B.C. mourns death of Vancouver businessman, philanthropist Joe Segal

The successful retail and real estate entrepreneur died at the age of 97

Vancouver businessman and philanthropist Joe Segal received Order of B.C. and Order of Canada honours | Rob Kruyt

Vancouver businessman, family patriarch and philanthropist Joe Segal has died at the age of 97.

The Second World War veteran is survived by his wife of more than 70 years, Rosalie Segal, as well as four children, 11 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

He received honours such as the Order of B.C. and the Order of Canada. He also spent six years as chancellor of Simon Fraser University (SFU), as well as 12 years on the school's board of governors.

His involvement at SFU included helping to establish the university's Harbour Centre campus, and he chaired a campaign to create SFU's Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, which he also helped finance.

SFU's Segal Graduate School of Business was named in his honour.

His philanthropy included large donations, such as the $12 million gift that he and his wife donated to help build an $82 million mental-health treatment facility at Vancouver General Hospital.

Segal is respected for his support within the Jewish community. He also shared his fortune with organizations such as the Variety Club, the United Way, Vancouver Children's Hospital and SFU.

In his 90s, Segal remained one of Vancouver’s most successful and respected businessmen. 

Real estate investor and former longtime Army and Navy proprietor, Jacqui Cohen, told BIV that in the past year she visited Segal to ask what he thought of a real estate transaction that she was going to be involved in. 

"He was a mentor to me," she said. "I just wanted to see if he thought it was a good idea, and he did."

She noted how impressive it was that he commanded such respect in the community when he was in his late 90s.

Indeed, in recent years, his wit was as sharp as ever, and he was often ready to crack a quip.

He told BIV in 2015 that he owed his physical agility to resistance training in the pool of his Point Grey mansion and his mental quickness to his continuing involvement in business.

"You can’t vegetate," he said. "The mind controls the body."

Segal arrived in Belgium after the Allies' 1944 D-Day landing in France, and he spent a year in the Netherlands and Germany, helping Germany transition after the war, he told BIV during an interview.

"We were responsible for re-installing a democratic process in Germany," he said.

When he returned from service in June 1946, he opened an army surplus business in Vancouver, which he built into the Fields department store chain. It was then that he met Rosalie.

One memory he said he’ll never forget is how he persuaded bankers in 1976 to lend him $50 million so his then-100-store Fields chain could buy the much larger Zellers.

He called it “a case of the mouse swallowing the elephant,” but it set him on track to make a fortune in the retail sector.

When he doubled Zellers’ sales within three years of buying the company – all without opening any new stores – he explained in 2015 that it was because he “lifted the Saran Wrap and let the company breathe.”

By that, Segal said he meant that he let people tell him what was wrong with the company and allowed them to disagree with what were sacred corporate tenets.

“When I arrived on the scene at Zellers, anybody who ever walked by their superior virtually stood at attention,” he said. “It was like I was back in the army.”

Segal implemented a policy of accessibility.

“If the door is open and you listen, you learn,” he said. “If the door is closed, you’re never going to hear anything.”

Segal asked for insight from floor clerks, who would tell him what customers said they liked and what they requested but was out of stock. He then instituted a process whereby customer feedback could be relayed to the person responsible for the store, so the situation could be corrected.

Segal created property owner and developer Kingswood Capital after he sold Zellers to the Hudson’s Bay Co., in 1979, and made enough of a profit to kick-start a career as a real estate developer and dabble in other ventures, such as Collegiate, which he eventually sold, leading into it morphing into FGL Sports – the Calgary-based venture that owns Sport Chek and other brands.

Segal diversified his holdings enough to include companies such as crib-maker Stork Craft Manufacturing Inc., steel shelving manufacturer E-Z-Rect Manufacturing Ltd. and hot-water-tank maker Allied Engineering Co.

His grandson, Adam Segal is Storkcraft's CEO, and he told BIV last year that his grandfather was in good health

Segal's business holdings also included significant stakes in various public companies. 

Real estate, however, is the sector that he has recently been most identified with. He bought Block Brothers Realty in 1988.

His success in real estate comes in part from applying one of the lessons that he learned as a retailer: buy out-of-favour products that have intrinsic value.

That lesson was drilled home in his early military-surplus business. 

“The only thing I could buy with the little amount of money I had was what nobody else wanted,” he told BIV in 2015, referring to the army supplies.

“If anybody else wanted the goods, I couldn’t compete [because they would be too expensive].”

His decision around that time to buy what was then a tenantless Anvil Centre in New Westminster followed a similar principle.

“If the Anvil building was sitting on West Georgia Street, it would be leased in a minute,” he said. “I will be disappointed if that building isn’t leased in the next six to eight months.”

Indeed, the structure soon found tenants. 

His approach to philanthropy was contained in a story that he told BIV in late 2015, when Meta Platforms Inc. (Nasdaq:FB) founder Mark Zuckerberg pledged to give to a new foundation 99 per cent of his then-US$45 billion worth of shares within his lifetime. 

Segal's message: philanthropy is not a matter of the total amount of the dollars given, it is how much you can give within your means.

He then launched into a compelling story. He described a “little old lady living on a pension whose husband, a longshoreman, has died.”

The widow, he said, had been struggling since her husband’s death and lived on a modest amount of money in a house on a 25-foot lot in East Vancouver.

“Taxes were $400 per year, but now they’re $8,000 per year because the land value has gone up,” Segal said.

“She wants to live there until she dies. So, there’s a knock at the door. It’s near Christmas and it’s the Salvation Army. She starts to say ‘No,’ but then says, ‘Just a minute.’ She goes to the cookie jar that has a grocery list and money. She takes money out and goes to the door. ‘Here’s $20.’ Then, she crosses items off her grocery list. Giving is not always measured by the size of the gift.”

Segal, who in recent years has been called a billionaire, said his long-held philosophy for giving is to provide "what I could afford to give. Never less, never more.”