Ernest Rady has not lived in Winnipeg since 1966, but he grew up and earned business and law degrees from the University of Manitoba, and thanks to his philanthropy his family’s name is prominently displayed in the city where he was raised.
Rady, 84, was in Winnipeg this week to receive the International Distinguished Entrepreneur Award (IDEA) from the Associates of the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba.
Rady is the current chairman and CEO of American Assets Trust, a San Diego-based real estate company with office and retail properties up and down the U.S. Pacific Coast worth about $4 billion. He is also chairman of the ICW Group, a property and casualty insurance company that he founded in 1972 that’s worth about $3.6 billion.
In the mid-2000s he was on the Forbes 400 list of billionaires with assets listed at $2.1 billion in 2008. But he fell off the list when regulators forced the successful financial institution he founded, Westcorp — with assets of about $17 billion — to merge with a bank with the right kind of charter.
Rady chose Wachovia, which was caught in the collapse of the U.S. housing market; Rady lost a fortune.
"I don’t sit around licking my wounds, though at the time it was very troublesome," he said in an interview with the Free Press.
"We have made a comeback, frankly. I made back the money I lost."
Even though he has not lived here for 55 years, he has made sure to honour the legacy of his parents, Dr. Max Rady, a Winnipeg obstetrician and gynecologist who suffered strokes and heart attacks and died at 68, and his mother Rose, who was a sister of Sam Bronfman of Seagram fame.
He has one surviving sister in Winnipeg, Marjorie Blankstein. His other sister, Mindel Olenik, died a few months ago at age 97.
His father’s health issues inspired young Ernest to take care of his health.
"I have exercised every day for 50 years, but I hate it," he said. "The best part of exercising is when it’s over."
In 2016, he provided the U of M with a $30-million gift and that was recognized by the university by naming its medical college the Max Rady College of Medicine — one of five colleges within the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences.
The Rady name is also uttered often by the thousands of people who enjoy the facilities at the Rose and Max Rady Jewish Community Centre.
Rady and Evelyn, his wife of 62 years, have also given hundreds of millions of dollars to hospitals and academic institutions in the San Diego area.
He has also contributed to the Salvation Army and expects that to continue.
For someone so successful and active in so many different businesses over the years, Rady remained under the radar until he started showing up on the Forbes list of billionaires.
Unfortunately, he believes that profile led to a harrowing home invasion in which he and his wife were bound and threatened with a knife and gun.
Asked why, after such a scare, he didn’t start to make his donations anonymously, he said, "It’s a choice between being known as a rich old hermit miser or someone who has done things to help others. I get vicarious pleasure out of helping others. I know it’s not without its risks and I am very wary."
Just as he has taken his lumps in the business world and carried on without becoming too emotional, he has never harboured a grudge against his intruder, who was never caught and with whom Rady became friendly before the ordeal was over.
Speaking before the IDEA dinner on Wednesday night, he said he was very nervous. A charming but self-deprecating man, Rady has often said he does not believe he is really that smart.
He professes to not really know just how the pandemic will affect the real estate market, let alone global economies.
But in a way that’s uncharacteristic of many octogenarians, he is hopeful about the kind of change technology provides.
"God bless the ingenuity of Americans and Canadians who came up with all the ways that have allowed us to continue to function in spite of the obstacles put in our way by the pandemic," he said.
He said that God bestowed two attributes to him that have allowed him to prosper: above-average common sense and a very good sense of people.
Rady joins an impressive cohort of IDEA recipients, including Sir Richard Branson, Paul Desmarais Sr., Akio Morita, Ross Perot, Heather Reisman & Gerald Schwartz, David Thomson and the 2019 (and most recent) recipient, Hartley Richardson.
In a video tribute produced for the event, Rady was asked by an interviewer what he thought was the most important element of a successful business. He answered like the real estate professional he is: "People, people and people."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.