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Roger Greenberg: Building Ottawa’s Future

Roger Greenberg on the TD Place FieldReal estate. Family values. Local commitment. Meet Roger Greenberg, the Executive Chairman of the Board at The Minto Group. Does the name sound familiar? You’ve probably passed by Minto homes or seen the Minto Sports Complex on our University of Ottawa campus.  

Who Are the Greenbergs? 

University of Ottawa Minto Sports Complex buildingFounded by Roger Greenberg’s father and uncles in Ottawa in 1955, The Minto Group is a real estate company that quickly grew by trailblazing its own innovative path and is now successful across North America. Passionate about supporting the community in which Minto had its start, the family has long been dedicated to giving back to health, sports, arts, and education causes. The Minto Sports complex is just one example of the Greenberg family’s contributions to Ottawa. 

The Greenberg family landed in Canada from Russia over a hundred years ago. The family struggled for the first 35 years until achieving their first modest success in the mid-1950s. Today, Roger Greenberg continues to carry the torch with fellow family descendants of the original four brothers, with some of the most generous philanthropy the nation’s capital has ever seen.  

A Family Affair

First working as a lawyer in Toronto, Greenberg soon became involved in the family real estate business. He worked as the Senior Vice President at The Minto Group for 6 years before serving as its CEO for 22 years and then transitioning to the role of Board Executive Chair. Today, Greenberg is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees at Minto Apartment REIT. And that’s not all — Greenberg is the Executive Chairman and Managing Partner at the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), working closely with the City of Ottawa on Lansdowne Park. Together with a few partners, Greenberg owns the local sports teams the Ottawa Redblacks, and Ottawa 67’s.  

Campaign to create tomorrow logoIn 2019, the Greenberg family gave a record $25 million donation to the ambitious $500-million fundraising “Campaign to Create Tomorrow” organized by the Ottawa Hospital, with funds supporting the construction of the new technologically advanced hospital beside Dow’s Lake. The Greenberg influence on Ottawa is vast, with streets and building wings being named after them — you can spot the Lorry Greenberg Drive in Greenboro, in honour of the politician’s contributions, catch a play at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre, notice the Minto trades centre at La Cite campus, and visit the Minto Recreation Complex in Orleans. As far as corporate goes, the Minto Group has numerous philanthropy initiatives internally too, with education programs for employees and a commitment to environmental sustainability.  

This year, we are proud to recognize Roger Greenberg as an accomplished business leader with a profound commitment to supporting our city’s local communities. For his achievements and contributions, we are awarding Greenberg with the Dean’s Philos Award from the Telfer School of Management, which recognizes people who have demonstrated exceptional philanthropic achievement and social commitment to their community.  

Why The Ottawa Hospital is Close to Roger Greenberg’s Heart 

Thee Ottawa Hospital sign in front of the buildingThe Ottawa Hospital is one of the most important organizations the Greenberg family supports. A philanthropic project by Roger’s cousin Dan Greenberg established the Queensway Carleton Hospital’s Irving Greenberg Family Cancer Centre. In 2019, the Greenbergs cemented their Ottawa legacy with the single-largest healthcare donation in Ottawa’s history, a record-breaking $25 million for the new Ottawa Hospital Civic campus.  

In a podcast interview, Greenberg explains why: “All of us in my family were born at the Civic, two of my three children were born at the Civic Hospital. Many, many, many family members and friends, colleagues have been treated at the Civic.” 

And even though Greenberg spent 20 years working and living in Toronto, Ottawa will always be his home, and that means honouring where his family got their start in Canada. The family aspect is absolutely vital to Greenberg. “All giving is not only me, it’s my family and shareholders,” says Roger in an interview with Telfer, “It started with my father and uncle, the founders of our company, giving in Minto’s name. And this gift is from the shareholders at Minto.”  

From a young age, Greenberg’s father and uncle passed on the fundamental principle of community giving to their children. In particular, giving back to the communities you earned your income in. That’s why Minto plays a big role in Ottawa to this day — this was the only city the real estate corporation operated in for its first 30 years. As the family is now spread out through North America, they continue giving in more geographical areas too, but the bulk is always focused on Ottawa.  

“As a real estate company, we need to give back to our communities so they are strong, healthy, and growing,” adds Greenberg. And it’s not an abstract concept — for the Greenbergs, a healthy, successful growing community is rooted in four pillars of health, education, sports, and culture. These tenets are the commonality of the giving over the years, from supporting the University of Ottawa, Carleton University and Algonquin College, to investing in hospitals like the Queensway Carleton and Montfort, supporting the disabled community, investing in sports with OSEG to promote the athletic spirit of the city, and supporting art causes through donating to organizations such as the National Arts Centre (NAC).  

The Greenberg Family’s 100-year-old Ottawa History 

As many of us living and working on the unceded Anishinaabe land we now call Ottawa, the Greenbergs were immigrants to Canada. Following the rise of antisemitism in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century, many Jewish people left their homes behind to avoid persecution. One of them was Roger Greenberg Sr., who arrived in Montreal in 1913 from a small village close to Moscow and changed his last name from the original Nepomiazchy. His soon-to-be wife, Rose Bezumny, arrived in Canada in the same year, presumably from Ukraine. The couple was married in Montreal in 1915, soon moving to Ottawa.  

Starting out from scratch in a new country was difficult and the young family was poor. Their first venture, a small convenience store, was threatened by the arrival of Loblaws supermarkets. Their second venture was more successful. Greenberg Sr. and his two sons Gilbert and Louis founded a business collecting scrap metal, old machinery, and cow hides, transforming them into new clean products and turning a small profit. Soon, the family’s children Irving and Grace became involved too. The company evolved and changed. Named “Sterilized Wiper, Towel Supply, and Industrial Bag Co.,” the business helped save Winnipeg from a flood in 1950 by supplying three million sandbags to the city. But the family’s matriarch Rose didn’t like the nature of the business.  

“My grandmother didn’t particularly care for “Sterilized Wiper,” adds Greenberg, “So my uncle Irving started the home building business, and when the family could see this was making money, my father joined him in the business full-time and built from there.” In 1955, Roger Sr. and Irving bought 6 building lots, built houses on them and sold them for a nice profit. The newly formed company, Mercury Homes, started construction in 1955, but was renamed to Minto in 1957 by the four brothers Louis, Gilbert, Irving, and Lorry. In its first year of business, the company sold almost $400,000 worth of homes and made a profit of over $60,000. In the 1960s, Minto built Canada’s first high-rise condo tower in Ottawa. Since then, the Minto Group has built more than 100,000 homes in North America.  

The entrepreneurial spirit of the Greenberg family is innate, closely intertwining with philanthropy, which isn’t random — the blend draws its roots from the family’s heritage. While the family has always been balanced about supporting the Jewish community in Ottawa on par with the general community, the Greenbergs approach giving back from a core value of Judaism, called tikkun olam. Literally, it means “repairing the world.” The principle encourages leaving the world a better place than you found it. This applies to the Minto Group too.  

Roger Greenberg on The Minto’s Group Extraordinary Success 

Roger Greenberg “We have core values we follow but it’s one thing to have principles and another to live by them,” says Greenberg, “We live our core values.” When Greenberg handed the CEO torch to the first non-family CEO Michael Waters in 2013, he was confident in the decision because the two leaders share the same values of treating people fairly. “We look at how we want others to look at us. Treating people well is everything, it makes a huge difference if people want to work for you. Values-wise, those who crow the most tend to be the biggest offenders in reality,” says Greenberg, remembering how he read a beautifully written Mission and Values statement and then saw it was from Enron Corporation, perhaps the worst example of corporate governance in North American business.  

Treating people well is a given for the entrepreneur, who has three more fundamentals for being successful in business: work hard, be smart, and have luck. “If I can ask the big man upstairs for anything, I’d ask for more luck,” says Greenberg, chuckling. “Luck played a tremendous role in my career for sure. Hard work creates luck, but it’s something no business strategy would tell you.”  

In just one example of a lucky business decision, Greenberg cites the creation of the Minto real estate investment trust (REIT), a public portion of the business. “Because public markets do not like mixed-use real estate REIT, we de-emphasized some aspects of our portfolio and sold off a bulk of our office assets between 2017 and 2019,” recalls Greenberg, “We look like genuineness now, with office markets in a significant decline, but obviously we had no idea there would be a pandemic. Sometimes, you make decisions and in hindsight, they work out much better than expected.”  

Greenberg’s Advice to Business Students in the Ottawa Community  

Perhaps making smart business decisions is easier when you are truly invested in what you are doing. “Find out where your passion is,” invites Greenberg, “Then you don’t feel like you are working and you can put in incredible hours; you can be really committed.”  

That’s just the first part of his advice to Telfer students. The second is to stay focused and not get lost in a sea of opportunities. The third is to zero in on implementation and execution. “It’s great to have a good plan but pay attention to the details and watch it very carefully, don’t jump on fads. Instead, think long-term. If you have a good core business, chances are you will be successful,” adds Greenberg.  

This isn’t the first time Greenberg has been involved with Telfer — a supporter of family business education, Greenberg has been a guest lecturer several times over the years in the class ‘Advising Family Business’. One of four university-level classes offered in collaboration with the Family Enterprise Legacy Institute, Greenberg has shared insights with BCom and MBA students about growing up in a family business, his succession journey, and his experiences at The Minto Group. Being involved with uOttawa is part of Greenberg’s love for our city. 

“I was born and raised in Ottawa,” explains Greenberg, “I went to school and worked in Toronto for 20 years, my wife’s family is there, my two younger siblings, daughter and son-in-law, my first grandchild all live in Toronto. I have a lot of affection for the City of Toronto but I love Ottawa! It offers everything for raising a family, there are great outdoor activities and sports, and it’s a wonderful city.” Greenberg has been traveling back and forth between Ottawa and Toronto since he was 17 years old, and while Toronto to him is a city of business opportunity, the family focuses their giving on Ottawa, contrary to other head offices in Toronto. 

The Excitement of Real Estate at the Minto Group 

It was actually in Toronto that Greenberg started working at the Minto Group in the 1980s. At the time, he was practicing law after graduating from law school, and working in the real estate practice of the firm Blaney McMurtry LLP. In 1985, Greenberg’s uncle Irving came to Toronto and said: “It’s time to open up a Minto office in the city. I want you to leave your law practice and open the office.” Greenberg agreed and asked when his uncle was thinking of expanding to Toronto. Discussing this in May, Irving wanted to start on September 1st, only a few months later. Roger asked: “When should I tell my firm that I’m quitting?” His uncle replied: “Well, what about this afternoon?” 

In the back of his mind, Roger always knew the day would come to join the family business. “When I woke up that morning, I didn’t think that’d be the day my legal career would wrap up and my Minto one would start!” adds Roger.  

Today, almost 40 years later, Greenberg is proud and excited to continue his work at Minto. “Real estate is about creating things, there’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment. But you have to be extraordinarily patient with processes that take place,“ adds Greenberg. He is also thrilled to continue his involvement with OSEG and Lansdowne: “Lansdowne is all about giving back to the community, it’s a gift to the city, to revitalize an important part of the city.”  

Greenberg is proud to receive the Dean’s Philos Award from Telfer, adding it to his long list of accolades, including the 2013 Order of Canada.  

We can’t wait to see how much more Ottawa will grow together with the Greenberg family in the next decades.

About the Author

Jeune diplômée du programme de baccalauréat en sciences commerciales spécialisé à l’École de gestion Telfer, Sonya Gankina a déjà amorcé sa carrière en tant que consultante et rédactrice en marketing numérique. Ses trois années d’expérience en agence cumulées pendant ses études l’ont aidée à fonder sa propre entreprise, où elle travaille avec de petites boîtes de la région comme de vastes sociétés au Canada et aux États-Unis. On peut la lire dans plusieurs publications de renom, et dans un blogue sur les arts et la culture à Ottawa. <br><br>Sonya Gankina is a recent graduate from the Honours Bachelor of Commerce program at the Telfer School of Management and has already begun her career as a consultant and writer in digital marketing. Armed with three years of agency experience earned while completing her studies, she has established her own business working with local businesses and large enterprises in Canada and the United States. She’s been featured in numerous respectable publications and also writes for an arts and culture blog in Ottawa.

Profile Photo of Sonya Gankina