Eric Martel moved to California’s Silicon Valley to build his real estate business
It’s a long road from Alma, Que., to Foster City in California’s Silicon Valley. For Eric Martel, BSc 86, it was a winding journey with several detours.
Now a successful entrepreneur, project manager and business consultant, Martel believes flexibility is essential to thrive in today’s fast-paced world. “Hopefully my story can inspire people because it has a lot of twists and turns,” he says.
“Some people think that if they have to change their career or life direction they are failing. The world is changing very rapidly and there are no more gold watches after 25 years of service. I think you should always look for new opportunities and be ready to adjust. I don’t see it as failure; I’m just redirecting my career path.”
The owner of MartelTurnkey, a California-based real estate company he runs with his sons, Antoine and Etienne, Martel has built a profitable career by taking calculated chances. He jumped from a career as an actuary to become a computer programmer and business consultant in Silicon Valley for companies such as Apple, Oracle and Gilead Sciences.
While working as a business consultant and project manager in California, Martel used this experience to fuel his passion for entrepreneurship by starting several companies with his wife, Lynn Milos, and more recently with his sons.
The early years
Growing up in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, Martel credits his high school for initially fostering his entrepreneurial spirit. “I went to a private school called Séminaire Marie-Reine-du-Clergé, and it was a great experience,” he says.
“I felt empowered and trusted by my teachers. I would propose creative ideas and the teachers were always supportive. No one ever told me no and I never felt like there were any roadblocks. If I had a plan, I could do it.”
As a child, Martel dreamed of the world beyond his small town. He knew learning English was a critical step if he wanted to succeed outside of Quebec. In high school he practised English by making crossword puzzles for his fellow students. It was one of the reasons he decided to study at Concordia.
“When I was looking at universities I knew I wanted to go to an English university. I was interested in math and actuarial science, and Concordia had a great co-op program,” says Martel, who studied in the actuarial mathematics program. “I knew right away that this was where I wanted to go.”
What he remembers the most about Concordia was its welcoming atmosphere and how approachable the professors were — an important feature after attending such a supportive high school.
“The Loyola Campus was where I had most of my classes, and it was great,” says Martel. “Coming from a small town to a big city, it was the perfect campus. It was green and open with older buildings and it felt very quaint and comfortable to me. Everyone was friendly.”
A teenage landlord
It was during his time as a student at Concordia that he bought his first property — when he was 19 years old.
“It was an eight-unit, multi-family property in a not-so-good area of Trois-Rivières [Que.],” says Martel. “Of course, as a university student every bank declined to give me a mortgage, but then finally a credit union said yes. My first roadblock was that I needed $75 for the loan application and I only had $125 in my bank account.”
While it may seem like a risky decision, Martel was meticulous in his research and he was able to rely on the advice of an experienced mentor — a CEGEP professor he met through his girlfriend at the time.
“He had a very interesting approach to real estate,” Martel remembers. “He would have goals that seemed unachievable, but he would plan one step at a time — sometimes for years on one project. He mentored me in real estate and he kept pushing me to invest in properties. When I told him I didn’t have any money, he would say, ‘Ah, you don’t need money.’”
Under this unorthodox guidance, Martel spent countless hours searching through binders containing hundreds of property listings before he found the one in Trois-Rivières. He calculated that after making all his payments, the property would have a net positive cash flow of $280 per month.
The computer revolution
It was this combination of risk taking and detailed planning that drove much of Martel’s success. While linear career moves were never his speciality, he has a knack for spotting opportunity.
After graduating, he couldn’t find a job in his field in Montreal, so he decided to try his luck elsewhere. Martel headed to Toronto for the day, armed only with his resumé. He then cold-called various companies to try to get a job interview that same day — and it worked. He was hired by a firm specializing in casualty and property insurance.
It was during this time, in the mid-1980s, he had his first exposure to computers and developed an interest in programming. “This was in the very early days of the PC,” he says.
“We had an IBM XT, which was the company computer I had to share with multiple people. I really enjoyed the programming aspect of it and there weren’t too many people who understood the programming, software development and the mathematical aspect. I saw this new field expanding dramatically and I knew there was an opportunity for me there.”
Martel began working as a computer programming consultant on the side and soon moved to the field full-time. He was eventually hired by Siebel systems, a business software company now owned by Oracle, to help establish their professional services group. It was with Siebel that he made the move to California.
“I knew I wanted to go to Silicon Valley,” Martel says. “That was where everything was happening. It was a massive melting pot of people from all over the world working in tech.”
He made the move with his wife and their two sons. They bought a house in Foster City and have lived in the same neighbourhood ever since.
Despite the many years that had gone by, Martel never lost his entrepreneurial spirit — that passion that pushed him to purchase his first property as a teenager. He and his wife started several businesses together, including a personal chef and catering company.
“They were great learning experiences, which is code for ‘they never made enough money,’” Martel says. “But with all our ventures, our worst-case scenario was always breaking even. We were very disciplined and we always monitored our financials closely.”
It was always a family affair for the Martels. Even at a young age, their two sons were included in the businesses planning.
“My family is central to everything I do,” Martel says. “I enjoy being with them all the time and we’re just a great team. Whenever we start a new business project, everyone just kind of jumps in and sees how they can help. We’re very supportive of each other.”
His various business ventures eventually led back to real estate — his first love — and under his guidance and with the help of his sons, MartelTurnkey is growing and expanding, now with property investments in five American cities.
“We started as a residential real estate company, but we’re expanding into commercial and turnkey real estate markets now,” says Martel. “Recently I’ve taken on the role of mentor and coach and let my sons take the lead.”
His dream is to pass on the family business to his sons and that they will eventually do the same with their children.
“I’m looking beyond my lifespan and I’m building my legacy so that my kids don’t have to start from scratch,” he says.
“They can use that stepping stone to go higher, to go further, to go bigger. And I’m trying to instill the same vision in them so that they do the same for their children and the next generation.”