BY NORM SACUTA
H E B O A R D R O O M A T T R I P L E F I V E ’ S C A N A D I A N o f fi c e s h a s w i n d o w s t h a t l o o k o u t o v e r t h e n o r t h p a r k i n g l o t o f W e s t E d m o n t o n M a l l . I ’ m w a i t i n g t o t a l k t o D o n G h e r m e z i a n , t h e c u r r e n t m a l l p r e s i d e n t a n d s e c o n d s o n o f E s k a n d a r , t h e e l d - T est of the four famous brothers who have changed the retail face of Edmonton over the past 25 years. The door to the boardroom opens.
Don Ghermezian, 31, is certainly not his father – or rather, not the image of his father’s generation, all suits and hats splashed across newspapers. Trim and fit, he’s dressed entirely in black: a designer T-shirt, dress pants and shoes. “What can I do for you?” he asks.
“Well, I want to know about your family. I know you’re very private. This city has always been rife with rumours about you all. I’ve got friends who insist the Ghermezians aren’t even living here anymore.”
“No,” he says, smiling. “We’re still very much here. We’ve never left. I’m just building a new house which should be ready in a month.”
The basic history of the Ghermezians is easily gleaned from magazines. Orthodox Jews from Tehran, they
moved first to New York and then in the 1950s in stages to Montreal, where the four boys – Eskander, Nader, Rap- hael and Bahman – went to college and made a fortune selling Persian rugs. The family came to Edmonton in 1971 and settled into the city’s oldest neighbourhood to begin managing and developing the land holdings they had purchased throughout the 1960s. Don says the Gh- ermezians didn’t experience oppression in Iran. “It was entirely a business decision to go. There were just more opportunities elsewhere.”
WEM was preceded by other smaller properties in Ed- monton, including a hotel and downtown’s ambitious
ALBERTA VENTURE | THE CENTURY
“We’ve more or less purchased an entire crescent. And yes, the houses are connected.”
Eaton’s Centre. At one time, Eaton’s Centre was set to rival WEM, with planned twin 50-storey residential tow- ers. Those blueprints were shelved during the oil bust and neither of these early developments are in Ghermezian hands. “At present, the largest property we hold in Ed- monton is the mall,” says Don. “We’ve divested ourselves of many smaller properties.”
As the real estate market remained soft into the early 1990s, the Ghermezians re-mortgaged the mall through Alberta Treasury Branches to the tune of $350 million and a secured $60-million credit line. The financial deal became one of two controversies that dominated head- lines surrounding the family, the other was a protracted battle to regain control of their other colossal venture, the Mall of America in Minnesota.
But the Ghermezians are nothing if not resilient. Amid claims of bribery and alleged political interference to secure the ATB loan, a confidential out-of-court settle- ment was reached with the bank in 2002 and the family retained control of WEM. Anticipated expansions in the next decade include an 8,000-seat arena, a third hotel, 300,000 square feet of retail and an apartment complex. Mall of America also came back into Ghermezian hands with a court victory in 2004. Billion-dollar expansion plans will double its size, making it nearly three million square feet larger than WEM and the single largest real estate complex in the world.
If there’s a specific gift the Ghermezians have, it’s for anticipating the value of real estate and potential markets well ahead of their actual emergence. They did it in the 1960s, speculating with vigour on the emerging Alberta oil boom, and they’re doing it again now in the fastest growing market in the U.S. – Las Vegas. The “Great Mall of Las Vegas” is already in development in the city’s sub-