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.