Winnipeg, as with the humble village or sprawling nation, covets its icons, those symbols of success from which citizens vicariously draw pride and identity. George Taylor Richardson was monumental in his community. And yet, while instantly recognizable, at least in name, Mr. Richardson was a man most Winnipeggers hardly knew.
The poetic irony of that underscored a family trait: The Richardsons are known for shying from the public spotlight.
Mr. Richardson's influence was unbounded. As president of James Richardson and Sons, he earned the enduring loyalty and personal indebtedness of not just the community organizations reliant upon benevolence of the wealthy, but of fellow businessmen who grew successful with the help and inspiration of a man who believed in the entrepreneurial spirit in this city and backed it with cash.
Money naturally acquires power, but the ability to inspire requires something more. George Richardson had a solid understanding that a community's real strength comes from shared wealth, which is the progress and capacity that springs from raising each other up by mentorship. That, too, was a family trait.
From humble roots in Kingston, Ont., where his great-grandfather started as a tailor, the Richardson interest in the grain trade moved west in the late 1800s, establishing its first grain elevator in Neepawa. In 1912, it planted its Winnipeg roots. Foresight and grit spread the Richardson tentacles into various spheres of the agri-food sector, the investment securities business, shipping, aviation, oil and gas exploration and infrastructure. Elevators and terminals emblazoned with the name Pioneer began popping up, as did Tundra Oil and Gas installations.
George Richardson, who shared the name of an uncle famous in his day for his hockey prowess, inherited the mantle of president and CEO in 1966 when his brother, James, entered national politics. Unlike many corporations that fall to the hands of sons and daughters, James Richardson and Sons has not flagged under the weight of inheritance.
George Richardson proved his chops as a magnate, skilfully moving the business out and then back into the financial sector -- a 1996 sale of Richardson Greenshields to RBC gave the company precious shares in the bank. That served the business well when it had to navigate the shoals of deregulation of the grain industry in the early 2000s. In the face of competition that welcomed American players, Richardson's Pioneer Grain mustered its purchase of Agricore in 2007, making it a Canadian behemoth and putting it in a strong position now for further growth with the dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly over wheat sales.
Most Winnipeggers might not know the details of the success, but they can see the very public results of George Richardson's belief that this city is a worthy place for an international head office. The construction of its Lombard property at Portage and Main in the mid-1960s spurred modern development at the famous corner. The Richardson Building opened in 1969 as Winnipeg's first modern skyscraper, shaking the city out of a decades-long development stupor and spurring a commercial renaissance.
Son Hartley assumed control of the company when George retired in 2000, investing in the University of Winnipeg's sparkling faculty of science building on Portage Avenue, which now bears the family name.
Less well known is that George, while governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, brought the replica of the Nonsuch to the Manitoba Museum. And under his hand, the HBC's headquarters were moved to Canada, and its historic archival trove to the Manitoba Archives.
At George's death, at 89, on Wednesday, the family business was worth $4.4 billion. The firm remains a titan among the Canadian corporate elite -- a rarity for family ventures and in large measure due to the great-grandson of its founder. Winnipeg is in his debt.