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Five Alberta legends who show what it means to be an entrepreneur

Read what five of the greatest entrepreneurs in Canada's history have to say about business

Aug 19, 2013

by Jessica Wynne Lockhart

From media moguls to oil and gas gurus, Alberta is home to business leaders who not only established the blueprints for entrepreneurialism in Alberta but also changed the very fabric of business across Canada.

They aren’t just five of Alberta’s greatest entrepreneurs, but arguably five of the greatest in Canada’s history. Here’s how they won the West, and why they’re worth looking up to.

Dr. Charles Allard
Risk-Taker

Illustrations Charles Raymond Burke
Illustration Charles Raymond Burke

For surgeon Dr. Charles Allard, medicine was his pride, but business was his passion. Allard, who was born in Edmonton in 1919, was the founder of ITV, but his diverse business empire included Seaboard Life Insurance, Crosstown Motor City and Canadian Western Bank. He died in 1991, just five months after selling his broadcasting conglomerate to Western International Communication (WIC).

Dr. Charles Allard was, above all else, a creature of habit. After completing his morning of surgeries, the physician would eat a lunch consisting of a Coke and a chocolate bar. His afternoons would be spent completing rounds before he would return home for dinner around 7:00 p.m. Only after an evening nap would it then be time for business – and he had a wide range of business to attend to. Allard’s diverse empire included Canada’s first independent television station (ITV), the Bank of Alberta, real estate investments and ownership of the then-WHL Edmonton Oilers.

But despite his fastidious adherence to routine, Allard wasn’t one to play it safe. “He took such huge risks that everything was like a house of cards. If anything went wrong, everything could have collapsed on him,” says Hans Dys, who met Allard while working at ITV and in 2011 published his biography, Gut Instinct: The Life and Times of Dr. Charles Allard.

Those risks, much like Allard’s schedule, were far from random. Rather, they were carefully calculated. “He did a lot of research and if he was interested in something, he wanted to know everything he could about it,” Dys says. This, he explains, was Allard’s greatest strength as a business leader. “He was someone who could ask all the right questions. He lived by the edict that you never learn much by talking; you learn more when you’re listening.”

Dave Tuccaro
Role Model

Illustrations Charles Raymond Burke
Illustration Charles Raymond Burke

A member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort Chipewyan, Dave Tuccaro, who was born there in 1958, is the president and CEO of seven successful companies. As a result, he’s often known as Alberta’s real “oil sands millionaire.”

Running a business is hard for the average person. But for aboriginal entrepreneurs it’s doubly difficult given that they face obstacles that others usually don’t have to overcome. For example, since most are first-generation business owners, they lack startup capital that is often provided by friends and family. And because they typically operate in isolation, they often lack the access to networks that’s needed in order to allow them to deal with financial issues or identify growth opportunities.

For oil sands entrepreneur Dave Tuccaro, there were other obstacles as well – growing up in Fort Chipewyan, he lacked a college education when he started working with the Mikisew Cree Tribal Council. His isolation was not only figurative, but literal as well – there was no road leading in or out of Fort Chip. And when he bought his first business from his band, he was the proud new owner of a company that had been mismanaged and was at risk of going under. But he didn’t let any of that stop him. “He’s tenacious. He’s a guy who doesn’t quit,” says Clint Davis, vice-president for aboriginal banking at TD Bank Group. “He’s an individual that sees an opportunity or sees a project and pursues it to its ultimate end.”

Today, although Tuccaro is perhaps best known for owning Tuccaro Inc., a group of companies worth more than $100 million, Davis says Tuccaro’s greatest achievement is his commitment to mentoring young aboriginal business leaders.

“Dave has always been a very ardent proponent of economic development and entrepreneurialism as a key to pulling aboriginal people out of the state of abject poverty,” Davis says. “He has a strong social conscience, a sense of identity as to who he is as an aboriginal person and the desire to give back to his community.”

In addition to sitting on the investment committee for the Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Entrepreneurship fund (which provides mentorship to aboriginal businesspeople), Tuccaro has volunteered in the Yukon with Habitat for Humanity and been inducted into the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business Hall of Fame.

“He is such a positive influence on our community. It’s almost unparalleled across Canada. You don’t hear him speaking loud rhetoric about politics – he tends to be extremely optimistic and positive,” Davis says. “Dave really is this quintessential aboriginal entrepreneur that so many people should try to mirror.”

Bill Comrie
Family Man

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Illustrations Charles Raymond Burke
Illustration Charles Raymond Burke

The founder of the Brick, sports enthusiast Bill Comrie proved his business savvy by building one of the largest retailers of furniture and home appliances in Canada. Comrie, who was born in Winnipeg in 1950, moved to Alberta with his family two years later –and ended up building an empire here.

Bill Comrie’s first decision to put family first came when he was still a teenager. In 1969, Comrie was a Chicago Blackhawks prospect when his father died, leaving the 19-year-old to choose between hockey and the family furniture business. To him, though, it wasn’t really a choice, given that a career in hockey would have required him to leave his mother and brothers behind. Instead, he stayed at home and built what would later become the Brick, one of Canada’s biggest and most successful furniture retailing chains. By 1980, annual sales had grown to $75 million.

Although the business was partially built on gimmicks like midnight furniture sales and flashy television slogans, Comrie offered inventive financing deals to customers that his competitors had never tried before. In 1975, the Brick began its famous “no payment down, no interest” bargain, a scheme that had shoppers lining up around the corner. And although the company struggled post-recession, experiencing a $163-million loss in 2009, a rejigged marketing plan and a newly appointed CEO meant that by 2012, the Brick was back in the black. In 2013, rival furniture retailer Leon’s acquired the Brick for $700 million.

But for Comrie, his instinctual desire to care for his family has always come before money. Although he gained notoriety from his television commercials, he tried to keep his children out of the spotlight. (Ironically, the Comrie name has become more synonymous with his hockey-playing son Mike and movie star daughter-in-law Hilary Duff than with the furniture chain.) He found time to coach both of his sons’ hockey teams as well as his daughter’s soccer team, and always made time for family. “I treated my kids’ activities like business meetings,” Comrie told Canadian Business in 2008. “If they were playing at six on Thursday night, I’d put that in my schedule first. I wouldn’t book a meeting that would go past six, so I could get to the kids’ games.”

Max Ward
Committed to Quality

Illustrations Charles Raymond Burke
Illustration Charles Raymond Burke

Max Ward’s drive to succeed in the airline business was based on his love of aviation. But it was his attention to detail that led to Wardair becoming Canada’s third-largest airline. Ward, who was born in Edmonton in 1921, still keeps a keen eye on the aviation business to this day.

Max Ward’s business  was built on a single passion: aviation. After returning to Edmonton from the Second World War, he became a bush pilot in the Yukon. It was his love of flying that led him to start Wardair, an aviation business that carried supplies and passengers to the northern territories, in 1953.

His business grew rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s after the federal government “made the mistake of giving me rights to charter flights,” he told the Globe and Mail’s Gordon Pitts in a 2012 interview. He used those rights to serve overseas markets, meeting the demand of a growing number of war brides who wanted to go home and see their families. By the 1980s, Wardair had also established a successful holiday branch, becoming one of the largest operators in terms of volume to Hawaii.

But it wasn’t Wardair’s unique routes that made the airline a success. Ward knew that service was what would make his company stand out. Passengers were offered imported French wines, filet mignon served on Royal Doulton china and selections from a dessert trolley.

Although the company was sold in 1989 to PWA Airlines, the legend of its service lives on. Today, it’s this same model for quality and service that is being mirrored by Porter Airlines as it aims to become Canada’s third-largest airline carrier.

Jim Gray
Community Builder

Illustrations Charles Raymond Burke
Illustration Charles Raymond Burke

Jim Gray was born in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, in 1933, but he would make his name out west. In 1973 he co-founded Canadian Hunter Exploration, and would go on to grow it into one of Canada’s largest natural gas companies.

When Robert Roach first heard Jim Gray speak as the keynote at a political science conference, it wasn’t so much what he said that captured the student’s attention as the infectious energy with which he said it. “He was an inspiring person. He was unstoppable in his energy level.  Recalls Roach, vice-president of research at the Canada West Foundation. “That struck me from the first speech he gave – that he was an authentic person who was really involved in his community.”

In fact, although Gray is the co-founder of Canadian Hunter Exploration and a member of the Alberta Order of Excellence, it’s his philanthropy and community involvement that he’s become best known for. Each morning, for example, he swims lengths of the pool at his Calgary YMCA, a centre that he helped to establish after he saw a need for it in the community. He sits on the board of directors for the Canada West Foundation, and has volunteered with the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter and the Calgary Native Friendship Centre.

Gray approached his business career with the same zeal that he brought to his community work. Early on in his career as a geologist, Gray wanted to bring a major petroleum conference to Calgary. Not the type to send a letter or fax, Gray instead knocked on office doors throughout the city to bring colleagues on board. Roach says that it was this face-to-face approach that led to his success.

“He’d share that enthusiasm and people couldn’t say no,” says Roach. “He personifies the best things about entrepreneurialism. He really understands that being successful in business is about people – it’s not about the lone wolf.

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