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by Janet Morrissey

When General Growth Properties buckled under a mountain of debt and filed for bankruptcy last year, deal watchers assumed that Simon Properties, the nation’s largest mall owner, would swoop in and buy it. So many people were stunned when Brookfield Asset Management, a lesser-known company that is based in Toronto, beat out Simon last May and snagged a major ownership stake.

The victory catapulted B.A.M. — and its chief executive, Bruce Flatt — onto the A-list of United States real estate investors.

Mr. Flatt, often dubbed the Warren Buffett of Canada, is hailed as a numbers guru with an eye for spotting distressed assets and a knack for negotiating deals that deliver big, industry-beating returns and stable cash flows. He’s also been called a “benevolent dictator” for his hands-on approach.

His company, though not unscathed by the recession, escaped without major debt problems during the credit crisis, unlike many of its peers. So while many rivals were struggling to refinance expiring loans, Brookfield was raising billions in hopes of picking up attractive assets at fire-sale prices.

Mr. Flatt is “among a handful of the smartest people in Canada,” says David Peterson, a former premier of Ontario and a senior partner and chairman of the law firm Cassels Brock & Blackwell, — as well as a neighbor of Mr. Flatt in Toronto.

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