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Jul 04, 2019

Lessons Earned: The perfect time to make something happen is when they say it can’t be done

After a devastating fire that decimates a project, many developers would reconsider rebuilding in the same area. But not Charan Sethi. He has made it his life’s mission to redevelop Whalley, and he has learned some valuable lessons along the way.

Passion projects and successful businesses are rarely one in the same. There are a lucky few who have been able to action forward their dreams while also making a business succeed. Charan Sethi is one of them.

“It’s been a lifelong goal to redevelop Whalley,” says Charan, referring to the Surrey, BC neighbourhood. “So many people told me ‘Whalley is such a bad area’ and that just made me want it more. Don’t tell me it can’t be done; I will do it. Not to show them, but because I want to do it.”

Charan’s Tien Sher Group of Companies has made a significant contribution toward this goal since beginning their work on the Whalley community in the early 2000s. After buying the first tract of land in 2005, Charan has built over 700 condominiums across five buildings. What makes this condo project unique is Tien Sher Group’s dedication to ensuring that every unit is sold at a price point attainable to the average income earner.

“We could probably make larger profits working somewhere else, but it’s not just about money,” says Charan. He points out that having the ability to take this older neighbourhood that has a challenging reputation and turn it into something special is where his ambition is rooted. “The potential is so great. There’s so much happening [in Whalley]. And we can still make it very affordable.”

Building with a purpose

This achievement was not without sacrifice. Before launching Tien Sher Group in 2005, Charan worked as a realtor for 22 years, assembling parcels of land to sell to developers so they could build their dreams.

“It got to a point where I was doing too much work and there wasn’t enough reward for me and too many loose ends,” says Charan. “At that point, we decided that we should get a development business ourselves. So, my younger son started building houses while I was still selling to establish the business. There were better opportunities for us, and we could work for ourselves by that point.”

The phrase “Tien Sher” translates to “three lions” from Punjabi and represents Charan and his two sons. Building on this, every project that Tien Sher Group takes on serves the larger goal of turning Whalley into a community that competes with Vancouver’s trendy Yaletown neighbourhood within a decade. With three more residential towers and commercial space planned, this dream is well on its way to realization.

A fiery setback

But working in vulnerable communities is not without risk. In 2008, one of Charan’s buildings was hit by arson. The entire 116-unit complex was destroyed with only a single four-storey concrete wall remaining in the fiery wreckage. However, this did nothing but solidify Charan’s resolve to provide beautiful and affordable condos for the residents of Whalley.
“I always take a look at when things go wrong as a big challenge; looking for answers and not as a failure,” Charan reflects.
“Bad things will happen; life is like that. But the idea is to move on and work around it. Make it happen!”

The support from the community and the City of Surrey itself was a huge boost as well. The Mayor, city council and Canadian Western Bank all supported Tien Sher Group with full confidence to move the project forward in spite of the setback.

Community coming together

“The unification of everybody backing me and the project made me continue doing what I do in Whalley, and I’ll continue this work as long as I can,” says Charan. “There are two ways of looking at the arson: bad things happened, shut it down and cash out because it’s a bad area; or, get up and ask for help. And why would you let anyone knock you down? There was absolutely no shortage of help from everybody.”

Having a banking partner that supports your dreams and your business is a valuable asset to any entrepreneur. Charan and Puneet Agrawal, who is Senior AVP of Real Estate Lending in CWB’s Greater Vancouver Real Estate Group, have worked together to build his developer dream from blueprints to reality.

“Every time we’ve wanted to buy a property and every time we’ve looked at a project, we consult with CWB,” says Charan. “They understand my needs and my goals and ambitions are. They are very supportive and are a pleasure to deal with.”