Ottawa-based commercial real estate firm reflects industry’s evolution
Merkburn Holdings cofounder William Burnside has a humble explanation for the firm’s longevity in Ottawa’s property market: “Happenstance.”
But in an industry that’s constantly changing, luck can only take a company so far. As Mr. Burnside recounts his firm’s journey – which started with a cluster of industrial buildings leased to Parks Canada on Liverpool Court and has since expanded to include close to a million square feet across the National Capital Region as well as 65,000 square feet in the U.S. – themes of quality, integrity and relationship-building quickly emerge.
This year marks the 50th anniversary for the commercial real estate firm, which was co-founded by Mr. Burnside and the late Cameron Merkley, both of whom were later joined by Frank Dooher.
Over its five decades in business, Merkburn has acquired a sizeable portfolio of buildings across Ottawa, developed new properties in the region and earned a reputation as a landlord trusted by tenants and brokers alike.
“What I’m most proud of is Merkburn’s reputation,” says Kevin Rougeau, one of the firm’s current managing partners. He works in concert with Peter Dooher, Merkburn’s other managing partner.
A legacy of excellence
From the handshake deals of Mr. Burnside and Mr. Dooher’s early careers to the network that the firm’s current leadership has formed with Ottawa’s brokerage and business community, real-life relationships remain at the core of the Merkburn business.
In their formative years, Mr. Burnside and Mr. Dooher worked at Fuller Construction, a longstanding Ottawa contractor and developer. There they made many valuable business connections, including their future business partner, Mr. Merkley. Fuller was also where Burnside came to be the namesake for a building, aptly named the Burnside Building, which is located at 121 Slater St. in Ottawa’s downtown core.
After leaving Fuller, Mr. Burnside founded both Merkburn Holdings and William S. Burnside (Canada) Ltd., a construction company. Through much of its early history, Merkburn owned and managed buildings developed by William S. Burnside (Canada) Ltd.
“It was a good model,” Mr. Burnside recalls, noting that his construction firm continued to take on other contracting projects such as the restoration of the historic Lisgar Collegiate Institute, originally built in 1874.
During their partnership, Mr. Dooher led the firm’s leasing activities and quickly forged relationships with commercial realtors and tenants alike. He also worked to kick off new builds by creating custom spaces for clients such as Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell Controls, Gulf Oil, Hodgins Lumber and the federal government.
Following Mr. Merkley’s retirement in 1996, Mr. Burnside and Mr. Dooher purchased their partner’s shares and continued the successful expansion of the business for another 15 years – remaining, to this day, the closest of friends and partners.
Whether acquiring an existing property or working with Burnside’s construction company to develop a wholly new one, Merkburn has always been focused on making space work for its tenants.
Though Mr. Burnside and Mr. Dooher, now in their late 80s, have largely stepped back from their roles with Merkburn, their legacy persists in the firm’s current managing partners, Peter Dooher and Kevin Rougeau.
Mr. Dooher and Mr. Rougeau intend to continue to expand the firm’s portfolio through acquisitions and development.
“The sky’s the limit,” says Mr. Dooher on Merkburn’s future.
1952 – Armed with a civil engineering degree, then 21-year-old Burnside immigrates to Canada from Scotland.
1952 – Frank Dooher is hired by Fuller Construction.
1954 – Burnside is hired by Fuller Construction, where he spends the formative years of his career. Burnside and Dooher work together at Fuller’s until 1969 when Burnside leaves to found Merkburn Holdings Ltd. with Cameron Merkley.
1966 – The Burnside Building, a Fuller Construction development, opens at 121 Slater St.
1969 – Burnside leaves Fuller to found Merkburn Holdings Ltd. with Cameron Merkley.
1972 – Frank Dooher joins Merkburn Holdings.
1970s – Merkburn Holdings begins to grow its portfolio. New properties include Liverpool Court in the city’s east-end and the re-development of the Star Top Drive-In Theatre with John Tavel into five multi-use commercial buildings.
1984 – Burnside and Dooher develop 436 Hazeldean Dr. It is the first building in Ottawa to have a clean room for the assembly of electronic components.
1996 – Cameron Merkley leaves Merkburn Holdings.
2000s – Peter Dooher and Kevin Rougeau join the Merkburn team.
2011 – Rougeau and Dooher become full partners in Merkburn Holdings. Eventually, the pair become the firm’s managing partners.
2019 – Merkburn Holdings celebrates 50 years of business in Ottawa.