Toronto Star

Garfield Weston’s conspicuou­sly generous nature

Tycoon excelled at helping those truly in need and rose to occasion in times of crisis

- David Olive

As a Nazi conquest of the British Isles appeared imminent, with the fall of France to Adolph Hitler’s Blitzkrieg in 1940, the British leadership class was of a mood to surrender in the manner of Vichy France, rather than succumb to certain death and destructio­n while losing to Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich.

Joseph Kennedy, tycoon and erstwhile bootlegger whom Franklin Roosevelt had nominated as America’s ambassador to Great Britain, was among the defeatists. The earliest signs of Nazi invasion prompted his flight from London back home to Boston.

The British Royal Family stayed put in the United Kingdom. So did Garfield Weston, the bakery tycoon from Canada who had built an empire of bakeries across Britain.

Garfield was the eldest son of Toronto baker George Weston. Garfield was born in the family apartment above George’s state-of-the-art “Model Bakery” in Toronto’s Grange district not long after the patriarch of today’s sprawling Weston collection of businesses including Loblaws, Shoppers Drug Mart, Holt Renfrew and Britain’s Selfridge’s, founded the family business in 1882 with the purchase of two Toronto bread-delivery routes.

Garfield Weston was no stranger to warfare, having served for two years in the First World War in the Canadian Army Engineers in France. And he seemed to thrive on the challenges presented by adversity

After inheriting and greatly expanding his father’s Canadian bakery operations, Weston planned to repeat that success in an early 1930s Britain whose decline in national finances cast the United Kingdom’s Depression-era solvency in doubt. Brimming with confidence in Britain’s future, Weston built and bought enough baked-goods factories across the country to become a celebrated big businessma­n at a time when, amid the obvious failure of capitalism, tycoons vied with rats and roaches in commanding the least esteem among the general public.

By contrast, Weston was greeted as a saint by city fathers across Canada and Britain with his ever-expanding network of bakeries that put people to work during the depths of the Depression. Tycoons operated in the shadows, but Weston was, by choice, a prominent public figure.

“I am the greatest exponent of enthusiasm in this country,” the young Weston would say at countless ribbon-cuttings of new Weston factories across the United Kingdom — an empire that in time would spread to the United States, Continenta­l Europe, Australasi­a and South Africa.

Giving up on Britain with Nazi occupation on the horizon was, in Weston’s mind, tantamount to treason. A Vichystyle accommodat­ion of the Nazis would keep his British factories intact, saving them from becoming targets of Luftwaffe bombing raids. But the latter option, which so infused the British leadership class in the darkest hours of 1940, seemed not to have crossed the young Canadian’s mind.

Weston kept his British factories running at high capacity, providing essential foodstuffs to a population the Nazi Uboats meant to starve.

A pioneer in what would later be called “shuttle diplomacy,” Weston was a tireless envoy among London, Ottawa and Washington, pressing the case for unrelentin­g Allied war on the U-boats blockading Britain.

In one of the most determined Luftwaffe forays during the Battle of Britain, which saw three waves of a total of 400 German warplanes attack the U.K. on Aug. 15, 1940, the skilled Spitfire pilots managed to down 61 Stukas and other German fighters while losing only 16 of their own aircraft. Weston, who was monitoring the aerial combat by ticker tape, was exulted by the victory and rushed the next morning to the office of Lord Beaverbroo­k, another Canadian expat who was British minister of aircraft production. Garfield pledged $445,000 — a stupendous sum at the time — to replace the lost British warplanes.

Weston’s personal financial commitment to the Allied war effort never flagged. As Charles Davies records in Bread Men (1987), his biography of the Weston family, Garfield was “conspicuou­sly generous,” “donating everything from radios for Canadian troops to $50,000 to kick off Beaverbroo­k’s new ‘Speed the Tanks’ Fund” after New Brunswick native Beaverbroo­k was elevated by Churchill in 1941 to minister of supply.

“Conspicuou­sly” is the operative word: he sought to exhort fellow tycoons to emulate him.

Weston was determined to build “a business that would never know completion.” In a whirlwind of activity after the war, he launched and acquired businesses on four continents.

By 1966, he was the second-largest retailer in the world, after Sears, Roebuck & Co., and controlled more foodrelate­d enterprise­s than anyone on Earth.

The more compelling aspect of Weston’s legacy, though, is the two charitable organizati­ons he launched. They have flourished in their community contributi­ons long after his death in 1978. So far, the Garfield Weston Foundation, based in Britain, has made more than $1.4 billion (Canadian) in charitable contributi­ons, with a focus on social welfare, health, education, the environmen­t and culture.

The range of interests of its Canadian counterpar­t, the W. (Willard) Garfield Weston Foundation, extends across literacy and library expansion; scholarshi­ps for skilled-trades training; and long-time support of cultural institutio­ns, including the George Weston Recital Hall at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (formerly the North York Performing Arts Centre), the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum.

The foundation has also spent about $100 million preserving more than 100 ecological­ly sensitive sites across Canada.

The foundation’s medical-research initiative­s span nutrition at McGill University, pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital Winnipeg and Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital, and the new Weston Brain Institute. The latter, inspired by the relative paucity of mental-health research, seeks to hasten developmen­t of breakthrou­gh treatments of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, amyotrophi­c lateral sclerosis (ALS) and other neurodegen­erative conditions.

Few commercial enterprise­s worldwide provide income and revenue to more employees and suppliers than the 132-year-old Weston group of companies. But the generation­s-old Weston charitable trusts touch the lives of millions of people in every walk of life.

Their activities speak to the symbiotic relationsh­ip between business and the larger society, one that too few business leaders — who see themselves and their enterprise­s operating in isolation from society — have yet to grasp.

 ??  ?? Garfield Weston, pictured here in 1977, started two charities to help address a variety of issues including the environmen­t.
Garfield Weston, pictured here in 1977, started two charities to help address a variety of issues including the environmen­t.
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