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How Bosley weathered ups and downs of Toronto’s real estate business

Thomas Bosley’s family firm has survived nearly a century in the real estate market.

Bosley Real Estate's president, Tom Bosley at the Bosley Real Estate's Midtown Toronto office on January 29. 2016.

Torstar News Service

Bosley Real Estate's president, Tom Bosley at the Bosley Real Estate's Midtown Toronto office on January 29. 2016.

The artifacts of a nearly century-old family firm decorate Thomas Bosley’s real estate headquarters in Davisville Village. There’s a portrait of a venerable looking William H. Bosley, the company’s founder, framed pictures of the sons and grandson who followed in his footsteps, and the vintage shingle that announced the firm’s birth in 1928.

In a conference room, a wall is covered with certificates from a trade that for residents of cities with vertiginous property prices can become an unhealthy obsession. They honour the Bosley name across the decades as presidents of both the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB), which William helped found in 1920, and its national analog.

Tradition can be stifling. But there’s nothing of the stuffy scion in Thomas Bosley, the 68-year-old grandson of the company’s founder. He likes to keep things light, and his employees seem happy to oblige.

“Make sure you get a picture of his socks,” a receptionist shouts as Bosley poses for a Star photographer. Bosley immediately hikes up his pant legs and reveals black socks with big white polka dots and a splash of red up the heel. “I buy them for my management team,” he says, smiling.

Bosley has the relaxed satisfaction of a self-made man in the twilight of his career. Despite its deep roots, W.H. Bosley and Co. was drowning in debt when Thomas took it over in 1985. He turned it around by focusing almost exclusively on residential property sales, and by training real estate agents who last year made $1.3 billion worth of property transactions under his company’s banner.

“My business philosophy is have fun and make money,” says Bosley, president and broker of record of the rechristened Bosley Real Estate Ltd.

The golf clubs and balls in his office on Merton St. make that clear enough. He putts them down stairs, along hallways and eventually to the basement during the office “tournaments” he organizes. “We have prizes.”

Another habit is to rise from the desk that once belonged to his late father and look out the window. He sees across a driveway and into the main office space of a separate building, which is also part of his headquarters. By eyeing the agents at their desks, and the cars in the company parking lot, he gets a good idea of who is around making deals.

“One day, I looked out at the office there and my No. 1 sales agent mooned me,” he says. “How many companies can you do that to the president?”

Bosley expects the good times to keep rolling, and rising prices so far prove him right.

There were 101,299 homes sold in the GTA in 2015, a 9.2-per-cent increase compared to 2014, according to the Toronto Real Estate Board.

The GTA’s sales growth continued this year. In February, 7,621 homes were sold, 21.1 per cent more than in February 2015. The average selling price for all homes rose 14.9 per cent in the region year over year and hit $685,278. In Toronto, the average price of a detached home stands at $1,211,459. “Buying intentions are strong for this year as households continue to see home ownership as an affordable long-term investment,” said TREB president Mark McLean, who is also a manager at Bosley, in a February statement.

Affordable isn’t the word most buyers would use. There are recurring questions about the market’s stability, given growing household debt and the certainty that interest rates will one day increase. Tom Bosley dismisses the fears. Toronto has all the attractions of an international city, he says. Even people who once fled to the suburbs want back in.

He sees a lack of supply as a key source of climbing prices. Land for single-family Toronto homes is growing scarce. At the same time, fewer people can afford to move, for example, from semi-detached homes to detached ones. More people stay put, supply remains low, nerve-racking bidding wars break out and prices keep going up.

“I’ve got three people looking for semis in North Toronto,” says Bosley’s daughter, Christan, an agent with the firm, “and I can tell you there has not been a livable one on the market in the last four months that’s sold for less than $1.1 million. It’s crazy.”

Residential properties weren’t part of the business plan when Bosley’s grandfather opened his shop on Adelaide St. in 1928. The company managed commercial properties.

Homes became part of the portfolio in 1953, when William’s sons, Raymond and Murray, bought the company. Even then, much of the business involved buying out homeowners or landowners to assemble large tracts of land for clients with big plans. They assembled land for the building of Toronto City Hall, the downtown Bank of Nova Scotia and the Ford plant in Oakville.

Thomas Bosley, Raymond’s son, joined the business in 1968. He started as an appraiser of commercial properties. He hated the work. It was all facts and figures with little human interaction. He wasn’t crazy about his salary, either, just $5,000 a year.

In the mid-1970s, Bosley cut a deal with his father: he would give up his salary, move to the Yonge-Lawrence office, and live strictly off commissions he made on house sales. In his first month, he earned $12,000.

“That’s when I went, ‘Now I know what this is about,’” he says.

By 1983, the company had 300 salespeople in nine offices in the GTA. But branches outside Toronto were bleeding. Perhaps incredibly for a real estate company, it owned none of the buildings that housed its branches. And a bank loan without collateral was impossible.

Bosley went to his father and uncle with an ultimatum of sorts. He would buy the company by paying off its debt. If they refused, he would strike out on his own.

“My uncle, who basically ran the business, recognized that I was the general manager of the residential division and if I left everybody left with me,” Bosley says. “And so they got their act together and that’s how I ended up buying this.”

Today, Bosley Real Estate owns all but one of the buildings that house its seven branches — five in Toronto, one in Jordan (near St. Catharines) and another in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Some 250 real estate agents work as independent contractors, with no benefits, under the Bosley banner. They pay a sliding percentage of their property transactions to the company — the more they make, the less they pay. In return they get the backing of a full-service company, including receptionists, in-house mortgage brokers and an eight-week training course. Agents who do little business eventually get “a nudge out the door,” Christan says.

Last year, Bosley realtors were involved in the buying or selling of 1,500 properties.

“My retirement is guaranteed,” Bosley says.

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