Bullish on Canada’s future

November 21, 2011

Amid all the doom and gloom it’s refreshing to talk with a corporate executive who is downright bullish on Canada’s future.

“We don’t have the bad debt and we have a fabulously dynamic sophistication of people from all over the world that when they start coming together will play in our favour very much,” says W. Galen Weston, this year’s winner of the Canadian Youth Business Foundation’s Entrepreneurial Nation Builder Award.

Mr. Weston is controlling shareholder and executive chairman of George Weston Ltd., one of the country’s largest companies, started by his great-grandfather in 1882, and comprising baked goods maker Weston Foods and Loblaws grocery chain.

But unlike many third-generation scions, Mr. Weston was brought in to fix an unwieldy conglomerate that appeared headed for financial disaster after he successfully built businesses in Europe.

What’s more, he succeeded, so much so that he’s been passing along his insight, time and money to help groom the next generation of leaders at his companies, including the U.K.’s Selfridges & Co. high end department stores bought in 2003 and Holt Renfrew & Co., as well as university students in the Next 36 entrepreneurial leadership program.

“It is one thing to be a solid business leader, but to be a true leader, you must have a much broader awareness of the world around you, it’s taking leadership to the next level,” says Mark Derbyshire, president of Holt Renfrew. “Mr. Weston is this kind of leader.”

Mr. Derbyshire is one of the executives Mr. Weston has mentored over the years and says their conversations always energize him. “Mr. Weston didn’t give me answers; instead, he was very open in sharing his own experiences and providing thoughts that challenged me to look at things differently and take risks,” he says.

Mr. Weston has plenty of experience. In 1961, while in his early twenties, the youngest of nine children bolted to Ireland to strike out on his own, one credit short of earning a degree from the University of Western Ontario. He bought a grocery store, eventually turning it into the Quinnsworth (née Powers) chain, and then clothing store Brown Thomas, which again he turned into an upscale chain.

But Mr. Weston had some help, too. His grandmother bankrolled him on his initial venture. “She was a mentor who gave me some money and some confidence,” he recalls, “and if you have that, anything is possible.” He also had the smarts to team up with Jimmy Boyd, an Irish businessman who shared his knowledge of the local market and gain insight into the North American retail landscape.

In 1972, Mr. Weston returned to Canada to take over the family’s ailing business, which included Loblaw Cos. Ltd., then suffering from a high debt load and too many unprofitable stores. Mr. Weston cleaned house, hired new blood, including a young consultant named Dave Nichol as director of corporate development, and Richard Currie as director of profit development. Both would become presidents within the Weston empire. “In my day it was about people and service and when you started something new it was about looking for people who could make the difference,” Mr. Weston says. “Most entrepreneurs have their own ideas about doing things, but if they want to successful they have to bring in other people.”

Breeding younger executives is something Mr. Weston continues to do. At Selfridges, there is a formal mentoring program that allows younger employees to talk with managers not one level above them, but five levels. “They talk about where they want to be and how do they want to get there and what more should they aspire to,” Mr. Weston says. “Admittedly, we’re looking at people in our business, so it’s in our interest as a company to have people who are capable and ambitious and working upwards.”

However, as chairman of the W. Garfield Mr. Weston Foundation, which assists Canadian students through the Garfield Weston Awards and various scholarship programs, and co-founding patron of the Next 36 program, Mr. Weston’s more altruistic side appears. Like the other corporate mentors involved in Next 36, he has a group of students whom he keeps tabs on and offers whatever advice he can, but it’s clear he is also getting a charge out of the exchanges. He says his crew seems more concerned about building sustainable businesses than short-term monetary gains, even in this uncertain economy.

“I don’t think there’s ever a good time to start a business, but at the same time it’s always a good time,” Mr. Weston says. “You can’t look at the macro story out there and say whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea. It is either a good idea or not a good idea and in many cases you have to get started on something to see if it’s going to work. If it starts to work, you just have to keep on pushing.”