Just as his company’s condo projects created an indelible impression on the cityscape, Sam Herzog’s larger-than-life personality left an indelible impression on everyone he met.
The Lifetime Developments principal, who passed away after a brief illness in May, rose from hardscrabble beginnings to become one of Toronto’s influential builders.
For more than 30 years, he and partner Mel Pearl, whom he met three decades before when they were competing builders on the same site, created distinctive communities and raised the bar for architectural design. They transitioned from low-rise builders to property developers to downtown condo developers.
“He came to me and asked me if I wanted to do business together,” says Pearl. “He was the smarter of the two of us, no doubt. He thought we’d make a good fit. Thirty years later, it turned out to be something great.”
Some of their projects, many joint ventures with other developers, include M5V, Victory Condos, Liberty Market Lofts, Indx Condos, Karma Condos, The Bond and The Yorkville. And with Menkes Development Inc., Lifetime brought a luxurious new landmark to Yorkville, the Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences.
As a businessman, Sam Herzog was hard-nosed and never minced words. But he put his family above all else and was a loyal friend — after you’d earned his trust. He was generous and regardless of their station in life, he treated everyone the same.
“He was the tough guy, I was more cerebral,” says Pearl. “I had dreamy ideas of where we should go as a company, but he was pragmatic and kept me grounded.”
“There’s an Israeli fruit called the sabra,” says his son-in-law and Lifetime vice president, Brian Brown. “It grows on a cactus and is very prickly on the outside but under the surface, it is rich and juicy. That was Sam.”
‘He gave it to you straight’
Brown says his father-in-law “was a bulldog in many ways,” sharp with uncanny insight. “He gave it to you straight. Some people appreciated that and some didn’t. But anything that came from his mouth was from his heart,” Brown says. “To Sam, it was more than just being a developer, it was about being a city builder; he considered the neighbourhoods the company built in and the impact a site would have.”
Pearl says he and Herzog never had grand ambitions. They dealt with the problems as they arose and tackled challenges on a one-by-one basis. Even their transition from low-rise to high-rise was simply looking at the opportunity and figuring they could do it.
“We went through two recessions in our partnership and met them head on. We had the same philosophy — we’d do whatever it took, even if it meant we had to sweep floors. We were never too arrogant to get into the trenches,” says Pearl.
George Frankfort met Herzog and Pearl 30 years ago when he was their lumber supplier and has partnered in numerous Lifetime projects. Frankfort and Herzog became fast friends, shared a history of tough beginnings, travelled together and lived one floor apart in the Four Seasons Private Residences.
“He was my best friend and the brother I never had,” says Frankfort.
To Herzog’s daughters Tammy Herzog Brown and Shari Majerovic, Sam was more than their beloved father and devoted Saba to his six grandchildren. He was their confidante and mentor.
“He was the most important person in both my and my sister’s lives,” says Herzog Brown. “He is the measuring stick by which we measure our successes and failures. He gave us freedom to explore and experience, but he was always there to catch us if we fell. He gave us the tools to succeed.”
When the girls were young, he’d drive them to his subdivisions under construction. Both worked in his office, but chose other career paths — Herzog Brown became a dentist and Majerovic a stylist. To their father, it didn’t matter — he wanted them to be happy. He was loving but not overindulgent.
“My dad came from nothing and while we wanted for nothing, he made sure we worked for everything and knew the value of every dollar. That was important to him,” says Majerovic.
He instilled the importance of giving to those less fortunate and not judging. When Herzog Brown was a high school student, she and a classmate made a 15-minute video about street kids as a United Way school project.
‘We are going to open a charity’
“When my father saw the video, he said ‘one day we are going to open a charity to help the homeless.’ Three years ago, my Aba came to my house and said ‘do you remember I said one day we were going to open a charity? That time is now.’” That charity, the Lifeline Foundation, provides funds and support for those at risk and works with local organizations that provide assistance to the homeless.
Herzog had a sense of mischief. When the girls were young, the family went to the drive-in on Saturday nights. Herzog would have the girls crouch under a blanket in the back seat and tell them he was sneaking them into the movie. They didn’t discover until recent years that children were admitted free.
As his daughters became teenagers and then adults, they would go to the movie theatre every Tuesday night with their father. “Give him a good movie, his daughters, his popcorn and he was in heaven,” Herzog Brown says.
Sam made it a priority to take special trips with each of his girls. Once when Majerovic and her father were going on a cruise departing from Punta Cana, they arrived to the airport to discover their flight was oversold. They found another flight but missed the boat.
‘Everything was an adventure’
“We stayed overnight in Punta Cana and flew to the next port. Everything was an adventure with him and he found solutions. That’s where he shone,” she says.
Mike Martino, president of Martino HVAC and another longtime friend, says Herzog never failed to take a call from his daughters or grandchildren. Martino says for all his achievements, Herzog remained humble.
He says Herzog had a photo of a blue Bentley convertible on his office wall. For more than a year, Martino teased Herzog: “What’s with the picture of the car? Just buy it. And he’d just say ‘nah.’”
“We used to go to the Niagara Falls casino and one day he asked me to pick him up. I pulled up to his parking spot and there was a blue Bentley, just like in the picture. I said ‘what made you buy the car?’” Martino recalls. “He said ‘Mike, all these years I’ve been watching you living like you have my money and I decided to buy it’. He threw me the keys and told me to drive, but said he wouldn’t pay for any speeding tickets.”
Sam was passionate about building and every project was special to him, says Brown.
“My father was larger than life, a part of everything when it came to us and our children,” says Herzog Brown. “One of the nice parts is that I can drive my kids around the city and see a piece of him everywhere. I can tell them that Saba changed the landscape of Toronto and that’s something no one can take away.”
Reflections in tribute
- “He knew when to take a risk and when to pull back. His gut was one of the most amazing things about him. He could read people.”
— Brian Brown, son-in-law and vice president, Lifetime Developments
- “He was the toughest cookie you ever met. He never wanted to be in the limelight. He was as straight as an arrow, as honest as they come.”
— George Frankfort, business partner, longtime friend
- “It was important to him that he was good to people. If you were good to him and considerate, he was the same to you. He was a hard man on the outside, but he was really a big teddy bear to anyone who could get to that side of him.”
— Shari Majerovic, daughter
- “When my dad said something will happen, there’s never been a time it hasn’t. He set goals for himself and things that most people saw as impossibilities, he made happen.”
— Tammy Herzog Brown, daughter
- “He loved people and you’d hear all this laughter, no matter who he was talking to. But he was serious about business. No matter what the conversation, you always could take something away from it.”
— Mike Martino, friend
- “Sam was a driven, self-made man who was passionate about his work. But above all, he was a dedicated family man who was clearly devoted to his children and grandchildren.”
— Alan Menkes, president, High-Rise Residential Division, Menkes Developments Ltd.
- “He was a great partner, a great friend and I miss him dearly.”
— Mel Pearl, co-founder and Herzog’s partner in Lifetime Developments