Real estate development firm Kodem Developments Inc. has a hands-on team of expert property developers who pack a mighty punch on the development landscape of Montreal, Quebec and further afield. That is because, to its great advantage, this Canadian industry leader does things a little differently from most. “In terms of our business model, we’re always creating the factory, creating a new product in a new market. There’s no such thing as copy and paste for us,” says Founder and President Benjamin Sternthal.
Standing toe-to-toe with some of Canada’s largest competitors of its kind, Kodem specializes in top-tier project management of all types of real estate. The firm’s experience encompasses bringing to life everything from the headquarters of large institutions to hospitality, leisure, and resort projects alongside commercial, industrial, and residential builds. Its portfolio includes ski resorts, shopping centers, condominiums, apartment blocks, and a lot more. As the skillsets and knowledge base for each are highly specialized, the company sets itself apart by being able to complete them all.
Benjamin Sternthal started Kodem in 1998 after working for Intrawest, a public real estate firm that specialized in ski resorts across Canada, the USA and Europe. “Since 1998–1999, we’ve completed around two-hundred projects [totalling around] 8.5 million square feet of building. That’s probably about 105,000 cups of coffee and easily 400,000 phone calls,” he says. With his master’s degree in Architecture that focused on quality development and a bachelor’s degree in Geography majoring in urban systems and environmental studies, all from McGill University, he sees the world very differently from most in his field, and refreshingly so.
“I find that this background is one of the best you can have in real estate development, because it’s all about creating a product,” Sternthal says, adding that it is easy to make a successful product when one understands what ‘best’ means in every aspect of the process.
“I read Peter Pan to my kids all the time. [He] said that the moment you doubt whether you can fly you cease to be able to do it. That is so true. The day you start doubting yourself is when nothing positive happens in business,” he says.
Andre Miller, Vice President of Development, graduated as an architect from McGill University in 1997. After working for one of the province’s largest general contractors, where he gained a vast knowledge of construction across a spectrum of fields, Miller joined Kodem in 2005. “What we do here is guide and lead development projects from the beginning to end. Often clients come to us in need of a bigger building. We guide them throughout the process. Those smiles are priceless,” he says.
Miller describes a recent and complex project in which the Kodem team removed columns from a school gymnasium for it to function better. “Our clients’ success is our success. What we design and build needs to be durable. The decisions you make now are decisions you will live with for the lifespan of the building,” he says, noting that clients frequently thank the company for guiding them to do what is best in the long run.
Sternthal is also a big proponent of Sir Edmund Hillary’s quote: “It’s not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves,” pointing out that our role as humans revolves heavily around motivating others to reach their full potential. As a result, continuously exploring the highest possibilities of both business and life has become a large motivating factor for him. Of course, with such exploration comes the willingness to adjust to change and bring the non-existent into reality. Sternthal points out that ‘yes’ is a very important word when it comes to recreating oneself and a business.
“As a kid, I believed in magic. As a real estate developer, I believe in logic to create magic. We’re balancing logic and magic in perfect synergy. These are the ingredients we use every day to create amazing, award-winning projects. Real estate development is influential in every sector of business, and has the potential to spearhead significant change in society as a result,” he says. This belief has led to developing a company talent for creating places that naturally blend into their urban surroundings and where people can flourish and live lives filled with happy memories.
He has seen more than his fair share of human suffering throughout the world, so the incredible opportunities that Montreal offers are clear. “I’m a sailor and spend a lot of time looking up to the sky. I love rainbows and hate storm clouds. Montreal reminds me of a rainbow. A city composed of many cultures and people. Its base of blue is home to the French-Canadian culture which needs to be celebrated, surrounded by all these other colors combined forming this beautiful rainbow. Take one color out and the rainbow morphs into a storm cloud,” says Sternthal.
This commitment to Montreal’s people has won the company many of the city’s largest projects. “We’re like David against all these giants. We’re entrepreneurial; we’re sharp, and we’re good at what we do. We make all these projects happen,” he says, pointing out that there is no need for bureaucracy or size to be outstanding. “We don’t have to get bogged down in systems. We can just do what we love doing and be hands-on.”
There have been many proud moments over the years for Kodem. At present, it is working in downtown Montreal on Solstice, a near-$200 million condominium development comprised of forty-four storeys. On budget and on time, this beautiful building is set to be another prize achievement soon. Kodem also created the headquarters for Canada’s largest labour union: Confédération des Syndicate Nationaux (CSN). The building is LEED Silver certified and cost around $65 million. He says that building it was an “incredible experience. We delivered it, I believe, around $5 million under budget for them. We ran it hands-on, [negotiating] every contract as if it was our own money,” says Sternthal.
The company also built Herzliah High School, Montreal’s most modern to date, a school that is believed to be technologically unparalleled in the country. “When we run a school project, we’re responsible for the destiny of a school. They don’t necessarily know what they getting into. It’s a higher level of ownership,” Sternthal says.
Another leader in Canadian education, Collège Charles-Lemoyne in Quebec, is the proud owner of several campuses worth around $50 million that have been developed by Kodem over about fifteen years.
MYST, a $75 million, 140-unit condominium development by the Melki Group on Montreal’s Lachine canal is a stylish signature glass construction with beautiful views and even better amenities. The Kodem team led the development management of the project, leading the design and construction process with the Melki Group. “The iconic part of the Myst project was the sky bridge connecting two towers with an infinity pool on the sky bridge. Go build a bridge connecting two buildings in a climate where it’s -40°C and +40°C. The thermal expansion of the materials is crazy,” Sternthal says.
One of its current projects that is, as yet, under wraps, is a 400-unit twin tower, with extensive gardens and amenities. There is also another school project and a four-season destination resort. The end-users’ ultimate experience of spaces is always at the forefront of how it goes about breathing life into cityscapes. Therefore, it does a thorough pre-development analysis to ensure that cost, investment, and outcomes are balanced.
“Our mission is to transform urban landscapes one project at a time. We design for the market, the client, the end-user, and we quickly establish financial plans. We’re very detailed on our schedules,” Sternthal says.
Sternthal and his wife have also volunteered their services and knowledge in Ethiopia, turning the Shumargie school in the north of the country from an open-air, corrugated iron shack into a two-room, standalone reinforced concrete building that is safe and comfortable for children to learn in.
One of his favourite quotes from Ethiopia’s Museum of Ethnography states that ‘Children must play because playing fosters dreams and dreams build nations.’ Here, many bright ideas are born inside one of the company’s sandbox sessions. While he points out that creative people are “hard to keep on track during meetings,” Sternthal insists that his sandbox sessions keep his imagination alive, and that harnessing the creative energy of his expert team makes them unbeatable.
“I’m fifty-one years old. But I feel like I’m about four years old. [At] six and nine [my children] keep me in that age group. As a four-year-old, I played with my Tonka trucks and built sandcastles. [This] hasn’t changed. Except, today, the trucks are full-size, and I build with reinforced concrete instead of sand,” he says.
Despite the considerably scaled-up toys, Sternthal continues the sandbox tradition. “I find that is where my best ideas are born. That’s the energy behind what you see on our website,” he says.
To achieve this, hiring only the best people is a priority. “We hire the best professionals we can find, and we never save money on our brainpower,” he says, adding that savings are a result of “an incredible team.”
Kodem’s charitable contributions are not simply an annual affair; instead, this forms part of its fibre. When it comes to doing good, the company streams its giving and support into three main areas: education, health, and clean drinking water. Sternthal believes that business leaders must share their skillsets to improve the world, and for him, that does not mean confusing politics with helping communities. Having roughed it through over two hundred countries with a backpack and a great sense of humour, he is experienced in humanitarian work.
It includes personally attending and facilitating a heart-wrenching official rescue mission that saw about three hundred Ethiopian nationals airlifted away from religious conflict in their country. They were repatriated to Israeli absorption camps during the Lebanon war under tremendously difficult and dangerous circumstances to be reunited with their families.
As a result of having lived this richly textured life, Sternthal describes himself as an imagineer and social entrepreneur rather than a capitalist because, for him, profit means more than living a certain lifestyle. It means being capable of giving the world real change, much faster and more effectively than traditional aid organizations typically channel resources.
Sternthal and his wife Julie Schneiderman started Kulam, a grassroots charitable initiative that, so far, has built two schools and numerous wells in Ethiopia, and is providing anonymous financial aid to learners without means. In addition, the Kodem Academy project offers new graduates the opportunity to shadow Sternthal for six months. The company has also done a lot of fundraising in the process, recently helping a tour operator in the same country who nearly lost his Land Cruiser in a violent attack in the current civil war.
Then there is the rebuilding of Share the Warmth, a local organization for people in need that approached Andre Miller for assistance. For the three years it took to complete the truly inspiring, $2-million project, Kodem donated its services and invited all its consultants to donate theirs to this incredible cause.
But the company also takes good care of its own. During COVID-19, everything in the company automatically switched over to virtual meetings and sales sessions, thanks to upgrades done shortly before the crisis hit. Now, next-generation disease prevention technology like specialized air filters are fitted throughout its facility. Its latest designs include touchless technology, barrier-free design, private outdoor spaces, and even COVID-19 and bio-aerosol-eliminating ultraviolet filtration in all its ventilation systems. Hydrogen cell technology also zaps all disease-causing molecules. These are just a few of the measures custom-developed for the company and tested in Sternthal’s home alongside all the other technology the company uses in its developments. The company also donated technology and intellectual property regarding healthy air ventilation systems to schools that it was working on at the time.
Kodem’s integrity leads the way, and nobody goes under on its projects. “You have to keep grounded,” Sternthal says. “If you lose this, you get fooled [by] your own publicity and success. You stop looking at stuff properly. And [that] is easy to do. It is a human problem.” Looking toward the bright future that Montreal holds, Sternthal assures me of bigger things to come. I do not doubt that he is right.