Food empire scion fulfils his destiny

Weston, the billionaire grocer, likes to inspect his stores. It's not unusual for him to spend 12 hours a day administering his empire from his office on St. Clair Ave. E. near Yonge St., but just as important to him, he says, is visiting grocery stores, bakeries and suppliers. He is a hands-on retailer. "To be a retailer is an addiction," Weston says in a rare interview. "You don't feel right unless you've been into touching and feeling and visiting stores and talking to customers… And so it goes for the Westons. Ever forward.

The Toronto Star
February 23, 2002

Food empire scion fulfils his destiny
Associates describe Galen Weston as a smart, hard-working grocer who still likes to squeeze the fruit
Warren Gerard

Nick Reszler was unloading boxes of groceries from the back of a truck in the narrow laneway off Spruce St., at the receiving area of the Loblaws store.

"Hi, Nick," Reszler heard a voice say behind him. "I thought I'd drop in and say hello."

Reszler, store manager at the time, turned and saw what he describes as a tall, lean, silver-haired man in a dapper gray suit. It was none other than Galen Weston, everybody's boss at Loblaws.

"This guy is looking like a king," Reszler recalls. "I had met him at company meetings but never one on
one. I didn't know what to say, so I said, ‘Welcome to Cabbagetown.’

"He checked out the store and I remember when he left he was driving a Volkswagen Rabbit."

Weston, the billionaire grocer, likes to inspect his stores.

It's not unusual for him to spend 12 hours a day administering his empire from his office on St. Clair Ave. E. near Yonge St., but just as important to him, he says, is visiting grocery stores, bakeries and suppliers. He is a hands-on retailer.

"To be a retailer is an addiction," Weston says in a rare interview. "You don't feel right unless you've been into touching and feeling and visiting stores and talking to customers.

"For 20 years, my children (daughter Alannah, and son Galen, also known as G2) would go out with me and Hilary on a Saturday morning, and every morning we would be visiting two or three stores talking to people.

"It was kind of fun and the kids seemed to thrive on it. They're both connected with retailing today. And my wife was vice-chairman (Galen Weston being chairman) of Holt Renfrew for 10 years before she got the
lieutenant-governor job.

"So we're all retailers. The whole family is addicted in the same way."

Weston expects that the next person to head his empire will be another Weston, just as his father, Garfield, and grandfather, George, ran the business before him. But it has been under Galen's stewardship that a sickly, badly run grocery-store chain, valued at $40 million by the stock market 25 years ago, came to be valued today at $14 billion.

In Ontario 25 years ago, Dominion Stores had three times Loblaws' market share. In Atlantic Canada, Dominion and Sobeys each were twice as big as Loblaws. In Quebec, Loblaws didn't amount to a hill of beans. In Western Canada, Safeway had about 70 per cent of the market, followed by Woodwards.

Today, Loblaw Companies Ltd. is the largest and most profitable food retailer in Canada, with 128,000 employees and 14 million customers a week. And no one has profited as much as Galen Weston — a fact not overlooked by Canadian Business magazine in its latest annual survey of the rich. It lists Weston as the second wealthiest man in Canada with $8.61 billion, second only to media magnate Ken Thomson at $23.7 billion.

Despite his enormous business success, however, Weston keeps a low profile.

"He prefers not to do it," was his office's first response to an interview request.

Some people agreed to talk about him only if their names weren't used. Others agreed only as long as Weston gave prior approval. In any case, none of the 20 or so people contacted had a bad thing to say about Weston.

"He's 61 and he's still push, push, push," one person close to Weston says admiringly. "A lot of people would look at him and see a polo playing rich guy living in castles and flying a private jet. I see a guy who is very hard working, very smart in business."

Weston is a mid-Atlantic person, born in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, England, on Oct. 29, 1940, soon after the Battle of Britain ended and the Blitz of London was under way.

He was one of nine children, six girls and three boys. Their father was Garfield Weston, who moved to England with his family in 1936 even though his American-born father, George, had founded the bakery and confectionary business in Toronto in 1882.

From all accounts, Galen was a sunny child destined for a life of entrepreneurship.

"We were never allowed to go to boarding school, any of us," he told Vanity Fair almost a decade ago. "We were always kept at day schools so that we would hear what my dad had been doing during the day, the problems and successes he was having.

"We were always taken to the factories from a very early age, given hot biscuits out of the oven, and taken to the stores. The big treat in London was to go to the theatre on Friday night and come back to (the family owned) Fortnum & Mason after it was closed and make our own ice-cream sodas and sundaes."

Garfield Weston was extraordinarily successful. He made one acquisition after another in Canada, the United States, Britain, West Germany, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Toronto Star columnist David Olive estimated that in his 50-year career, Garfield Weston bought 2,000 companies — or about one every 10 days.

Following the war, he returned to Canada, deciding that he was more Canadian than British. Nevertheless, the family was still mobile. Galen attended 17 schools in at least four countries.

While he was growing up, Galen sold Christmas trees and picked tobacco in southern Ontario to help pay for his post-secondary education at the University of Western Ontario. A good athlete, he won a place on Western's rowing team, which is how he met David Peterson, who became Liberal premier of Ontario in the '80s.

"He was stroke on the crew," Peterson recalls. "He set the pace. He was good, I wasn't. He was very disciplined, a real natural leader. Our claim to fame was Roger Jackson, who went on to win a gold medal in rowing in the Olympics. The only two good rowers were Jackson and Galen."

Peterson soon learned that Weston had entrepreneurial instincts.

"He rented this crummy old house and then he rented all the rooms out so that he lived free," Peterson says.

For a long time, he wasn't aware that Weston was rich.

"One weekend, we were rowing in Toronto and he invited me to stay at his home," Peterson continues. "I had never seen anything like this in my whole life. A servant came to the door and he took me to this room with a fireplace. This was as luxurious as life ever gets. This was his father's house and his father wasn't there. Galen came around to my room, and he said, ‘Are you okay? Is there anything you need?’ And I said, ‘Who are you anyway?’"

Another classmate at Western was Dave Nichol, the flamboyant public face of the President's Choice brand for Loblaws.

"We spent a fair amount of time at university chasing girls, going to movies and playing ping-pong," Nichol recalls of those days.

All three Weston boys inherited their father's business instincts. The eldest son, Grainger, worked first for the family business and later founded Frenchman's Cove, an exclusive resort in Jamaica. He also pursued food related enterprises, cookie manufacturing and cattle ranching in Texas.

Galen's other brother, Garry, was assigned to run Associated British Foods, another enormously successful Weston enterprise worth billions of dollars. He died a week ago at 74 and was buried in a private service in Oxfordshire, England.

The IRA planned to kidnap the Weston family for ransom

Galen was dispatched in his mid-20s to head the family's Irish holdings, expanding the business to 52 supermarkets in Eire and five in Ulster.

He also caught sight of Hilary Frayne. She was from the seaside town of Dunleary and had become a model in her teens. Galen's first view of her was on billboards wearing hot pants and Sheer Dynamite stockings. They first met in London in 1963 and were married three years later on the banks of the
Thames River at Henley.

Over the next several years, the Westons moved in the top circles of Irish and English society. He was an avid polo player and it was through polo that he met Prince Charles.

The two developed a strong friendship and Charles played for the Maple Leafs, the Weston-sponsored polo team that rode at Ascot. It was also here in the early 1980s that Weston was to lease Fort Belvedere, the crown-owned estate where King Edward VIII signed his abdication in 1936. And it was on this 59-acre estate that Weston was to build impressive stables where he housed Princes Charles' horses as well as his own.

In 1972, the Loblaws grocery stores were in financial crisis. Garfield summoned Galen to save them.

It was a busy time for him and Hilary. Both their children were born that year — Alannah in January and G2 in December. While living in Toronto, they maintained their British connections, leading a trans-Atlantic life in the company of royalty, lords and ladies, and the business elite. And they maintained their Irish estate at Roundwood Park, a 17th century castle on 245 acres in the Wicklow Hills south of Dublin.

Until Aug. 7, 1983, that is.

On that day, an informer had told police, the Irish Republican Army planned to kidnap Weston and his family and hold them for ransom.

The Westons stayed away as 12 members of a special police task force waited in ambush in the estate's stables. A car was parked in front of the country mansion, giving the appearance that someone was home.

When seven IRA members showed up in balaclavas, the police ordered them to put down their guns. When they refused, 200 shots were exchanged. Four would-be kidnappers were wounded and two escaped. In the end, five were sentenced to prison terms of between 10 and 14 years.

Weston, in the meantime, was playing polo with Prince Charles and the rest of the Maple Leafs. Unsettled by the attempt, he became more security conscious, developing habits he keeps to this day — driving a modest older-model car and shying away from the media.

Back in Toronto, he began to reorganize Loblaws, hiring his old university chum Dave Nichol, and on Nichol's recommendation, Richard Currie.

Currie was the money man, Nichol the inventive marketer, Weston the owner with an eye on the big picture. They were a team, a dynamic troika that put a new face on Loblaws and the grocery business in Canada.

Nichol achieved celebrity status with his promotions of President's Choice specialty lines, but the real Loblaws president was Currie.

When Currie stepped down as president last year, Weston showed his appreciation with a $10 million payment followed by another $10 million this year when he stepped down as president of George Weston Ltd., the parent company.

Nichol had also been best man at Weston's wedding and was godfather to Alannah. His decision to leave the company in 1994 to become president of Cott, the soft-drink company, is said to have a caused a rift between the two former college roommates. It seemed to some people that Currie, along with
Nichol in his day, were the movers that kept emptying the shelves at Loblaws.

"People assume that (Weston's) a light-weight because he is handsome and rich," one acquaintance says. "Here's a guy who saves Weston and Loblaws, and that alone would have been one of the great business accomplishments of his generation of business leaders.

"And, yes, Dave Nichol played a great role with President's Choice, and, yes, Dick Currie is a hell of a good chief operating officer. Look, Weston is a genius. You look at the average tenure of his management team and it's very long. He keeps people with him. He's able to attract them, he trains them, he gives them responsibility, and he lets them all think it's their company, not his. He gives them space. He makes them think he's just the owner."

Donald Fullerton, retired chairman and CEO of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and a director of George Weston Ltd., also praises Galen's business and leadership skills.

"He has good knowledge of the international marketplace, Europe and the United States, and he applies it in a manner that permits his executives to perform effectively and with the authority to do their jobs both in a strategic and operational sense.

"This reflects an unusual characteristic for a senior executive," Fullerton says. "He permits people who have worked well for him to have the credit for their performance. This is a characteristic which I admire greatly."

Garfield Mitchell, vice-president of community affairs for George Weston Ltd., is Galen's nephew. Occasionally, in the summer, he visits the Galen Westons at their island, Caroline, in Georgian Bay.

"He's a very competitive athlete," Mitchell says of Galen. "He gave me a windsurfing lesson last summer. I've played tennis with him a fair bit and he's very good even now. He works at his game."

Mitchell is also executive director of the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, the charitable arm of the Weston empire, which last year granted more than $14 million — mainly in post-secondary scholarships, and for land conservation.

Over the past five years, Weston has been in the public view more than at any other time in his life as the smiling but silent man accompanying his wife, Hilary, the lieutenant-governor, at functions across the province.

"I may not be the man who accompanies Jackie Kennedy to Paris," he says cheerfully, "but I am the man who gets to accompany Hilary Weston to Timmins, Kingston or Kenora."

It made for long days.

"Hilary as LG took up a lot of his time," one of his executives said. "But it was the most productive time in the company's history."

Two years ago, Weston embarked on what he calls "our most significant and exciting venture ever" — the $2.7 billion acquisition of Bestfoods Baking Co. from Unilever NV. He says he intends to turn it into the biggest and best bakery in North America.

Four years ago, Weston bought Provigo, the Quebec grocery chain, for $1.7 billion.

In recent days, unsubstantiated rumours have surfaced on Bay Street that Wal-Mart was planning to acquire a majority stake in Loblaws. Briefly, Loblaws shares went up, only to drop a couple of days later, but any link between the two appears unlikely. Weston has a vision for Loblaws that includes one or both of his children.

So what next? Weston is overseeing the evolution of his stores. His newer ones have restaurant areas, fitness centres, cooking schools, drugstores, dry cleaners, wine stores, florists, clothing stores, travel shops, even live entertainment.

Late last year, Loblaws quietly introduced a President's Choice Web site, selling gift baskets online. At sister stores Zehrs and Fortinos, shoppers will be able to order prescription drugs, photo processing and flowers online.

"We're developing the Internet marketplace," Weston says. "My son (G2 is currently taking an MBA at Columbia University) is involved with developing the whole Internet evolution of merchandising. He's very much part of the new Loblaw heritage."

Daughter Alannah has been dispatched to Windsor, a 416-acre gated community of luxury homes that Galen developed, and Hilary designed, in southern Florida. Alannah has a marketing and communications firm in London and before that was a journalist at Saturday Night and The Daily Telegraph.

"One of the things she's been doing for me is rebranding Windsor. We've been in there for about 10 years and we're building a whole lot more public buildings and facilities. So she will be taking charge to add a bit of lustre to the image and reputation of the place, and to keep it moving forward."

And so it goes for the Westons. Ever forward.

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