In 1972, Fatima Dhanani, her husband Haider and their two-year-old daughter Saifa fled East Africa as part of the general nationalization program in Tanzania and expulsion of South Asians from Uganda.
They immigrated to Canada, settling in Calgary. After working for 16 years, Haider founded Bri-mor Property Management in 1988. Two years later, he died of a heart attack at age 51, leaving the fledgling company rudderless. At the time, Fatima was working as a secretary at what is now known as the Alberta University of the Arts.
Only 44 and parenting a 19-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son, she took the bold step of leading the ambitious company, despite having minimal commercial real estate experience. Immediately, she faced adversity as a woman of colour running a business in a male-dominated industry.
Bri-mor, short for bricks and mortar, lost four of its five property management contracts as clients doubted the former secretary’s ability to manage their properties effectively. Undeterred, she flew to Asia and met with investors who controlled Bri-mor’s last, but smallest, contract.
She convinced them to stay. Since then, her company has expanded to become Bri-mor Developments, a multi-faceted real estate organization that offers asset management, development and investment services across commercial and residential real estate. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, she decided to continue with the largest retail property development in the company’s history, at a time when retailers refused to pay their rents, no construction financing was available and investors were shunning shopping centres. Instead of taking a guaranteed loss, she built the project into a profitable multi-million-dollar asset.
This year, Bri-mor is celebrating its 35th anniversary. Fatima heads the company while her son Aleem serves as managing director. (Saifa, the daughter who fled Tanzania with Fatima and Haider, serves as the president and CEO of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation.)
Bri-mor has shifted its business model and focuses on partnering with institutional investors. Partners include Brookfield Residential, Qualico and Cedarglen Homes, among others.
But Fatima strives to put community enhancement ahead of business expansion.
“Fatima is a woman guided by purpose and is passionate about giving back in many facets of community development,” writes her Canadian Women in Real Estate Award nominator. “This commitment to humanity has grounded the ambition of the family and Bri-mor itself, seeing success not in the size of the business but the size of positive impact that can be made in society. This vision and absolute commitment to moving society forward – one person, one family and one initiative at a time – has inspired the spirit of the company and its employees.”
The ensuing culture is now about practising best-in-class performance and never compromising on family values or commitment to the betterment of families and communities.
“This is the competitive advantage of Bri-mor and is celebrated by its investors, financiers and institutional partners,” writes the nominator.
In the community, Fatima has served on government advisory committees covering employment, immigration and multiculturalism. She has also served on the Wildrose Foundation, a provincial government granting agency.
Fatima is also active in politics, supporting civic, provincial and federal leadership candidates, and also contributes her time, knowledge and financial resources to the Aga Khan Development Network and other causes within and outside the Ismaili community. Her humanitarian efforts include serving as a host mother for six orphaned Afghan refugees who came to Calgary as refugees two decades ago.
Today, the children still call her “Mom” and five of the six are married with kids or her own.
Monte Stewart serves as Content Director - Canada for Connect Commercial Real Estate.
Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Monte provides daily news coverage of major Canadian commercial real estate markets, including Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary. He has written about the real estate sector for various media outlets and Avison Young since the early 2000s.
In addition, he has covered sports, general news and business for several leading wire services and publications, including The Canadian Press, The Associated Press, The Calgary Herald, The Globe and Mail, Research Money, The Daily Oil Bulletin, Natural Gas World and The Toronto Star.
Monte is active in his community as a youth basketball coach and raises funds for such charitable causes as Movember.