Interwest Restaurants Inc

Making a mark in BC, franchise by franchise
Written by: 
Molly Shaw
Produced by: 
Chuck McKenna

Since 1987 property development company Kerr Development & Investment Corp., through restaurant arm Interwest Restaurants Inc. (IRI), has been assisting major franchisors in acquiring and developing properties and running a successful operation throughout British Columbia. IRI has been working with names, such as Wendy’s and Tim Horton’s for close to 30 years.

As founder and president of IRI, Neil Kerr still thoroughly enjoys building and running model franchises, albeit his background is far from the restaurant industry. “I started my career as a CPA in the mid-1970s,” recounts Kerr. “My background isn’t really in restaurant operation at all.”

Interwest Restaurants

An unlikely, but rewarding opportunity

After a few years in the accounting field, Kerr found an opportunity in property development with a client he had worked for as a CPA. “I took on this client and ended up working with them in the property development business in Saskatoon and I loved it so much I decided to make a go of it on my own,” he recalls.

And he didn’t start small; Kerr began pursuing Tim Horton’s and Wendy’s as potential tenants. “I did some sites for them back in the day and established a relationship,” he says. “I was a little slow to figure it out but I saw an opportunity to own and operate restaurants beyond the property development side.”

With property development experience under his belt, Kerr decided to transition to ownership and management to accelerate the growth of IRI. “I knew how to identify sites that work, how to put in place the infrastructure and how to put a deal together and get it up and running,” he explains.

But he never pretended to have the in-house restaurant experience. “I think that was actually one point of my success,” he tells. “I realized I wasn’t a restaurant guy, so I needed a quality team to run it.”

Rick Semper, now senior vice president, came on board early and is now responsible for the Wendy’s division. “Amanda Kerr Sanders, my daughter and now director of operations and a partner in several locations, joined the team about 13 years ago,” says Kerr proudly. “She has played an integral role in growing the Tim Horton’s division. Jim Verhelst, vice president of finance, has been with me from day one. I have been very fortunate to have such quality people around me.”

However, the team of superstars does not stop there. “Most importantly, my wife Karla, has been a critical sounding board over the years,” he continues. “As well, I have two other children who aren’t involved in the business, but who are a valuable resource to brainstorm with as they are quite successful in their own areas. My son, Kelly, is a successful businessman in the Vancouver area while my daughter Lisa is a lawyer who has recently accepted a law rrofessorship at Queens University in Kingston, Ont. They bring a different perspective to our decision making.”

IRI officially formed in 1987, growing out of its initial relationship with Wendy’s. From there came the Canadian giant, Tim Horton’s in 1997. “It was slow growth at the start because the focus was on the property side, but through the second half of the 1990s IRI started to grow more rapidly on the restaurant side,” recounts Kerr.

Fast-forward to now and IRI is currently finishing its 19th restaurant, a new Tim Horton’s. “We now have many locations throughout British Columbia, spread from Aldergrove to Squamish,” says Kerr. “Across these locations we employ some 650 to 700 people.”

A multirole approach

Working with corporate franchisors leaves some wiggle room in terms of IRI’s role in the development and management of various properties: “It depends on the deal with the franchisor,” explains Kerr. “In some cases, we acquire the property and put up the building, other times we’re just the owner-operator of the business. Normally, corporate design and construction teams do the bulk of the building because they have it down to a science.”

In addition to its 19th location, Kerr says IRI has recently developed a location in Saskatoon for the very popular Cactus Club Café, which is a Canadian owned- and –operated casual fine dining restaurant group with Vancouver roots. “I really enjoy finding a great site and planning the design and development from a conceptual standpoint,” says Kerr. “There’s something very exciting about that. On the restaurant side, I enjoy watching young people who often start out very green, develop and mature in their career paths.”

Looking up and forward to continued growth

While the British Columbia economy has continued to bounce up and down, as in other parts of western Canada, Kerr says he always tries to see the glass half full. “I’m a positive guy,” he mentions. “Securing affordable sites in BC is difficult because it’s an expensive real estate market and staffing is a continuous challenge, but things are settling and we’re on a nice growth pattern again.”

“There are tremendous challenges because the restaurant business is no walk in the park, but there’s also tremendous room for growth,” he measures. Opportunity Interwest Restaurants Inc. plans to take full advantage of, building on 30 years of development and property management experience.

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Bank of Montreal BMO
Signet Financial