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Architect finds purpose in providing quality seniors' homes

A profile of Rainer Müller, founder and chairman, Parc Retirement Living

As a young boy growing up in southwest Germany, Rainer Müller, founder and chairman of Parc Retirement Living, remembers gaining his first industry knowledge by shadowing his father.

His father, an architect and property manager, died when Müller was in his teens, leaving him with valuable experience but also with uncertainty about how to translate those attributes into a career.

At 19, Müller left his hometown of Heidelberg and moved to Zurich, Switzerland, to study architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. After he completed school and began his career as a young architect, Müller began looking into property investment, and soon had a number of investments in Switzerland and Germany.

Müller felt he had built a strong base in his country, but in 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster suddenly put the fate of the region in flux.

“That was a very difficult time in Europe; it was a situation where we did not know what would go on with the environment, and there was the green movement as a result of it,” Müller said.

Worried about the political, economic and environmental effects of the Chernobyl accident, he began to look outside Europe for opportunity.

“I had friends in Vancouver, and I decided I should have some investments there,” he said.

Müller’s first investment in Vancouver was a rental building in the West End in 1988. Over the years, his interest in Canada grew as he began to learn more about the country, and when one of his old college friends immigrated to Canada in 1996, Müller, who remained a full-time resident of Switzerland, took the chance to make more investments with the help of this now local connection.

Around the same time, Müller was beginning to look for retirement homes for his mother. When he told his story about his retirement home hunt to his friends in Canada, they advised him to invest in Canadian retirement homes.

The idea piqued Müller’s interest. After building a significant amount of experience in property investing and management, he made the transition to becoming an owner and operator of retirement residences. 

In 2001, Parc Retirement Living opened Summerhill, the company’s first retirement residence, in North Vancouver. The company is privately owned by Müller and his family, and specializes in building and managing seniors’ residences in Greater Vancouver. It focuses on creating engaged communities that foster participation in the arts, athletics and healthy living.

Headquarterd on Alberni Street in downtown Vancouver, Parc employs roughly 250 throughout its four retirement communities in North and West Vancouver and Burnaby, which provide 531 independent living suites.

“[Parc residents] are not isolated in these communities,” Müller said. “There are no islands, there are no cruise ships that sail away. These are really homes in their neighbourhoods that they come from.”

Müller is a staunch advocate of providing support for the communities in which Parc residences are located, and the company contributes significantly to arts and cultural initiatives through various community-based foundations and sponsorships like the Harmony Arts Festival in West Vancouver and the Victoria Symphony.

Last year, Parc became the only company in British Columbia in the retirement living sector to be confirmed as a certified living-wage employer. The certification is awarded by the Living Wage for Families campaign. The living-wage calculation is based on a two-parent family with two children, and each parent working full time. The living-wage rate for Metro Vancouver is $20.62 per hour.

Müller said there is a distinct contrast between the way retirement homes are run in his country and the way they are funded and managed in B.C.

“It is very different; very often in Switzerland, the municipalities invest and build the retirement homes and they run them. But we don’t have the funded system like you have in B.C. for care homes.

“Every country you go to, it’s very different. It’s all depending on the health system, and you cannot copy – you can see and be inspired but you cannot copy it. You have to translate it if you see something that is good.”

One of his biggest challenges in B.C. is intense competition for appropriate properties.

“We are not condo builders, but we compete with condo builders. We want to have the same good site that a condo developer is looking for; we want the same good location, we want seniors to live in the same great location and be part of a municipality, a city, a community where they are enabled. We don’t want to marginalize seniors; we don’t want to push them aside.”

With real estate prices continually climbing along with construction costs, building residences with reasonable rates seems to only get harder.

But progress hasn’t slowed for Müller and the Parc team. The company is planning construction of another four retirement communities that are scheduled to open between 2019 and 2024 in White Rock, Victoria, Kelowna and Coquitlam.

As to the success of the Parc brand, Müller understands that its appeal is unique.

“We are a niche player and we know this…. It is a privately owned company, and we really specialize in focusing on these independent seniors. We are not offering memory care or assisted living.”

Being a smaller player, Parc has had the flexibility to explore different technologies it can incorporate into its facilities.

The company is in negotiations with a Silicon Valley firm about putting to trial a sensor system that compiles data about senior health preferences and can detect when a resident has had a fall or needs assistance. Additionally, the company has been experimenting with green buildings and achieving fully green status.

If there is one thing Müller loves about his job, it is seeing the effect good care can have on the elderly and their lifestyle.

“We all think aging is something bad but if you experience these people, you realize it doesn’t have to be so,” he said. “It is a great thing to go into these senior homes and experience the feeling of being 90 to 95 and thinking, ‘Wow, that would be great if I could be like this person when I am that age.’”

While Müller splits his time between Europe and Canada, his affinity for Vancouver has never ceased to grow. An avid sailor and family man, Müller enjoys his summers exploring the waters along B.C.’s rugged coastlines and watching his children enjoy the many fruits of their Canadian citizenship.