Times Colonist

In­de­pen­dent spirit keeps the home fires burn­ing


He was born in a Man­i­toba ham­let, a dot on the map in 1936 and not much more to­day as it sits a few kilo­me­tres south­east of Win­nipeg’s outer perime­ter. Ile-de-Chene be­came home for Bel­gian, French and Men­non­ite set­tlers in the late 1800s.

Allen Van­dek­erkhove says that when he was born there on July 5, 1936, it was “a gen­uine united na­tions” where he be­came — and re­mains — flu­ent in the French of his mother. Of pa­ter­nal Bel­gian an­ces­try, Van­dek­erkhove now lives on a 40-plus hectare gated fam­ily en­clave on rural Burn­side Road, a far cry from Man­i­toba where he quit school at 13 “to drive a truck to help keep bread in the ta­ble.”

That was in 1949 when the Van­dek­erkhove fam­ily was strug­gling fol­low­ing a di­vorce, the split­ting of the orig­i­nal fam­ily farm and eco­nomic prob­lems that saw work and wages ahead of ed­u­ca­tion for the chil­dren who re­mained in their mother’s cus­tody.

When times got tough, Allen, the sec­ond child in a fam­ily of six, sug­gested one of the old farm trucks could be­come a gravel truck. With a high­way con­struc­tion con­tract, he could bring in some much needed cash.

But he would need a driver’s li­cence and he was only 13. “When the day came for me to ap­ply for a li­cence, my mother told me I must be po­lite and agree with ev­ery­thing the li­cence peo­ple said. So when the lady made the state­ment, ‘Allen Van­dek­erkhove you’re 16 aren’t you,’ I agreed!”

An im­me­di­ate driv­ing test fol­lowed. “It con­sisted of be­ing able to brake when the ex­am­iner shouted ‘STOP.’ ”

Li­cence in hand, he got his first high­way gravel con­tract. Times were still hard but get­ting bet­ter in 1950 when the great Red River flood boosted the gravel truck busi­ness. At age 14 he had a truck driver’s con­fi­dence, an oc­ca­sional dol­lar in his pocket and a girl­friend named Loreen. She was 13 of Ice­landic im­mi­grant stock.

Three years later they mar­ried – Allen was 17, Loreen “just turned 16” and preg­nant. They tell the story to­day with the joy they wel­comed the news in 1953 and with old­est child Theresa, born April 27,1954, join­ing the laugh­ter to say, “I was there when they got mar­ried. I went to church with them.”

Allen and Loreen pro­duced six chil­dren: Theresa, Gary, Con­nie, Ken­neth, Alanna and Douglas. Ken­neth died in 1985 while a pa­tient in the old Glen­dale Hospi­tal in Saanich. He was autis­tic, aged 27, and re­mains a bright star in the me­mory of a close-knit, ebul­lient fam­ily.

There were other vi­cis­si­tudes on the Van­dek­erkhove jour­ney from Man­i­toba to what he calls his West Burn­side par­adise. Some would have bro­ken lesser men — fi­nan­cially and in spirit.

Allen drove truck, worked on pipe­lines, and de­liv­ered do­mes­tic fuel in Win­nipeg be­fore com­ing to Van­cou­ver Is­land in 1967 to help his fa­ther run a chain of Pay’N’Save gas sta­tions, three of which were on the Is­land. It was to be the start of a ca­reer that would lead Allen to own­er­ship of Pay­less Gas, and through a se­ries of leg­endary bat­tles with gi­ant oil com­pa­nies and banks to the brink of eco­nomic dis­as­ter – and even­tu­ally sta­tus of mul­ti­mil­lion­aire and bene­fac­tor ex­traor­di­naire.

The sto­ries of Pay­less Gas and the ef­forts of multi­na­tional oil com­pa­nies to shut him down be­cause he sold for less at the pump are well doc­u­mented in news­pa­per sto­ries and court records. The chill of hav­ing your bank ar­bi­trar­ily de­mand a $10-mil­lion loan be paid in 30 days can only be imag­ined. Allen with­stood the pres­sure, ne­go­ti­ated a six-month de­lay, re­fi­nanced and car­ried on. When the oil gi­ants asked him to name a price for a buy­out — he re­sponded with, “tell me what you’ll of­fer and I’ll know what to refuse.”

When they threat­ened to cut off con­tracted whole­sale gaso­line sup­plies, he bought an old B.C. Hy­dro site near Bare Point, Che­mai­nus, con­verted it to huge stor­age tanks and made a deal with Arco-Tex­aco U.S. re­finer­ies to main­tain sup­plies.

It was a David and Go­liath clas­sic, and Allen can still re­cite the names of ev­ery “heavy” from oil com­pany or bank he faced and de­feated in board­rooms, in court and at the pump.

Through­out the “war,” Allen had great com­mu­nity sup­port and he said thank you in many ways. In 1983, the Vic­to­ria Sham­rocks, fac­ing fi­nan­cial col­lapse, sought fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance. Pay­less picked up the tab, the Sham­rocks changed their name to Pay­less and, in 1983, won the Mann Cup. Pay­less also spon­sored foot­ball teams, soft­ball cham­pi­ons, the Pay­less Open Golf Tour­na­ment and many other mi­nor sports.

Allen sold Pay­less in 1989 to White­horne In­dus­tries which was later sold to one of the multi­na­tion­als. In 1991, he had a brief flir­ta­tion with pol­i­tics run­ning for So­cial Credit in Saanich South. In 1991, So­cial Credit was in freefall af­ter the Van­der Zalm years and Saanich South was in or­ga­ni­za­tional chaos fol­low­ing the sud­den with­drawal from the race of orig­i­nally nom­i­nated can­di­date Ray Bryant. In the four-way race, Van­dek­erkhove placed a re­mote third.

Af­ter a short pe­riod of travel and “feel­ing lonely,” he got back into busi­ness in 1992 buy­ing and man­ag­ing real es­tate ven­tures in the United States. Five years ago, he “sort of re­tired” when he sold his U.S. prop­er­ties. To­day he in­volves him­self in short-term bridge fi­nanc­ing — and runs the farm.

With old bat­tles long be­hind, he and his fam­ily could be for­given for rest­ing on com­mu­nity lau­rels. But it stays ac­tive with the Allen and Loreen Van­dek­erkhove Fam­ily Foun­da­tion pro­vid­ing an­nual fund­ing for at least 40 char­i­ties. Foun­da­tion ad­min­is­tra­tor, daugh­ter Alanna, tells me that “an­nual giv­ing is be­tween $450,000 and $475,000 — if en­dow­ments to UVic, Camo­sun Col­lege and oth­ers are in­cluded. We do not ac­cept out­side money. We are a private foun­da­tion.” Private — but with ex­tra­or­di­nary com­mu­nity ser­vice vi­sion.

Sit­ting in Allen’s home of­fice on a rainy July day, I note pho­to­graphs of busi­ness tri­umphs high on the walls — and on the floor a great con­gre­ga­tion of nine grand- and four great­grand­chil­dren’s toys. The rain cur­tains across the val­ley to dark green for­est; the hay from the fields be­tween is al­ready baled and stacked.

“There’s noth­ing like it,” says this solid in body and spirit farmer’s son. “No ther­apy bet­ter than clean­ing up the barn or feed­ing a calf that can’t feed it­self. God has smiled on us.”

And the Van­dek­erkhove fam­ily is gen­er­ously smil­ing back.


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 ??  ?? “There’s noth­ing like it,” says Allen Van­dek­erkhove. “No ther­apy bet­ter than clean­ing up the barn or feed­ing a calf that can’t feed it­self. God has smiled on us.”
“There’s noth­ing like it,” says Allen Van­dek­erkhove. “No ther­apy bet­ter than clean­ing up the barn or feed­ing a calf that can’t feed it­self. God has smiled on us.”

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