While Galen Weston studied in London, Ontario at the University of Western Ontario, Weston was roommates with Dave Nichol, whom he would make President of Loblaws in 1976. He and his family are the second richest family in Canada, with a net worth of $7.7 billion USD as of 2004, and the 59th richest family in the world (according to Forbes). His family's fortune comes from their interest in such stores as Loblaws, Holt Renfrew, and Selfridges. Following the death of his brother Garry Weston, Galen's interests have again spread to the United Kingdom.
Weston is married with two children, Galen Weston Jr. (the current executive chairman of Loblaw, also serving as a spokesperson for Loblaw's President's Choice brand) and Alannah Weston. His wife Hilary (born Hilary Frayne in Dublin in 1942) served as the 26th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 1997 to 2002. His daughter Alannah is married to the grandson and heir of late Baronet Sir Desmond Cochrane and his Lebanese wife Lady Cochrane Sursock.
In 1990, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. In 2005, he was awarded the Order of Ontario.
Galen Weston Jr. is trying to recapture the magic that saved Loblaw stores 30 years ago. Easier said than done.
ANNE KINGSTON | April 9, 2008 |
'Could we have a minute, please?" Galen Weston asks, dismissing his public relations handler and a Maclean's photographer from the airy boardroom atop the George Weston tower in midtown Toronto. For the past hour, the executive chairman of Loblaw Cos. has been fielding questions about the embattled supermarket chain he was parachuted in to rescue in September 2006. Tall, whippet thin, with a wide open face, Weston is a boyish 35, possessed of graciousness undercut by steel. His thoughtful answers indicate careful schooling in the machinations of the supermarket industry — profit margins, volumes, price-cutting, merchandise mix.
Now he's veering off script. When will the story run, he asks. Told the next week, he says there might be news a couple of weeks away, closer to the annual meeting in early May, that could make the story more interesting. "I don't want you to be disappointed if you run with it now." His motive is unclear. Is he just being the nice guy from the Loblaw TV ads that have made him the Stuart McLean of Canadian groceries? Or is it a clever strategy to put a more upbeat spin on the story?
Certainly good news has been in short supply at the country's largest food retailer, a $28-billion enterprise that employs some 140,000 people, and operates more than 1,000 stores across the country. Last year, Loblaw reported its first loss in 19 years. Fourth-quarter 2007 earnings were 43 cents per share, compared with 58 cents the previous year. The stock price, down from a high of $78.34 in 2005, is trading at just above $32, near its 10-year low. The Westons, the second richest family in the country, have seen their 62 per cent stake drop some $7 billion.
As dynastic torch-passing goes, Galen Weston's surprise hand-off last week of Loblaw Companies to his 33-year-old son, Galen G. Weston, lacked the Olympian agility for which he is known. The executive reshuffle at the country's largest supermarket chain saw the exit of president John Lederer, a 30-year company veteran at the helm six years. The younger Weston, who has held sundry positions in the company for eight years and sits on its board, was parachuted in as executive chairman, supplanting his father who remains chairman of GEORGE WESTON LTD., the $9.4-billion food conglomerate that has an $8-billion controlling stake in Loblaw. To quell concerns over Weston's lack of command experience, Allan Leighton, a Weston family adviser with a track record in U.K. retail, including a stint at Wal-Mart Europe, was appointed deputy chairman, and Mark Foote, a recent recruit from Canadian Tire, was named president.
As spectacle, the shakeup appeared a righteous falling on swords for Loblaw's recent dismal performance. Adding pathos was the fact that it was the stunning turnaround of a beleaguered Loblaw in the 1970s that proved Galen Weston's own corporate mettle to his father, Garfield Weston. Shunning his father's advisers, Weston hired young Richard Currie, a strategic mastermind, and Dave Nichol, the manic marketing genius who created the President's Choice brand and brought balsamic vinegar to the masses. Riding the crest of incipient foodie-ism, they transformed the shabby, money-losing chain into an industry firebrand.
Now, Currie and Nichol are long gone, and Loblaw has lost its cachet as a product innovator and smart merchandiser. In the past few years, the company shifted to discounting and non-food merchandising, losing its competitive edge on the food side. It later embarked on a massive, disruptive overhaul of its supply chain in anticipation of Wal-Mart Supercentres' arrival in Ontario later this year.
On a conference call with analysts, the 65-year-old Weston stated emphatically that his son is now in charge. Still, the three-replacing-one geometry lacks clarity. As it stands, the younger Weston will preside over the President's Choice banking unit, store construction and labour relations, a prickly area given the threat of an imminent strike by unionized workers in Ontario. Foote will handle Loblaw's supply chain and its core food and general merchandise businesses - the day-to-day. The more seasoned Leighton will "advise," which some industry watchers have interpreted to mean "be in charge." Yet others insist that Galen Sr., a shrewd judge of executive character, would never throw his son into the fray without believing him capable. As one analyst observes, the Weston family, with a $5.5-billion interest in Loblaw Companies "has a lot of skin in the game." Peter Holden, an analyst with Veritas Investment Research Corp. in Toronto, believes young Weston's corporate training wheels are temporary, "a short-term measure to bolster confidence while the participants settle in." Galen Weston
But there is little time for learning on the job. Analysts express concern that senior management will flee to competitors that are edging in. Perry Caicco, of CIBC World Markets, expresses the mood in the typically craven language of brokerage research reports: "We do not view the recent management changes as instantly positive," he writes. The stock, which has fallen from $75 to under $50 since April 2005, dropped $1 on the news. In a highly unusual gesture in the cloistered, tight-lipped Canadian business establishment, Currie, now chairman of BCE Inc., vented his dismay over the reorganization to the Globe and Mail, saying he found the timing questionable, the executive troika "fuzzy," and the deterioration of a company that he spent three decades building "heartbreaking."
Such public disapproval of anything Weston-related is rare. Galen Weston Sr. and his wife, Hilary, travel elegantly on both sides of the Atlantic, chumming with royalty and donating generously to charity and the arts. If the couple can be faulted it would be for their selfishness in not providing grist for gossip mills. Their children, Alannah and Galen, evidenced none of the bad behaviour so often seen in billionaire offspring. That Galen Jr. would one day head the company founded in 1882 by his great-grandfather, George Weston, was a given, just like the eccentric Weston family tradition of saddling boys with names that begin with "G." To date, however, the elder Alannah has shown the greater affinity for retail. She is credited with overseeing the new corporate branding at family-owned Holt Renfrew and the revitalization of Selfridges in London, where she is creative director.
Known for her style and love of art, it is unlikely that the London-based Alannah would find professional satisfaction in the cutthroat brutalities of the supermarket industry with its focus on margins, shelf space and dairy rotation. Nor did Galen Jr. display an early interest in the family businesses. His first love was theatre. As a pupil at Upper Canada College he was an avid participant in the drama department - in addition to being a good student, star athlete and event organizer. In 1998, he and school pal Michael Shore created Spoke Productions, which staged plays in Toronto, New York and London. In 2004, the pair opened The Spoke in Toronto, a private club for the city's creative community.
All the while, however, he prepped for the corporate role he was born to play, earning a B.A. from Harvard and an M.B.A. from Columbia. Known to share his father's flair on the polo field and his people skills, it's unclear yet whether Weston has inherited pater's mercantile touch or knack for spotting talent. He has told friends he has grown to enjoy business, particularly during his stint at President's Choice banking services. Certainly there is little evidence he is conflicted about his destiny. By all reports, he's an impeccably decent guy, with lovely manners and zero social pretension. He dislikes being called Galen Weston Jr., preferring GG or G2, his family nickname (Galen Sr. is G1). Like his famously private father, he avoids media scrutiny, declining a request for interview. When his artfully raw industrial loft in a grungy Toronto neighbourhood was photographed for Toronto Life magazine in 2001, its resident was referred to obliquely as "The Bachelor."
That status ended in 2005 when he married Alexandra Schmidt, a member of the Bata shoe-empire family, in a chateau in Provence. The stylish couple has emerged as prom king and queen of Toronto's young socialite set. Their lavish pre-wedding party was held in an abandoned Loblaws warehouse transformed into a wonderland: white carpeting was laid, orchid chandeliers blazed, a classical trio fiddled and the couple's image was projected on water cascading down walls. After a Ben Mulroney-hosted video that paid tribute to the betrothed couple, Weston serenaded his future bride with Are You Lonesome Tonight? The stage he now assumes is less glamorous, though far more histrionic. The fact the family owns the theatre offers G2 little protection. Critical eyes are already on him to assess how able a player Galen Weston will be.