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International affairs his true calling

For Winnipeg businessman Art DeFehr, making the world a better place is the bottom line

Palliser Furniture CEO Art DeFehr has spent the last several decades providing help in global hot spots

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It’s not likely Art DeFehr will cause the Canadian government to change its policy on Iran, but that doesn’t stop the 71-year-old Winnipeg businessman from trying.

His effort has included a detailed, 12-page report called Iran in Transition, which followed an intense 10-day tour of the country in April. Then there was a personal conversation with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and a meeting with senior ministry officials in Ottawa.

How is it DeFehr, the CEO of Palliser Furniture, would come to even have a position on Iran?

For the same reason he has substantial and first-hand insightful takes on places as far-flung as Russia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Somalia, Mexico, Burma and a number of other international hot spots, not to mention some of the most vexing domestic issues of the day.

It’s what he does.

Why he does it is not easy for DeFehr — who believes himself to be of superior analytic skills — to answer.

He’s not some well-meaning, good-hearted soul who volunteers for charitable missions in war-torn crisis spots.

"I’m not a missionary with a passion to do that," he said during a couple of extensive discussions about his remarkable career outside business.

His connection with the Mennonite church is a factor, but definitely not the whole story.

He’s got some independence — financial and otherwise — as the CEO of Palliser, but it’s not as if he’s the wealthiest person in town.

After all, Palliser was hit hard in the last recession, and company profits were non-existent for several years. At its peak, Palliser was probably hitting $500 million in sales and had more than 3,000 employees. These days, the employee count is about half that, but the company has been on a growth curve, with revenue up 40 per cent in the last few years.

There’s no question his late mother, the former Mia Reimer, was a major influence. Books have been written about her daring escape from the Soviet Union as a young woman in the 1930s. She made her way through China and on to the United States, where she eventually told her story in public gatherings. (Those talks may have got her onto the McCarthy-era blacklist.)

"I’ve grown up in a certain setting with stories of people... everyone from my family was a refugee," DeFehr said. "You’re highly aware of how challenging the world is for people and how fortunate people like myself are. Certainly my Christian faith with a Mennonite flavour is part of that — it shapes it.

"Another thing is opportunity," he said. "For whatever reason, the opportunities have come my way."

But like all opportunities, you have to be ready, if not out there looking for them.

Originally, DeFehr had decided to go into a career in the Foreign Service after completing a degree at the University of Manitoba. He had a job lined up with the Canadian government in the diplomatic service but chose to spend a year at a Mennonite liberal arts college in Indiana first.

That was in the mid-1960s, the height of the civil rights movement, and DeFehr threw himself into the thick of things. He was part of the Selma to Montgomery march that followed the infamous Bloody Sunday. He befriended Millard Fuller 10 years before he created Habitat for Humanity (the first Habitat Re-Store in the world was in a former Palliser warehouse) and toured the racially segregated south.

That put him on the FBI’s radar, and he soon found out he no longer had a job waiting for him with the Canadian government.

He turned to business, where his father already had a thriving furniture company on the go, and went to Harvard, where he earned an MBA.

"I decided I would go into a career where the FBI would not be my HR manager," he said, "It still lives with me... when the Nexus card came out, my wife got one, but I was turned down twice."


Updated on Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at 10:53 AM CDT: Clarifies donations to the CMHR.

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