The deeply etched lines on Nelson Skalbania’s rugged, careworn features befit a man who has made and lost millions. But the 51-year-old Skalbania, who jogs an average of 50 km a week and regularly sports blue jeans and running shoes on the job, still projects a restless, energetic presence. Freed from the crushing financial crisis that he suffered in 1982, he is on the move again, cashing in on Vancouver’s red-hot real estate market. Since the beginning of the year, he has earned millions on prime Vancouver real estate and he says that he plans to close deals totalling at least $200 million in April. Reluctantly interviewed last week in his modest offices above a restaurant on Vancouver’s Burrard Street, Skalbania played down the shadow still cast by the spectacular $40-million crash of his empire. Said Skalbania: “Why ask me about the past? This is an upbeat time. All days are great. Some days are better. I lost a few dollars in 1981 and 1982.” The statement is vintage Skalbania. Frequently offhand about his own million-dollar deals, the man who snared Wayne Gretzky for $1.75 million when the hockey superstar was
only 17 is back in the spotlight after riding a financial roller coaster of debt and shaky deals since the early 1980s. Late last year, he and a group of partners, including the reclusive Samuel Belzberg of First City Financial Corp. Ltd., bought a portfolio of prime Vancouver-area properties for $28 million. To acquire the seven apartment buildings and one office building, Skalbania had to outmanoeuvre strong competing bids from Asian and other Canadian investors. Within a few weeks, he had broken up the package and resold the properties to eight separate buyers. His profit is rumored to be in the millions, but his daughter Rozanda, 29, who works as his executive assistant, would only acknowledge that it was “large.”
The deal was all the more remarkable be-
cause Skalbania spent five years trying to repay about $10 million to 30 creditors left high and dry by his financial crash. The plan was an alternative to formal bankruptcy and was approved by his creditors. Still, most received nothing and now Skalbania has no further legal obligation to repay the debt. Skalbania dismissed the unpaid amount as “restructuring of debt, just like Dome [Petroleum], Brazil or the Canadian government, for God’s sake. Why is everyone interested in my Mickey Mouse dollars?” Gordon Robson, the Vancouver financial consultant who engineered the plan, said that most creditors are pleased to see that Skalbania is back in business.
Skalbania has said that his Greek-born wife, Eleni, is one of his biggest assets. A successful businesswoman who bought, renovated and now runs the fashionable Wedgewood Hotel in downtown Vancouver, Eleni SkalI bania, 47, appears to be a ' steadying influence on her husband’s flamboyant personality. But she is also caught in the aftermath of his old financial battles. The British Columbia Supreme Court has ordered her to pay $1.8 million to her husband’s creditors, a result of selling the Georgia Hotel, which they once co-owned. The decision has been appealed. Meanwhile, Skalbania brushes aside rumors of a rift. Said Skalbania: “We both live in the same home and sleep in the same bed.”
Despite the unevenness of Skalbania’s business career, colleagues and creditors alike say that he is a unique local success story in a city increasingly uneasy about the activities of Asian investors. Skalbania was bom in Wilkie, Sask., of Polish parents, and raised in East Vancouver. Skalbania himself applauds the participation of Asian investors, who are expected to pour more than $800 million into Vancouver real estate this year. They are willing to make long-term financial commitments without requiring high, short-term returns. Said Skalbania: “Some of these guys make me look like a piker.”
Skalbania says that he is determined to take advantage of rapidly escalating land values in Vancouver. Last week, workers were putting up the drywall for the new offices of Prime Realty Ltd., a real estate brokerage that Skalbania says he will operate out of his current Burrard Street location. And last month, he bid for two huge properties, the landmark 21storey headquarters of B.C. Hydro in downtown Vancouver and 1,400 acres of provincial Crown land in Coquitlam that has been zoned for the construction of 4,400 homes. Both bids remain outstanding.
Still, the highflyer who entertains himself by playing tennis with the Belzberg family and gruelling games of racquetball, sounded an uncharacteristic note of caution. “Vancouver
may be peaking right now—the warning signs are there.” Skalbania added that he will stop dealing in Vancouver real estate if the prime rate rises by another IV2 per cent to 15. The alternatives, he said, are real estate in American markets including Orlando, Fla., Atlanta and southern California.
Skalbania also said that he might purchase another sports franchise. Before his fall in 1982, he regularly seized public attention with the acquisition of such sports teams as the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. He says that his high profile is a result of buying and selling sports franchises. Declared Skalbania: “Really, who would care if I was buying and selling real estate if it wasn’t for the sports?”
But for now, he is concentrating on rebuilding his real estate empire. While Rozanda poured him a cup of coffee in his sparsely furnished office, Skalbania, a former structural engineer who also has a master’s degree in seismic engineering, speculated on the attractions of dealing in property. “Real estate is so simple,” he said. “The three keys to success are no money, no brains and no education. It’s all common sense and timing.” For Nelson Skalbania, the imperative now is to make money while prices are climbing and investors are buying—and to get out early if Vancouver’s current boom shows signs of becoming a bust.
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