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Meet Alberta’s unconventional philanthropists

Not all philanthropists are created equal. Meet three that broke the mould

Nov 1, 2011

by Robin Schroffel

Photography by Ewan Nicholson

Demolition Man

He’s a Grade 9 dropout who once lived in a tent, but today Bill Knight is one of Alberta’s most generous philanthropists. Knight, who turns 41 this month, is the founder and CEO of B&B Demolition, one of Edmonton’s largest demolition companies. But while Knight is a professional at knocking things down, he’s most passionate about building them back up.


Bringing down the house: Bill Knight’s generous donations have funded many charities across the province

B&B Demolition is a key charitable contributor to a long list of organizations dedicated to improving the lives and welfare of young people, including Zebra Child Protection Agency, the Stollery Children’s Hospital and the Youth Emergency Shelter. In 2009, the company became a partner with Alberta’s Promise in recognition of its support to children’s charities. Knight has never forgotten his roots and youthful hardships, and although he wasn’t lucky enough to receive help when he needed it, he realizes the kind of difference that charitable organizations can make in the lives of troubled kids.

“If these societies had been around [for me], who knows how life would have been different,” he says. “If I can save someone from having that experience, if I can just make that one difference in that one person’s life, it’s all worth it.”

In addition to B&B’s work with children’s charities, the company is also a proud supporter of the Lois Hole Hospital for Women, Muscular Dystrophy Canada, the Glenrose Hospital Foundation and the Edmonton Humane Society. Knight even owns two rescue dogs: T-Bone, a border collie-greyhound cross, and Ounce, a 40-kilogram German shepherd-husky cross. “We try to give as much as humanly possible. There are so many people out there that can just use a hand up, not a handout. That’s the reason you strive for success: to give back,” Knight says. “You never see a U-Haul behind a hearse, so you can’t take it with you.”

Knight started B&B Demolition with just $7,400 and four employees in 1999. Today, it has 65 employees and makes annual charitable donations that “touch six or seven figures,” Knight says. Philanthropy is a key part of the company’s corporate culture, and Knight thinks the company’s high employee retention rate is due in part to the pride employees feel about B&B’s giving spirit. He makes it a point to include everyone from “the person that’s swinging the sledgehammer to the accountant in the office” in charity events. “You bring them into this and show them the impact they’re making on people’s lives,” Knight says. “It’s a good feeling.”

The Green Giant

John Lefebvre’s net worth dropped by over $200 million in 2007 when he was charged with criminal conspiracy for transferring gambling proceeds in the U.S. The secure online payment company he’d co-founded, Neteller (now Optimal Payments), wasn’t technically a gambling website but it still managed to get caught up in an American Internet gambling crackdown. For someone who loves to give, the situation was a bit of a blow. “I had lots of grand designs and then, of course, my capacity to fulfill them was diminished dramatically,” Lefebvre says.

Relatively speaking, anyway. The Calgary native and resident of Salt Spring Island, B.C., hasn’t exactly fallen on hard times and can still give a substantial chunk of change to the causes in which he believes. But for Lefebvre, a former lawyer and late-blooming musician, philanthropy means more than money. That’s why he’s so active – and outspoken – in the fight against climate change.

Climate change is something Lefebvre regards as both indisputable and urgent, and he is on a mission to spark a dialogue between the environmentalist camp and the oil industry. “Both sides are completely unrealistic, because whether you like it or not, we’re going to be burning fossil fuels somewhere from 10 to 40 years, and whether you like it or not, science is science and it says burning fossil fuels is warming the climate,” Lefebvre says. “We could spend the rest of our time lining up on opposite sides of the field throwing rotten vegetables at each other, or we could come to the middle of the field and figure what’s the best thing to do.”

Lefebvre had long been associated with the David Suzuki Foundation, but he resigned from their board of directors this past summer in order to focus his energies on a new environmentally-oriented venture that will be launched in 2012. He also dips into his bank account to finance climate-change awareness projects like desmogblog.com. The blog exists to “clear up the PR pollution that clouds up climate science” rather than participate in what Lefebvre calls “phony debates.” “The point is calling out the climate-change deniers,” Lefebvre says. “All we do with DeSmogBlog is pull down their pants and show everybody where the money comes from.”

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Lefebvre is also looking forward to organizing a meeting with oil patch executives in Calgary in the near future, one that he hopes can produce some productive dialogue on the issue of climate change.

Sweat Equity

Philanthropy isn’t always about cash in hand. Sometimes, with dedication, passion and plain old hard work, a person can make a meaningful difference. That’s a good way to describe Ron Carey, the founder of oilfield manufacturing company J&L Supply. He’s a proud financial supporter of organizations like STARS air ambulance, Alberta Children’s Hospital and the Calgary Stampede, but it’s his longtime passion for automotive, oil and gas memorabilia that gives Albertans a unique and lasting legacy.

Carey’s generous donations of collectibles have made the Gasoline Alley museums at Calgary’s Heritage Park Historical Village and Irricana’s Pioneer Acres possible. The Carey collection at Heritage Park alone is valued at more than $5 million. Even more significantly, these are old cars, trucks, gas pumps, signs and other items sourced from farms, auctions and elsewhere that Carey has restored and preserved with his own hands.

Carey has put thousands of hours into meticulously rebuilding automotive history. Much of the time, the items he works with were destined for the junkyard. Now, they’re as good as new and proudly displayed for posterity. The Gasoline Alley Museum in Heritage Park opened in April 2009, and Carey’s collection now resides in a 75,000-square-foot replica of the Calgary Public Market.

The Gasoline Alley Museum is a major Heritage Park showpiece. Park CEO and president Alida Visbach say Carey’s donations form a lasting legacy that will inspire, entertain and educate visitors for generations to come. “We are extremely grateful to have Ron Carey as one of Heritage Park’s greatest benefactors and friends,” Visbach says. “It is through his incredible collection that we can enrich the lives of visitors worldwide with the vital story the impact of the automobile had on the development of Western Canada.”

It’s important to Carey that the items he restores stay together in order to tell a story. He sees Heritage Park as a safe location: it’s owned by the city of Calgary, and “the city of Calgary’s probably not gonna go broke.”

While Carey feels being “in the government trough” is necessary to keep a museum going, he believes it’s the individual who is responsible for preserving the province’s history. “It’s private collectors that have saved everything from being smashed and squashed up,” Carey says.

He’s still at it, too. A shed at his company’s headquarters houses items waiting for their chance to shine, including about 150 antique gas pumps. They will likely end up being part of a future donation. After all, Carey says, “that was always the plan.”

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