In it for the long haul
Trucking magnate Paul Albrechtsen, who arrived in Canada with $50, 'was an ordinary guy who did extraordinary things' and left a near-$30M health-care legacy in city
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/10/2019 (1143 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
He made his fortune in the trucking industry and generously gave back to the community, becoming one of Winnipeg’s best known philanthropists. But family was what mattered most to Paul Albrechtsen.
Albrechtsen, who was born in Denmark and arrived in Canada at the age of 24, died in July. He would have turned 89 last week.
“He was fiercely loyal to his family and friends,” son John Erik said recently. “Friends and family were the strongest thing to him. And always Christmas Day was with the family. Christmas Eve was Danish Christmas and Boxing Day we would go skiing. It was a really great time.”
Albrechtsen’s wife, Mary Lou, said “as he got older, the family became more and more important.
“As he said, ‘You can build companies, but your family is your family,’” she said.
Albrechtsen arrived in Canada with only $50 in his pocket in 1954 — the maximum allowed to be taken out of Denmark at the time because of a currency crisis.
“He came here with $50 — he made that clear many times,” recalled son David. “The Danish government wouldn’t let him leave with more than that after the war.”
His working life began with a newspaper route in the small Danish town he lived in. At the age of 10, after the Second World War broke out and the country was occupied by the Nazis, he began raising rabbits to sell the meat to help his family. Two years later, he was hauling peat moss, followed by a period working on a farm. And then, at 15, he apprenticed as a mechanic, a job that would ultimately lead to his business success.
After the war, he’d travel to Copenhagen with his father and began buying used motorcycles at auctions. He’d fix them and resell them at a profit.
“As he always said, all his friends were always going out to the dances and having beers and he was fixing up motorcycles,” David said. “They would stop by to try getting him to join and he would say, ‘I’ve got no time for that.’ But he knew how to go out and party, too. “Once the work was done, he knew how to do that.”
Albrechtsen then served 18 months of compulsory service in the Danish army and, after that, he decided to follow his dream and move to the United States.
“There were only two ways to the United States: he could go back into the army or he could wait a couple of years,” John Erik said.
“He said, ‘I’ve had enough of the army… and if he came to Canada he could get in a reasonably short period of time, a few weeks. So he came to Canada.”
Albrechtsen soon was in Winnipeg, because Manitoba’s waiting list was only six weeks compared with several months in other provinces.
But he didn’t speak English.
John Erik said that language barrier was what took him to Virden, where Paul’s Hauling was born.
“He was staying in Winnipeg at the Salvation Army, but he went to the employment office and they said, ‘Well, you don’t speak English, so maybe you should go back to where you came from.’
“But there was a Danish community in Virden, so he went there.”
Albrechtsen began working in the town as a mechanic at a Mercury dealership for “67 cents an hour,” John Erik and David said at the same time.
“I’ve heard that more times than I can count,” David said. “You get a bad mark on the test and he’d say, ‘When I was your age I was making 67 cents an hour.’ I heard that many times.”
A chance engine repair job for a Calgary oil manager got him a job as a mechanic in the oil fields around Virden. Soon, with his savings, Albrechtsen was able to buy a used truck, put a tank and pump on it and hire a driver, who promptly quit.
When Albrechtsen went to his boss and said he’d have to quit or sell the truck, he was offered a chance to continue as their mechanic in addition to hauling water and oil for the company.
From that single vehicle, Albrechtsen grew his company to 1,100 trucks, with offices and terminals across the country.
Besides Paul’s Hauling, the company also owns Gardewine and Westcan Bulk Transport.
He owned a single-pilot Cessna Citation and became the first civilian pilot to fly a jet in Canada. He retired from flying at age 60, having logged 6,000 hours in the air.
His trucking empire’s success enabled him to branch out into other areas, including the purchase and development of Beaver Run, a ski resort in Breckenridge, Colo., about 135 kilometres west of Denver.
He was quick to credit the people he’d hired over the years.
“Throughout our company’s history we have been blessed with excellent staff,” he said in a statement on the company’s website. “There’s an old Chinese proverb that says it well. If you want to be profitable for one year, grow grain. If you want to be profitable for 10 years, grow trees. But if you want to be profitable for a lifetime, grow people.”
Albrechtsen thanked his employees by offering to help their families. The company has a scholarship fund that John Erik said pays up to 100 per cent of tuition costs for employees’ children. Funded by both employees and a “substantial annual contribution” by Albrechtsen, it has paid out more than $900,000 in the 15 years since its inception.
“Education was important to him,” John Erik said. “If you were an employee of Paul’s Hauling, he wanted to make sure you were taken care of.”
Throughout the years, and especially in the last decade, Albrechtsen also gave back to the country from which he received so much. His donations included at least $7 million to the St. Boniface Hospital Foundation, $13.4 million to the Health Sciences Centre Foundation, $4 million to the Riverview Health Centre Foundation to help build an Alzheimer Centre of Excellence and more than $7 million to the Reh-Fit Centre for its $12-million expansion in 2006.
John Erik said there were also smaller donations throughout the years. He recalled going to a football game at the Old Exhibition Grounds with his father, who noted the venue didn’t have a proper scoreboard, so he had one installed.
For both his business success, and his philanthropic leadership, Albrechtsen was invested into the Order of Canada last year and the Order of Manitoba in 2016.
“He would say, ‘I don’t have an education, but I have a PhD in common sense,” David said.
“He was an ordinary guy who did extraordinary things,” John Erik said.
Besides his wife, Albrechtsen is survived by five sons, a daughter and nine grandchildren.
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.