The Secret Passion of Bob Rennie
Most people know him as a fixer and a condo marketer extraordinaire. But Bob Rennie's heart belongs to a warehouse full of art
April 2, 2008
The third-floor penthouse (five penthouses, in fact, combined into 4,600 square feet) that Bob Rennie has called home for the past 11 years sits on a grim patch of Burrard Slopes, overlooking the Molson Brewery parking lot. The man who sells—by the thousands of units each year—the bottled Vancouver dream of ocean breezes and mountain vistas has neither. From his 3,000-square-foot rooftop terrace, you can barely make out False Creek between bridge spans and low-rises. The North Shore mountains are a faded brushstroke in the background; the stale smell of hops wafts through the air.
This is the house he waited three years, and paid $2.1 million, to build? “You know, I think because I’m satisfied being in those other environments all the time, I wanted something that was a little bit anonymous,” says the impish 51-year-old realtor. “It’s almost like having your own Jeff Wall to look out to. Everyone said, ‘Oh, you should be out on Point Grey Road.’ But as you go through life, you try to pick the things not anybody can do.”
In a career that spans 33 years, Rennie has proven that not anybody can do what he does. Of the handful of condo marketers who prosper in this city, none has developed the brand recognition of the ubiquitous Rennie Marketing Systems.
Nobody—outside of industry geeks, and friends and family—knows who Jason Craik (MAC Marketing Solutions) is, or what George Wong (Platinum Project Marketing) looks like. Everybody knows Bob Rennie. “When I’m going up in an elevator with him and there’s six other people in that elevator, not one has a fucking clue who I am,” says Ian Gillespie, the developer of the Rennie-branded Woodward’s, Shangri-La, and Fairmont Pacific Rim projects, a twinge of disgust in his voice. “But you can see them all whispering and looking at each other and going, ‘That’s Bob Rennie.’ It’s like you’re in an elevator with Trevor Linden or something.”
Despite his ubiquity, his material success, and what one competitor calls his “shameless self-promotion,” Rennie has managed to create an aura of humbleness: rare is the media story that doesn’t mention his working-class East Side roots, his aw-shucks demeanour, or his Clintonesque charm (used to especially brilliant effect on reporters). This, while using the obligatory—and, for Rennie, irritating—descriptor “Condo King.” First used in the Province in 1994, it’s since made its way into almost 80 local and national newspaper articles that cite Rennie by name; his Midas touch can now be felt in Seattle, Toronto, and Dallas.
As Rennie’s successes mounted in the 1990s, he expanded his job description—from realtor to marketer to developer’s consultant to city builder. Where he once just sold what developers gave him, he now tells these developers what to build—redrawing floor plans, for instance, for the $28.3-million Ritz-Carlton penthouse. (“For that price, people want more room, not more rooms,” Rennie instructed designers MCM, “and a separate entrance for the nanny suite.”) He also coaches his clients—more comfortable in the black-and-white environs of bankers’ boardrooms and construction sites—on how to manage the nuanced realpolitik of Vancouver’s planning department.
Rennie’s political access, and his ability to influence policy, are without equal in the city. Larry Beasley, Vancouver’s former director of planning, met Rennie at a business-improvement breakfast over 15 years ago; the two became fast friends and have gone for walks around the city most Sundays since. When he’s in town, former mayor, now senator Larry Campbell regularly noshes with him. And before Carole Taylor made her decision not to run for mayor, she too had coffee with Rennie.
Only in a town obsessed with real estate could a condo salesman be seen as the most influential citizen. And it’s not just a matter of quietly offering counsel, or being called in as the local market expert by media from The Bill Good Show to the New York Times. It’s his ability to effect change. When the Woodward’s project ran into a funding bump, it was Rennie who made the call to Rich Coleman, B.C.’s minister of housing, asking for “a resolve.” When the design for the Olympic Village at Southeast False Creek got panned, it was Rennie who had the New York architect, Robert Stern, fired and replaced by Arthur Erickson, a friend. Beasley calls Rennie a societal broker. “In Vancouver, this merging of the public and private sector to do things is so much more advanced than in many cities. And he’s one of the most important players.”
With great success comes great wealth, which carries its own clout. Rennie Marketing Systems—which last year generated over $1.5 billion in sales, in Canada and the U.S.—is one of the city’s biggest advertisers, buying more than 200 pages of ads annually in the Vancouver Sun alone, at $35,000 a page (as well as many pages each year in magazines like this one). Rennie also regularly buys full-page ads for political candidates and issues he supports—including a whopping 16 in both the Sun and Province for the yes side in the 2003 Olympics referendum.
In direct political contributions, he gave Vision Vancouver $75,000 for the 2005 civic election and the NPA $10,000. He’s also a major benefactor for various charities, schools, and arts institutions throughout town. No wonder that, in this magazine’s annual Power 50 rankings, a condo marketer is neck and neck with the most influential business leaders and politicians in the city.
Rennie heads down from his rooftop terrace, past the glowing black-neon Glenn Ligon installation that reads “America” above the master bed. (He recently bought a second Ligon, with the text “Negro Sunshine.”) Down the steel-and-glass staircase, to the landing. Painted in black on the facing white wall is Detumescence, a three-by-four-metre text-based work by Dan Graham—detailing, in graphic terms, the physiological and emotional response to losing an erection (“…continued shrinkage takes place…Sensations of orgasm or desire are extinguished; emotions recede; and ego is again bounded…”).
About 60 people are gathered on the main floor, munching canapés and sipping wine served by liveried waiters. There are no developers or marketers here, no city planners, no politicians. Instead, the Vancouver arts cognoscenti are crammed between cutting-edge works by Robert Beck and Glenn Brown, and an imposing installation of stacked wood palettes by Brian Jungen: icons such as Ian Wallace and Rodney Graham, gallery directors such as Catriona Jeffries and Christina Ritchie, and a retinue of up-and-coming artists. They’ve gathered to celebrate the opening of an exhibit at Ritchie’s Contemporary Art Gallery by Swedish artist Henrik Håkansson, also in attendance.
The Håkansson installation consists of 10 35mm projectors, each showing the filmed slow-motion flight patterns of a bunch of wasps. It was purchased, sight unseen, in 2003 from an Italian dealer, and is one of an estimated 1,000 works that compose the Rennie Collection Canada—said to be the country’s third-largest private art collection. The man who changed the way Vancouverites live—who made new urbanism “socially acceptable,” as Larry Beasley says—is now changing the way the art world looks at Vancouver. This side of his life he conducts quietly. No spotlight shines on his collection; there’s no lineup snaking around the block for a sneak preview; and nobody—owner included—knows what it will look like when it’s done.
Rennie’s interests in art and in real estate both go back to his teenage years. In the 820-square-foot, two-bedroom bungalow at Fifth and Nanaimo where he and his older sister Patti grew up, “We had some Robert Wood paintings from Simpson’s or Sears,” he recalls, “but that was about it.” His mother, Margaret, was a homemaker until he was 10, then waitressed at nearby Mario’s and the Eldorado Motor Hotel (which Rennie client Simon Lim is now redeveloping) to help make ends meet. “We all lived off quarters,” he says. “Her tips.”
Bob Sr., who was called Robo, drove a truck for Carling Brewery until 1989; in his 49th year with the company, he retired. From his False Creek condo, Rennie now looks down on the Molson trucks as they enter and exit the brewery loading dock. (“I always tell people that they may not like the smell of hops,” he says, “but it reminds me of my dad.”) Robo worked for Carling from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and then three or four nights a week he’d work for the Canucks or Lions, or at the PNE, running the press box. Still the family struggled. “We were always living just a little beyond our means.”
Which is not to say the family was poor, exactly. “I had a mother who liked to spend,” says Rennie with a laugh. At 12, Rennie was taking trips downtown to help pick out pieces for a new kitchen; he insisted it had to be a Poggenpohl kitchen with Sub-Zero fridge. (“We were, I believe, the only people in East Van with a Poggenpohl kitchen.”) Accompanying him on his shopping expeditions to Poggenpohl or New Look Interiors (right behind Woodward’s) was his childhood friend, and future wife, Mieko Izumi.
Around the same time, Rennie started to take control of household finances, making sure the bills got paid. With his parents fighting constantly, Rennie was thrust into the role he would come to perfect: that of the conciliator, the broker. “When my parents argued, I was a big part of picking up the pieces,” he says. “My thing is always getting the other party to mend fences: if you’ve got one of them onside, go get the other one to swallow their pride a bit.” He adds: “I think there was a bit of ‘Let’s keep Bobby happy,’ too. Whoever spends the most time communicating gets seen as the favourite.”
Rennie began to entertain notions of entering real estate after his mother “phoned this guy from Block Brothers to come and appraise the house—probably because she was going to leave my father. I watched what he did: he came in, my mother made him coffee, and he walks around the house. He tells her what other houses are selling for, tells her the value of hers—how he’s now her ‘partner,’ taking all this money to sell it. That sat with me.” He was 17.
After that, the Rennie bio is well documented: bored at Vancouver Tech, he quit Grade 12 three months before graduation, sent away for his real-estate licence, and—after a brief sojourn in California—started selling East Side homes at the age of 19. (He received his Grade 12 in 2006.) His path to success was “domino sales:” buying 60-foot lots, selling them to a developer who’d build two 30-foot-lot homes that Rennie would also sell—and then helping those buyers sell their own homes. To increase efficiency, he delivered offers at 11 p.m. (with the buyer in the car, in case there was a counter-offer), and placed Sold and For Sale signs on darkened lawns between midnight and 2 a.m. By his early twenties, he was a wealthy man; in his early thirties, working for United Realty and selling a home a day, he was Burnaby’s top realtor.
Like just about everyone else, Rennie had trouble escaping the early ’80s unscathed: as interest rates zoomed past 21 percent, Mieko and Bob (who’d married in 1977) were forced to sell their house on Glenn Abbey Drive to stay afloat. They rented between 1982 and 1987, during which time their three kids were born: Kris (25, who now works with his father), Katie (22, who’s studying to be a dietitian at UBC), and Steph (20, a film and communications major at USC in L.A.). Meanwhile, Rennie slowly rebuilt his finances and his business, striking out on his own with Rennie and Associates in 1988.
Just as sales were taking off again, Rennie’s world was shaken. In 1990, less than a month after retiring, his father died. Then his marriage started to unravel: by February of 1991, he had moved out of the 6,000-square-foot Government Street home he and Mieko had recently built. He eventually moved downtown, into the Waterfront Hotel. There he would remain—in a one-bedroom, 600-square-foot suite—for two years. He’s reluctant to talk openly about this time in his life, or his coming-out process (“I guess I’m working through my shit with the art”), but it was one low from which the professionally chipper Rennie almost didn’t bounce back: “I was so depressed for six months,” he says, “that I never left the hotel.” He removed the bar fridge and took down the hotel art, replacing it with his own. It was his first taste of small-space living.
Not long before, Rennie had been introduced to Dan Ulinder, a business professor at UBC. Ulinder was well connected in the development industry and wanted Rennie’s help in converting a condo near Burnaby Mountain. “I said, ‘I don’t sell condominiums. If it doesn’t have land under it, I don’t sell it.’ ” He’d never heard of this thing called “price per square foot.” But he agreed to talk to Ulinder, sharing what he knew about local house prices, and in 1992 they started working together. Two years later, the pair formed Ulinder Rennie Project Marketing to target the burgeoning downtown condo market.
Back then, condo living was a relatively risky proposition. B.C. had allowed strata-title ownership since 1966, but there was still a certain stigma attached; for a generation raised in the suburbs, moving downtown was, as Beasley puts it, a sign you “hadn’t quite made it.” In the early 1990s, when Beasley started proselytizing for the “Living First” doctrine (central to which was a massive rezoning of commercial space for residential development), condos were about 20 percent of new housing stock in Vancouver. By 2001, that figure was 35 percent; by 2011, it’s expected to have reached an astounding 75 percent.
While all the conditions were in place—available downtown land, an accommodating city plan, a flood of Hong Kong buyers—developers were still wary. The salve, as it turned out, lay in “presales,” an idea imported from Hong Kong by Terry Hui and David Li of Concord Pacific in the late 1980s. By selling from plans, rather than showing built suites, developers could mitigate risk, launching construction only when sales had reached a comfortable level (typically 60 or 70 percent of units). Ulinder Rennie, aggressively using lifestyle advertising, made small-space living seem sexy. Innovatively creating photo-ready lineups—having prospects queue outside a sales office rather than making appointments—they presented a picture of insatiable demand and a market gone wild.
Ulinder Rennie’s first attention-grabbing sellout came in November 1992, with 1188 Howe: 189 suites disappeared in about four hours, at what was then considered a “pricey” $265 a square foot. It was followed by the Residences on Georgia, in April 1996: 300 units sold in one Sunday, a North American record. In 1997, Rennie—now a rising media star—bought Ulinder out and, under the rebranded Rennie Marketing Systems, began an unrelenting assault on Vancouver’s skyline that now includes most of its tallest buildings: the Wall Centre (2001), Shaw Tower (2004), and soon-to-be-completed Shangri-La. “Everything this city has evolved into over the last 20 years,” says Larry Campbell, “has Larry Beasley and Bob Rennie written all over it.”
Not everybody thinks that’s a good thing—though few critics will go on the record to say so. Even competing developers, not known for being media-shy, cloak their gentle criticism in anonymity. “I like Bob a great deal,” says one. “And hats off to the guy: he makes more money than most of the developers he works for. But I’d prefer to invest my money into the building and build my own brand, not his.” Said another real-estate marketer: “The problem you are no doubt facing is that Bob is very powerful and all-pervasive, and in many respects created the market that we are all using to support ourselves.” Another put it this way: “It’s Bob’s world—we all just live in it.”
Rennie’s other world—the one he guards closely and cares most about—is centred for the moment on an unmarked South Vancouver depot. “When people tell me they collect art, I go in reverse,” he says. “I don’t tell them about all this.” Rennie—dressed in his workday uniform of tieless white shirt and navy Louis Vuitton suit (“I have 20 of them, in different colours”)—has reluctantly agreed to show me where he keeps the goods. It’s Friday afternoon, the day after the Rennie staff Christmas party, and 45 fir trees that adorned the Four Seasons ballroom last night now sit in the loading dock, tagged for employees to come pick up. Inside, cryptically labelled crates are piled five metres high, with wall brackets on either side teeming with more mysterious brown packages. It looks not unlike an IKEA warehouse.
While the Rennie Collection Canada is spread across the city—and indeed, around the world (with loans out to museums such as the Tate Modern in London, Pompidou in Paris, and Guggenheim in New York)—more than 80 percent of the art can be found in this climate-controlled space belonging to Carey Fouks, Rennie’s partner of 11 years. (They met when they both happened to be shopping at Leone.) Fouks, 42, ran a business here until five years ago; when that business folded, he retrofitted the space and bought a forklift, and now—along with director Wendy Chang and a handful of assistants, including young artists Andrew Dadson and Angus Ferguson—he helps to manage Rennie’s ever-expanding collection.
Rennie gingerly navigates the space. “This is for a film Rodney Graham did called Loudhailer,” he says, pointing to a Plexiglas display box that holds a bullhorn and RCMP officer’s uniform. Across the way, five sculptures of unfired clay, the work of Rebecca Warren. (“They just came back from the Tate.”) “And this is Mike Kelley’s work,” he says, gesturing toward a six-by-four-foot plaster statue of astronaut John Glenn, made of “found articles” from the Detroit River. “His social references are really, really watched,” says Rennie. “He’s the most written-about contemporary artist.”
Rennie started collecting when he was 17, buying a $375 Norman Rockwell print on a trip to San Francisco. (“It was a boy and girl sitting on top of the world.”) As he started to make money in real estate, he began collecting realists like Ken Danby—paying $1,000 per print—and then Alex Colville, and the Group of Seven. (“I bought A.J. Casson when he was $8,000.”) He didn’t really know what he was doing, and—anathema to Rennie—his collection was largely “without structure.” In 1993, he met L.A. art dealer Patrick Painter, who introduced him to photography and conceptual work, and convinced him to give up his store of “old Canadian masters.” With a new focus on collecting artists in depth, particularly works dealing with identity and “appropriation” (the borrowing of themes, styles, or images from older works), Rennie started to garner an international reputation as a serious collector.
His enormous profits from real estate (developers pay him up to $50,000 per unit to market their condos) are ploughed into not just his collection but also support for younger artists. Ron Burnett is president of the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, a major recipient of Rennie’s largesse. “There are not that many major people, financially, who are interested in art,” says Burnett. “You never hear about Jimmy Pattison giving money to art institutions. In Ontario, there’s a tremendous amount of support from the top people for the Ontario College of Art and Design; here, it’s very tough to get support. Bob has always been the odd man out.”
The downside of depending on big donors (Emily Carr, for example, gets only 60 percent of its funding from the government) is the risk of offending them. One writer received a blistering midnight email from Rennie after a critical article questioning his commitment to affordability. The writer’s employer, a Rennie-supported institution, also received the note. When asked about it, Rennie says: “There’s a part of our art collection that deals with this [these kinds of writers]: ‘Injustice.’ It’s not balanced: there’s a predetermined prejudice. And with a predetermined prejudice, you’re always going to get the results you want, because you control all the means. There’s no dialogue.”
That said, Rennie admits to being thin-skinned, and prone to sending unedited, undiplomatic emails tagged “With Prejudice” at all hours of the day and night. “Ian Gillespie cut me off email for a year, about two years ago,” he says. “I was sending him ‘Fuck you…harsh letter to follow’ messages.” Neither man will explain the origin of the conflict, though Rennie allows, “If somebody isn’t valuing you in a relationship, it gets emotional. In the end, I am a very well paid consultant. I have a lot of responsibility, but I don’t have all the authority. Responsibility without authority is tension.”
His art collection, on the other hand, gives him both, and thus total control. Jessica Morgan, curator of contemporary art at the Tate Modern, says Rennie appeared on her radar over five years ago when she was trying to put together a Brian Jungen exhibition; Rennie was one of Jungen’s earliest, and most significant, patrons. “Bob is one of the increasingly rare collectors who is not only driven by a real passion and affinity with the work that he collects, but who has himself—rather than via a consultant—developed a fairly rigorous and disciplined approach to collecting,” Morgan explains. Each acquisition, she says, makes sense of, or develops, the strand of art history or inquiry Rennie’s interested in. After visiting Vancouver last spring to see his collection, Morgan asked Rennie to join the Tate’s American Acquisitions Committee and help vet future Tate purchases.
Rennie sits on the board of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, and contributes financially to the Contemporary Art Gallery. He recently donated Brian Jungen’s untitled installation of 214 sewing machine tables (which, combined, form a half-size basketball court) to the Art Gallery of Ontario—a gift worth over half a million dollars. As for our flagship museum, the Vancouver Art Gallery, it gets nothing but disdain. “It’s awkward, doing what we do on the planet with contemporary art, but I have absolutely no respect for the director [Kathleen Bartels]. I would really like our city to have a major museum that actually makes an impact on the art world,” Rennie says, “rather than just regurgitating Georgia O’Keeffe and Monet to Dali. The goal in life is to create your own identity—but that might not be the goal of the VAG.”
Rennie sat on the VAG board for six months in 2002, quitting when he realized he couldn’t support what he calls Bartels’s “Lee Iacocca–ism.” Six years on, he refuses to loan works to the museum or go anywhere near the building. When SFU offered 20 works of Roy Arden’s to the VAG for a recent retrospective—works that Rennie had donated to the university—he had Wendy Chang call the museum and have his name taken off the placards. “It’s petty at one level,” he admits, “but if you’re going to draw a line in the sand, draw it really deep.” Rennie says there’s now a note in the VAG registrar’s office prohibiting staff from talking to or about him. (An unanswered request for an interview with Bartels appears to confirm the allegation.)
“I think we’ve outgrown this place,” says Rennie as we finish the tour, referring to the warehouse, but perhaps also to the city. Above a desk near the entrance, strewn with art catalogues and copies of Art Forum and Frieze, is a black-and-white print by Jenny Holzer. It reads: “It takes awhile before/you can step over inert/bodies and go ahead with/what you were trying to do.”
A few weeks later, on a warm Sunday afternoon in January, Rennie walks the 20 minutes from the Hotel Vancouver (where he’s left his gold Bentley Continental coupe) to the Wing Sang building on East Pender. Built in three stages (1889, 1901, 1912), the former home of an import/export business—directly across from the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden—is the oldest building in Chinatown. As of July, it will be home to both Rennie Marketing Systems and the Rennie Collection Canada. “Larry [Beasley] and I discovered this on one of our walks, back in 2004,” he says, opening the padlocked door. Within months, he’d purchased it for $1 million.
Inside, pigeons flutter around the hollowed-out space. Rennie plans to turn the front half of the building, some 6,000 square feet, into offices, with Rennie Marketing Systems on the top two floors and Rennie Resales—the fast-growing sales division led by his son, Kris—on the main floor. His “museum,” as he calls it, will take up the back 20,000 square feet but will be closed to the public. “For now, it’s just an extension of our living room.”
Rennie is torn about the purpose of his collection, and who should see it. He desperately wanted exhibition rooms where he could take visiting collectors and artists to show the work; with the paucity of local gallery space—and his entrenched standoff with the VAG—building his own museum seemed the logical, if expensive, choice. “The European donors to Harvard: they were recently in town, and they have a serious interest in contemporary art. So they’d come see the museum,” says Rennie. “Emily Carr students—perhaps. But it’s not here to kill 10 minutes of a bus tour over at Sun Yat-Sen.”
We ascend an intersecting series of gangplanks to the rearmost section of the Wing Sang: a six-storey structure that once contained 48 separate rooms (and, according to Rennie, housed an S&M operation). It’s being turned into a 40-foot-high gallery—one of five retrofitted spaces for exhibiting art (among them a glass-roofed slot gallery that will connect the two buildings). The first installation, to be unveiled in October, will be the 40-odd works Rennie owns by American artist Robert Beck. (“It was going to be Ian Wallace, but too many of our works are out on loan.”) “We’ll do one installation every four to six months,” says Rennie. “It will take 15 years to install the whole collection—if we don’t acquire.”
Just before the sun starts to set, we climb a ladder to the moss-covered roof of the Wing Sang. From here—where a sculpture garden is planned—we get an unobstructed view of Rennie’s shimmering down-town legacy, as well as the construction zone of Southeast False Creek. “My village!” he cries out as he spots the site of the Olympic Village development. Rennie—who buys into all the projects he markets—plans to move into the Fairmont Pacific Rim next year, keeping his False Creek condo for art. As for the new gallery downstairs: “If we wanted to donate it one day, it’s set up as a working museum. The right load occupancies for male and female washrooms, circulation, exiting—everything’s in place.
“If life goes sideways,” he adds, “I’ll have to sell these things. But this is why I work.”