, as he finished second lowest. He eventually won a second tender, a 26-unit seniors complex in Bedford, handy to an office for the government’s public housing outfit.
The location, he recalls, was both a curse and a blessing because inspectors from the housing department would take their breaks, and daily visit the construction project on Union Street — and offer valuable building lessons to Metlege.
He turned a profit of $50,000 from that project in 1980 and bought land near Windsor Parkm where Frank Medjuck had been unable to get approval for a development. Metlege did a 39-unit condo development.
“Still being active and wanting challenges, in 1980 there was an eight and a half acre tract on Main Avenue and Dunbrack streets, which the owner could not get sub-divided, so I bought the whole tract.”
That is where he would build another high rise, King Andrew Tower, and constructed many townhouses called Templeton Woods subdivision, where 292 units were completed on Veronica Drive, named for his daughter who was born in 1980.
That year and into 1981, Metlege faced serious headwinds, as interest rates on loans moved to 20 and 30 per cent, while rental vacancies grew to 40 to 60 per cent.
Many landlords ended up bankrupt, including then leading developer Alan Silverman, who is still in the residential landlord business today with projects built in recent years in Dartmouth.
“In 1983, interest rates hit 24 per cent but I decided to build a 70-unit apartment building that I agreed to sell to Alan Silverman.”
I asked Metlege how he managed to survive that brutal era for real estate landlords.
“Well, I am aggressive, but I am very conservative with my numbers. I am extremely conservative with my numbers. I do my calculations on a worst case situation,” he says of his business philosophy.
“While I have no problem borrowing money, my thought is always, how am I going to pay back the money,” he tells The Macdonald Notebook.
“That’s why I’ve never had a problem with financing from any bank. I present my case to them, but I have to convince myself how to pay it back. I am hardest on myself.”
In 1985, King Andrew was completed, while interest rates hit 30 per cent, and 30 units remained empty as vacancies rose to 40 to 60 per cent.
“I had enough equity in that building that I survived that era,” says Metlege.
In 1986, he built another 56-rental building. In 1990 he built a 64-unit rental, and in 1995 did 56-unit Prince Matthew on Hollis Street.
At one time, Metlege considered doing a development in Orlando, near Disney World, and planned to build a motel there in 1985.
“I thought about moving to Florida and doing developments there. There was a lot of opportunity.”
But he ended up retrenching back to Halifax, because he missed the tight-knit social aspect of the city’s vibrant Lebanese community.
“I talked to my wife and asked her was it worth it to follow the dollar in Florida and lose our social and family values in Halifax, where there is a very rich Lebanese social and heritage community,” says Metlege.
“For sure, we would have made more money,” but the couple wanted to raise their then young family in Halifax.
“Money was not the only issue in our life. My success has always been not how much money you make, but it is a delicate balance of raising a family, making money and enjoying life along the way.”
“Those three things are how I measure success.”
At age 44, after building the Prince Matthew, he largely retired from the development scene. “I thought it was time to slow down, smell the roses and spend more time with my young family.
“I would not build any more until my son Joey came of age and he has some firepower in his belly and he wanted to so something.”
He offered guidance to his son, who bought the former Trinity Anglican church on Cogswell Street, and then ended up building a replacement church at Mount Royal.
The four developers of the subdivision at Mount Royal — Wadih Fares, Besim Halef, Francis Fares and Sam Nahas. refused to sell land to Joe, but he
persisted with acquiring property, believing it a good location for a church, and ended up doing a joint partnership with Nahas’ son Norman Nahas. Both built the church in a partnership called Jono.
They plan in the future to build an 18-storey to 21-storey hotel and apartment structure at Cogswell Street.
Joe and Norman have been close friends since childhood days, while Andrew Metlege is close chums with Sam Nahas, who also owns the King of Donair chain.
“At that point, I got more involved with the company and give Joe some experience, and he built 96-unit Palace Royal on Main Avenue.
“I wanted to give Joe exposure to construction and high rise construction, and he built Harwick behind Oxford Theatre, a two building, four level low rise rental built out of concrete.”
Andrew Metlege is now the chairman of the family rental empire, largely allowing Joe to put his vision on running the family rental empire.
At age 35, Andrew Metlege says son Joe is now a seasoned landlord and developer.
Next week, I chat with Joe Metlege on the modern day look at Templeton Properties, and its Fenwick Tower massive make-over, where he is overseeing a 300-unit addition with future new apartment buildings, complementing the 290-unit Fenwick, eyeing a budget of $150-million.
“There’s more to life than business,” says Andrew, adding he has over the generations helped new immigrants settle, discounting rent for them, or serving as a financial backer to upstart entrepreneurs, and he says not once has an investment in a new entrepreneur soured on him.
“I started with nothing,” he says, adding he enjoys helping new business people.
He is also active with Nova Centre developer Joe Ramia and prominent condo and apartment developer Danny Chedrawe, overseeing the building of a new church for the Lebanese community in Halifax.
Back in 1988, Andrew Metlege ran for the Vince MacLean Liberals in Fairview – and he says today reflecting back that he is very fortunate that he actually lost the election as MLA.