Bob De Wit: Builder Bob

Tech sector entrepreneur Bob De Wit is the new boss of the association that lobbies on behalf of B.C.'s home construction industry
GVHBA CEO Bob De Wit: “I've seen the same things over and over again – the same mistakes and same challenges that all companies have”

Bob De Wit surprised many by taking on the role of Greater Vancouver Home Builders' Association (GVHBA) CEO given that his background is working with hundreds of startup technology companies during the past 15 years.

To De Wit, however, the change made sense even though it was to a completely different sector because it was a chance to work up the proverbial food chain and interactwith entrepreneurs at larger, more established companies.

De Wit spent the past four and a half years as CEO of Green Angel Energy (TSX-V:GAE), where he helped commercialize new technologies that produce renewable energy or improve energy efficiency.

"I've seen the same things over and over again – the same mistakes and same challenges that all companies have," he told Business in Vancouver during lunch at a Mount Pleasant café. "It was time to go, and I decided to choose a different industry."

Most of the GVHBA's 752 members are builders, developers, renovators or suppliers. Virtually all are cash-flow positive – a fact that De Wit considers a refreshing change.

"In the technology sector, hardly anybody is cash-flow positive," he said. "They try to sell their technology but also their shares to companies that are trying to sell their technology."

One of De Wit's goals is to help GVHBA members sell their products to each other.

The association has an annual expo that De Wit wants to expand and retool to emphasize trade between members partly because he thinks that will increase sponsorship o1pportunities.

De Wit has taken over from Peter Simpson, who retired as CEO of the GVHBA after 19 years on the job. Simpson was also on Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson's housing affordability task force.

De Wit wants to take that involvement with local governments to a new level – to be a stronger advocate for affordable housing and to do a better job of promoting GVHBA members' interests.

That's why his seven- employee association plans to add a new director of government relations.

One issue that he is dealing with relates to a letter that Canada Post sent to many GVHBA members in late October. The struggling Crown corporation told developers that it plans to start charging $200 for each mailbox in community mailboxes at housing developments.

Those communal mailboxes each often contain about 200 individual mailboxes. So developers would be hit with a $40,000 fee.

"This really came out of the blue," De Wit said. "Their letter says that they have had tough fiscal results so in order to make up for losses, they have to impose this levy. It's like going to old business partners and saying, 'We're having a tough time so we'd like you to write us a cheque.'"

Canada Post's new fee, he said, is one of many small charges that are hidden from public view yet get passed on to homeowners and make housing less affordable.

De Wit added that eliminating those fees is one strategy to create affordable housing; another is having municipalities synchronize permitting processes.

If he can't convince municipalities to harmonize how they process development applications and issue permits, De Wit at least wants them to have transparent and straightforward policies.

Longtime friend Mike Volker, who is also Green Angel's chairman, believes the home-building industry's gain is the technology sector's loss.

"Bob has been a keen supporter of entrepreneurship," Volker told BIV. "A lot of these mentoring programs we've got in the province are a result of Bob's behind-the-scenes work. He's a real champion for that kind of thing."

De Wit's mentoring has come largely through New Ventures BC, where he's served as executive director for the past three years.

The non-profit technology business acceleration program is organized in the form of an annual competition that provides seed capital, mentorship, education and recognition.

In addition to serving on New Ventures BC's board of directors, De Wit volunteers as jury chairman and a mentor for the competition.

De Wit was born in Richmond, but his Dutch immigrant parents moved to the B.C. Interior and bought a farm in Sicamous when he was a toddler.

De Wit credits growing up and working on the farm and in the family's 120-cow dairy operation for inspiring him to get an education.

Fresh from graduating from high school in 1986, he moved to Burnaby and lived in residence at Simon Fraser University. He earned a business administration undergraduate degree while working at the university's pub, which he remembers was then often frequented by Christy Clark, now B.C.'s premier.

He worked co-operative education jobs at companies such as PepsiCo Inc. (NYSE:PEP) and then earned a full-time job at Imperial Oil (TSX:IMO) in Calgary, where his role was to write and negotiate contracts for the company, which was downsizing.

"It was an unpleasant job because when people saw you coming, they knew that the next shoe to drop was that their jobs would be eliminated and they would be replaced with contract workers," he said.

He returned to SFU to complete a master's degree in economics, and De Wit would have pursued a PhD in England had he not fallen in love with his future wife, whom he did not want to leave.

De Wit had also caught the entrepreneurial bug from his involvement with a spinoff company called Canadian V-Chip Design, which had technology that helped parents limit the amount of violence their children could watch on TV.

He and business partner Tim Collings built the company and then licensed its technology to a Toronto venture that morphed to become what is now Wi-lan Inc. (TSX:WIN).

Stints at several other startups followed, as did a short post as COO of the profit-making technology transfer office of TechBC Corp. – a primarily online university that the NDP created in the 1990s.

He then found job longevity at both Green Angel Energy and New Ventures BC.

"Being an entrepreneur and investing in entrepreneurs and mentoring entrepreneurs is a great background for my current role because the majority of our membership is small companies," De Wit said. "I can really relate to how they run their business and have a relentless focus on the customer."

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