Vivian Risi’s – Vision
For two decades, Vivian Risi has scaled the ranks of the real estate world to build the largest Royal LePage franchise in Canada. City Life sits down with the deal-making broker as she unlocks the door on her career and desire to give back.
Step into the lobby of Royal LePage Your Community Realty and look to the left. There, on the first floor, behind floor-to-ceiling glass, opposite the reception desk, is the office of Vivian Risi. She’s the company president, the broker of record of Canada’s largest independently owned Royal LePage franchise. She could have a prime piece of office real estate anywhere in the three-storey building, maybe somewhere up top, looking down on the business she built over the past two decades. Instead she’s here, on the ground floor, beside the lobby, for everyone to see.
“I wouldn’t be able to operate in any other way,” she explains. “I need to connect.” It’s an unseasonably warm October day as Risi sits around the small coffee table of her main floor office. She wears a trim brown blazer, dark jeans and a pair of black-scaled shoes that adds an air of personality to her modern-professional outfit. Hanging by the glass door is a collection of photos of her smiling alongside notable figures, such as Bill Clinton, Oprah and Justin Trudeau.
Her office’s location and its glass facade, she continues, are essential to her leadership, symbols of her transparency and approachability. “I’ve always believed in an open-door policy,” she says. Real estate is a people business, and Risi’s people need to feel comfortable to walk in and talk with her. “There has to be that accessibility,” she adds. “They need to have that freedom to know that I’m here.”
It’s an interesting approach to leadership, but one that’s proved potent. Over the past 20 years, Risi has grown her brokerage into an industry front-runner. With over one thousand agents operating out of 12 locations, her business is responsible for selling over seven thousand ends and moving billions of dollars of property annually. Real estate is a sure-fire means of creating wealth, but Risi’s climbed to the top of her industry with the community kept close to her heart.
I believe her secret to success is simply being a compassionate human being and a true humanitarian in every sense of the word and title
— Justin Risi, executive vice president of Royal LePage Your Community Realty
Risi’s middle child, Julie Risi-Careri, who suggested the company create a New Homes and Condos division as there was a need for this service, feels her mom’s compassion for the community is perfectly reflected in the company name. Before registering the company in 1994, Risi asked her children to brainstorm names. The word “community” came up on several occasions during their brainstorming. Risi came back with one she thought encapsulated her vision: Your Community Realty. “It was perfect,” Julie says.
Risi has embraced that community focus wholeheartedly. She supports around 30 charitable causes each year, including the Yellow Brick House women’s shelter, where she helped raise $4 million as the capital campaign chair to bring a second shelter to York Region. This dedication has garnered a number of awards, including the Vaughan Chamber of Commerce’s 2012 Philanthropic Business Person of the Year award.
This November she added the Canadian Italian Business and Professional Association’s Community Leader award to that collection. Eddy Burello, president of the CIBPA Toronto, explains, “The Community Leader awards those individuals that have demonstrated an outstanding contribution to the community at large.” Past recipients include the DiBattista family, Famous People Players founder Diane Dupuy and developer Michael DeGasperis. Risi joins their company not just because of donated money. As Burello adds, “It’s also the fact that she inspires so many people to continue the act of giving.”
When asked about why she’s so motivated to give back, Risi explains that it’s simply an inherent passion. “It’s in your DNA,” she says. “You can’t make somebody want to give. They do reluctantly and then they’re like, ‘I’ve already given. I’m done now.’ When I hear ‘I’m done now’ I go ‘OK, these people just don’t get it.’ And it’s too bad, because they’re the ones that are missing out.”
There’s a warm palpability in her words as she discusses her charitable work, an open kindness that rings like the strings of a plucked harp. She’s poised and professional, but effortlessly slides into a motherly modesty as she speaks. She never shies from eye contact, but can casually break away, perhaps as she lightly flares her hands in a playful exaggeration of astonishment when discussing, say, encountering a now- trivial dilemma. There’s an unguarded genuineness to it all that makes you forget this woman regularly brokers deals worth millions.
Justin Risi, Risi’s son and the company’s executive vice president, feels this authenticity is key. “Vivian’s best quality can be summed up as Vivian being Vivian. She’s real,” he says. She doesn’t change, no matter her audience. “I believe her secret to success is simply being a compassionate human being and a true humanitarian in every sense of the word and title,” Justin adds. An example that’s pushed him to be a better person as well.
Risi’s always had a soft spot for the “vulnerable ones.” Whether it was being friendly to the kid left out on the playground or chairing a fundraising gala, she wants to elevate those that need a helping hand. “You have to look at that and say, well, if we don’t help them who’s going to help them?” she says. “It’s nice to have nice things, but it’s really not that nice to have nice things when people can’t have any.”
She believes this desire to give back is firmly rooted in her upbringing. Her parents emigrated from Italy when she was three years old and, like many immigrating Italians, shared a small bungalow with other families. “Everybody shared,” she says of life in that North York home. It’s something that’s just part of the Italian culture. “I think most Italians are naturally givers. You go to an Italian’s home and you’re doing a deal, out comes the wine and the prosciutto and the cheese,” she says with a laugh. “So I think that’s part of who we all are.”
Growing up, Risi was always studious and kept a steady job, usually two. When she was 12, she landed her first part-time gig at a local variety store. “I was so excited. I worked at the popcorn stand,” she says fondly. During high school she worked at a banquet facility and found an opportunity at a health club part-time, where she was eventually offered an assistant manager position on weekends. As graduation approached, Risi thought about a long-term career. Her father was a builder and real estate was regular conversation around the household. “It was all we talked about, and I thought, I’m going to get my licence,” she recalls. It was 1973. “I was 18 years old.”
She started as a realtor part-time while she had her children — Michelle, Julie and Justin — before jumping into the industry full-time in 1982. For 12 years she worked at the real estate arm of Canada Trust and was consistently a top agent. But in 1989 the market took a nosedive. Things had run too hot for too long: bidding wars were constant and prices were outpacing inflation. Interest rates skyrocketed and mortgage payments doubled overnight. People simply couldn’t afford to pay. “They were literally walking away from their homes,” Risi recalls.
As a realtor, Risi felt the effect. She was a single mother with three children and found that the lifestyle her family was accustomed to was no longer feasible. “We went from up here,” she says, her hand above her head, “to down here,” dropping her hand toward the floor. They were forced to move three times in one year. “But it was the best thing that we experienced together, because we learned how to readjust our expectations.” It was also bonding for the family. “We grew together through that process,” she adds. “If you bond together you can get through anything.”
Risi could have easily felt sorry for herself and accepted the grim hand fate dealt. But quitting has never been her style. She pushed forward. Throughout that difficult period, she often helped other realtors with their deals and developed a taste for management. To make that step, however, she needed her broker’s licence. She thought, “How am I going to sell real estate and go back to school and have three teenagers in the house?” But, as she did before, she trudged onward. She juggled work, school and family while she finalized the courses. It wasn’t easy, but she eventually landed a secure manager’s job at the company. “I remember the day, May 17, 1993, I signed my contract,” she says.
Then September came. “The company was sold,” Risi recalls. “Literally, it was: What just happened? What. Just. Happened?” she repeats, emphasizing each word. They were purchased by American real estate company Coldwell Banker. Each individual office was to be sold off, including Risi’s. Livelihoods were in jeopardy and the future was frighteningly uncertain. Risi calmed her team and jumped on the phone. She began calling brokerages in hopes of finding one to purchase her office. One broker said he wasn’t interested, but dropped an existential suggestion: Why don’t you buy it? “I got off the phone and I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” she says. “I can’t even buy a pair of shoes. How am I going to buy this office?”
But as the idea settled, it became more enticing. No other managers had made the move to buy their offices. Instead of allowing someone else to run away the cake, Risi acted. She called up the company president. The energy of the moment thrust her to her feet and she stood at her desk, explaining her interest in buying the branch. The issue was her capital was tied up — a slight exaggeration. “I didn’t have any capital invested, but I figured it sounded good,” she says, smiling. “No problem,” he said. “We’ll work with you.”
Three representatives from California showed up loaded with an intimidating pile of books and documents. “I looked at the numbers and I didn’t even know what I was looking at,” she acknowledges. But she pushed ahead. She laid out her terms and how she would need the deal to work for her to succeed. As the first mover, the company could use her as an example for others to follow. They agreed. “I got my office and started working with 18 realtors.” The year was 1994.
The feelings she felt after making the purchase? “Fear,” she says matter-of-factly. “I didn’t sleep. I mean total anxiety.” But she was determined to make it work. “I’ve always had a vision of real estate being different. So my vision was to create a company that would really give the realtors a service, to make them better at what they do.” She brought in speakers and better training to empower her team. People began talking and taking interest. In the first year, she more than doubled her staff.
I believe in empowering the people that work for me to do what they do
— Vivian Risi, president and broker of record of Royal LePage Your Community Realty
Michelle Risi, Vivian’s eldest daughter and company executive vice president and president of Your Community Realty’s Real Estate Academy, explains that this attitude of education and better service has always been a pillar of her mother’s success. When Risi launched her brokerage during the recession, many competitors were busy cutting back to save costs. “She realized,” Michelle explains, “‘What effect am I going to have on this industry and my realtors if I cut back? Am I doing any justice? I’m going to empower them as much as I can with as many tools and services as I can so they can get out there and make more money.’ And that’s really her philosophy in terms of business: Don’t cut back. Offer more.”
Risi’s early success also drew the attention of the big fish. Royal LePage approached her, curious about how she was thriving while surrounded by two of their offices. They wanted to purchase her business. She refused. “I wasn’t going to have anyone take it away,” she says. “I wanted it for my kids, for my family.” They gave her a different option: Buy theirs. But she didn’t think she could take on something that size. “I went through eight months of ‘I can’t do that, I can’t do that, I can’t do that. Seriously, that’s too big,’” she recalls, acknowledging a very human trepidation when at the foot of such a monumental and potentially overwhelming situation. “And then you go, ‘Wait a second. Yes you can, yes you can.’ And I did it.”
From there, she grew the company into the powerhouse it is today. When asked how she overcame the early obstacles, she explains it’s all about the people. “Whenever you do anything and you want to be successful at it, you’ve got to surround yourself with the right team,” Risi says. She’s not a micromanager and doesn’t rely on watching over the shoulder. “I don’t believe I have to do that. I believe in empowering the people that work for me to do what they do.”
She also believes in focusing on the positive. At night, she’ll sit and reflect in personal meditation, going through the day’s events and being grateful for everything she experienced, the good and the bad. And, of course, there’s family time. “That’s where our memories are made,” she says. She laughs as she recalls a time her grandkids decided to raise money for the Kidney Foundation of Canada by selling Kool-Aid and cookies at the cottage. Unfortunately, beach-goers don’t tend to carry much cash. “Their tag line was, ‘It’s OK. You can take it and come back and pay us later,’” Risi explains. Impressed with the kids’ salesmanship, people were coming back with twenties. “I said, ‘You kids are good. They weren’t giving you quarters. They’re giving you bills.’” It fills her with pride to see her giving ways carried on.
Despite building this real estate empire, Risi has no plans of slowing. “I’ll always be working, because I love to be around people,” she says. Her children even jokingly refer to her as Hazel, as she’ll likely be working well into her autumn years, much like the ageless former mayor of Mississauga Hazel McCallion. And she’s always looking for opportunities to grow.
Risi experienced one of those opportunities this past September, when she was asked to give the introduction for motivational speaking giant Tony Robbins. She was initially apprehensive — she’d rather be among the audience of five thousand than in front of them. But she remembered the first time she saw Robbins back in ’93, how she could barely afford the ticket, but how the experience was so life-changing. She agreed to do the intro, but found it was more than she bargained for when Robbins was running late. She was forced to ad lib with the day’s emcee, James Cunningham, for a lengthy 23 minutes to stall for time. Risi, however, handled it like a pro. The pair joked back and forth and Risi even shared her story of her first Robbins show. “From what people said, that was the best part,” she laughs.
It’s these moments of stepping outside her comfort zone that are a crucial part of Risi’s life — something she’s finally firmly grasping. “Every day you have to push yourself. Every day we have to evolve,” she says. “I look at myself in that way. I’m a mom. I’m a daughter. I’m a woman. I’m evolving. I’m just finding out now who I really am.”
And she’s doing it all in plain sight: on the other side of a glass wall, across from the reception desk, on the first floor.
Photos By Butterfly Kisses Photography & Coppola Films