B.C. retail baron Brandt Louie is quietly expanding a century-old family firm
B.C. retail baron Brandt Louie is quietly expanding a century-old family firm
In the days before business plans and vision statements, Vancouver shopkeeper Hok Yat Louie wrote, in his native Chi-
nese, a series of letters to his sons. It was 1934 and, in failing health, he’d returned for the first time in 38 years to his birth-
place in south China’s Pearl River Delta. His trip meant leaving his struggling Chinatown wholesale grocery in the hands of the eldest sons among his 11 Canadianborn children.
He’d suffered hardship and prejudice since settling in Vancouver in 1896, and he knew Depression-era British Columbia
remained a hostile place. Shaped by a harsh environment, he had often seemed distant and driven to his children. It made the gentle sensitivity of his advice—written in the weeks before his death in China at age 59—all the more surprising.
“Be earnest, fair and loyal in your dealings with customers, ” he wrote in one of three
surviving epistles. “Discuss things with your fellow workers. Be amiable to them. ”
His letters hang in the Burnaby headquarters of H.Y. Louie Co. Ltd., by some estimates the provinces second-largest private company (after billionaire Jimmy Pattison’s empire). The tiny general store Louie opened in 1903 to sell seed and fertilizer to Chinese farmers is today a giant wholesale and retail grocery enterprise, and co-owner with Sobeys Inc. of IGA Canada Ltd. His business, in its 100th year and third generation of family leadership, has branched into other, less predictable paths.
There’s London Air Services, a fledgling jet charter business. And London Drugs Ltd., by some calculations the province’s eighth-largest private company. Its novel drug-department store format has grown to 55 outlets in B.C. and Alberta. Two more open in Saskatchewan this summer in a cautious push eastward.
The Louie companies, with about 8,000 employees and an estimated combined annual revenue of almost $4 billion, are headed by Brandt Louie, 58, a grandson Hok Yat never met. H.Y., an educated peasant who was ghettoized by racist bylaws and brutalized by Anglo competitors, would be shocked to find his grandson a pillar of the establishment. In addition to overseeing the family’s expanding dynasty, Brandt is a director of the Royal Bank of Canada—which in the early days refused a loan for the family business—and chairman of the governing boards of both B.C.-based Slocan Forest Products Ltd. and Simon Fraser University, among a daunting list of other business and charitable boards. Canadian Business magazine, in its yearend annual ranking, listed him as Canada’s 49th richest person, with an estimated fortune of $530 million.
Yet most British Columbians haven’t heard of Brandt Louie, and he couldn’t be happier. His aim, he says, is to be “nondescript,” though the adjective is a lame description of his steely intensity. He sits for this rare interview in the Richmond boardroom of London Drugs, under a huge portrait of his late father Tong Louie, the former head of the company and a revered man in B.C. business.
A boardroom wall is dedicated to the accomplishments of his father, who died in 1998 at age 84. It seems at first a curious place for the interview, especially for a son who was acutely aware of growing “in
the shadow of a mountain.” But he’s made his own mark on the company since succeeding Tong as president of H.Y. Louie in 1987. As for his father’s legacy, “I’m very comfortable.” In fact, the decor says as much about a son’s self-confidence as a father’s achievements. It’s the difference between being guided by the past, as Louie surely is, and being smothered by history —the fate of many family businesses in the next generation.
No mission statement directs his family’s sprawling affairs beyond the “very simple prescriptions” of his grandfather’s letters, says Louie. “They have been the visions this company has lived by, and if we’ve prospered a hundred years, it must be because those visions have stood the test of time.”
“Life is for the pursuit of happiness. Young people should always be earnest in their work. ”— Hok Yat, March 30, 1934.
Almost 2,000 people jammed a Vancouver church on a May morning in 1998 for the funeral of Tong Louie. They celebrated the son of a pioneer, delivered into the world by his father in a rough bedroom across from his Chinatown store. They celebrated his business triumphs in a city still
so racist in 1941 that a decision to move his home from Chinatown to Vancouver’s west side generated a storm of front-page headlines. They celebrated his purchase of the struggling U.S.-owned London Drugs chain in 1976, and, above all, his charitable endeavours. “Money,” he said, “does not go to heaven.”
To Tong Louie, life and business were one. Even his funeral didn’t slow the relentless pursuit of happiness. A party in Richmond later that day celebrated a new London Drugs outlet. To cancel the opening or shutter the stores was unthinkable, his friend and fellow philanthropist Joe Cohen had explained. “The public has got to be served at all times, that was his creed.”
“The execution of these plans is lefi to yourselves so long as you set your goals based on the business’s profitability. It requires work and care not to step out of the focal point. ”— July 23, 1934.
Focal point? On the face of it, London Drugs shouldn’t work. The shelves of its sprawling 30,000-square-foot stores seem stocked by a purchaser afflicted with attention deficit. Prescriptions can be filled, and Aspirin purchased. But how to explain
the canned salmon, microwave ovens, cameras, televisions, compact discs and computers? It’s a drug store, concedes Brandt Louie, “that outgrew its name.”
A premium is placed on knowledgeable staff and after-sales service. “We believe that our focus has always been on service, offering our consumers value,” says Louie. “Not necessarily the lowest price, but value.” What London Drugs has done in B.C. and Alberta is recreate the kind of mid-size “general store” that vanished in the 1960s, says Tom Leung, a partner with Vancouver-based retail strategist Thomas Consultants. “Their advantage is they serve a little bit of everything to everybody, but they’re not necessarily big enough in any particular market for any of the other specialty retail chains to say that they are direct competitors,” says Leung. “Therein lies the tremendous beauty.” London Drugs’ entry into Saskatoon and Regina this summer, he says, typifies its conservative, below-the-radar growth strategy. Louie does not demur. Ontario is “in the cards some day,” he
concedes. “We’re treading lightly as we move east.”
Even London Air, the company’s flier into the jet charter business, has conservative roots. The first Learjet was bought in 1999 to cut executive travel costs. A charter company was formed to sell the jet’s downtime. Demand dictated a second plane. A third—capable of charters to Asia or Europe—entered service in January. The Sept. 11 tragedy created such a market for the security and convenience of executive jets that Louie finds himself bumped from his own fleet. “It’s booming to such a point that now and then they ask me to fly commercial,” he says. “‘You can take the jet, but we’ve got a $70,000 charter’.”
“When pursuing prosperity you must follow the laws of Heaven. Don’t be afraid to be kind and charitable. ”— March 30, 1934.
As his father before him, Louie reviews many of the requests for donations that inundate his office. A family and a corporate foundation give an estimated $700,000 annually, in addition to initiatives at indi-
vidual stores. “It’s always nice to give money away,” he says. Recipients are spread among the 70 health and medical regions in the company’s service area, among schools, museums, children’s charities and scholarships. “We’re more amenable to helping those who help themselves.” A London Drugs donation to the Vancouver Maritime Museum financed the opening in February of The Watery Kingdom, an exhibit of ancient Chinese mariners. Louie concedes, however, he has little emotional bond with China and spreads donations across all cultures, because “our customer base is everybody.”
His pioneer roots in B.C. run deep on both sides of his family. His late mother Geraldine’s father settled in Victoria in 1862 after being drawn to North America a decade earlier by the Gold Rush. “You look back at how many generations that we’ve been here,” he says. “We don’t really feel any affinity to China anymore.” He speaks some Cantonese, though his two sons are more fluent. His wife, Belinda, who was born in Hong Kong and educated in the U.S., speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese.
“The more you learn, the better you get... Develop your own character as well as your working skills.”—July 23, 1934.
Though it seemed inevitable that Brandt would one day enter the family business, it had to be on his terms. After graduating from the University of British Columbia in 1966, he worked as a chartered accountant for the firm Touche Ross in both Vancouver and Montreal. He joined H.Y. Louie in 1972 at his father’s behest. He replaced him as president 15 years later, after an apprenticeship that included everything from meat cutting to stocking shelves.
The fourth generation, Louie’s sons, attend Duke University in North Carolina —Gregory in medicine, Stuart in law. Their need “to see how good they are” is something their father appreciates. “They did not want to live under the shadow of a mountain, either father or grandfather.”
He’s told his sons to take 10 years before considering their future with the family firm. “But I’d like them to come back to Canada one day.” Drawn perhaps, by love or duty, or the pull of great-grandfather’s dream. “Always remember to honour your parents. By following their wishes, you are honouring them. ” E3
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