TORONTO — Canadian retail kingpin and philanthropist W. Galen Weston has died at age 80, George Weston Ltd. announced Tuesday.
The Toronto-based company said he died peacefully at home Monday after "a long illness faced with courage and dignity."
Weston previously held executive and senior roles at food, retail and real estate giants his family founded or led including Loblaw Companies Ltd., Choice Properties, Selfridges Group and Weston Foods.
He retired as chairman of George Weston Ltd. in 2016 to make room for his son Galen G. Weston, a tradition set by his father, W. Garfield Weston, who also stepped down at the age of 75.
"As he pushed me and my sister up and down store aisles in a shopping cart, our Saturdays became lessons in retail, bakery, and real estate, where I also saw firsthand the fundamental values that lead to success," Galen G. Weston, who is also executive chairman and director of Loblaw, told The Canadian Press in an email.
"He was always curious and interested in what everyone had to say, whether it was a backroom receiver, a colleague on a packaging line, or a division president. He always knew there was something to learn from them."
While Weston was proud of his several businesses, many described him as putting family first.
He was married to Hilary, a former Ontario lieutenant-governor, for 55 years and had two children: Galen G. Weston and Alannah Weston, chair of the Selfridges Group.
The family's roots in business began with W. Galen Weston's grandfather, George Weston.
He was a Toronto bread salesman and former baker’s apprentice, who bought a bread route from his employer and went into business himself in 1882.
W. Galen's father, W. Garfield Weston, took the family's food and retail pursuits international and in 1953, George Weston Limited expanded its grocery business, acquiring majority control of Loblaw Cos. Inc.
With wife Reta, W. G. Weston had nine children. Born on Oct. 29, 1940, in England, W. Galen was the youngest.
W. Galen Weston, also known as Willard Gordon Galen Weston, studied arts and science at the University of Western Ontario and married Irish model Hilary Frayne in 1966.
The couple returned to Toronto in 1972 to rescue the family's Loblaw grocery chain, which was on the verge of bankruptcy.
"They were I think third or fourth in the industry and they had far too much debt, and they were in serious trouble," recalled Anthony S. Fell, who built capital investment firm RBC Dominion Securities and joined the Loblaw board in 1998.
"(Weston) sold off assets and put together a new management team and he built the company and grocery stores up to where it is today, by far the largest, most powerful grocer in the country."
He focused largely on marketing and product development, hiring William Shatner to star in Loblaw ads, earmarking millions for product development and launching the No Name and President's Choice brands in 1978 and 1984, respectively.
In 2003 Weston bought the Selfridges Group, which owns upscale retailers, Selfridges in the U.K., Holt Renfrew in Canada, Ireland's Brown Thomas and de Bijenkorf in the Netherlands.
"The luxury retail industry has lost a great visionary," said daughter Alannah Weston, the company's chairwoman, in a statement.
"His energy electrified those of us who were lucky enough to work alongside him to reimagine what customer experience could be."
Selfridges wasn't in great shape when Weston took over, but he turned it around with his business acumen, Fell said.
He called Weston "incredibly competitive" and remembered him always having an eye on his rivals.
"He watched the numbers, he watched the market share and their various businesses, and nothing was ever good enough," said Fell. "Even though the company was doing well, it wasn't good enough."
Galen G. Weston said his father taught him several lessons, but two stand out most.
"He taught me that making a decision is more important than making the perfect decision and that you need to do what you love to have an interesting life."
J. Robert S. Prichard, a lawyer and member of the George Weston board, remembered Weston for that passion and his humbleness.
Weston, Prichard said, spent many Saturdays visiting stores just to talk to workers and shoppers on the floor and he treated them, the staff in his factories and even the British royalty he knew with the same respect and dignity.
While most people saw his business side, Prichard said Weston was always up for fun and would try to make a sports match, a party or even a swim in Georgian Bay special.
"You name the sport and he'd beat me at every one of them," said Prichard.
"He was a very good tennis player, he took up golf later in life when he gave up polo ... and he was a gifted and graceful athlete. It didn't matter what sport it was."
Weston and his family, whose wealth Forbes valued at $7 billion last year, are also known for their charitable endeavours.
In 2014, the family donated $50 million to start the Weston Brain Institute, a research facility aimed at finding treatments for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and ALS.
In July 2016, it donated another $50 million to the centre.
The family has also taken a special interest in the arts, making donations to the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ontario Science Centre, the Canadian Canoe Museum, the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, the Banff Centre and the Mendel Art Gallery.
(Weston) was modest and unassuming, but he did a lot for the community and a lot of it behind or under the radar screen," said Fell.
"He packed a lot into one lifetime ... and we lost a great Canadian and a hugely successful role model, so it's a sad day."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 13, 2021.
Companies in this story: (TSX:L, TSX: WN)
Tara Deschamps and Linda Nguyen, The Canadian Press