Leon Koerner’s one-man giveaway program
Canada’s happiest spender is this Czech millionaire who arrived here seventeen years ago to start a new life . . . and hated it. “Now I know it was God’s blessing,” he says, and works five hours a day giving away millions to make amends
In Shaughnessy Heights, Vancouver’s stateliest district, there is a forty-six-year-old mansion standing in two acres of well-kept gardens. It is furnished with richly upholstered chairs and divans that were custom-built in prewar Europe. About its spacious rooms stand seventeenthand eighteenth-century writing desks, chests and cabinets. Antique mirrors, candelabra and chiming clocks glint in the hall. The floors are spread with thick rugs, the best that money can buy in India, China and Persia. Oil paintings, some by world masters, cover the walls. An elevator goes down to a luxurious private movie theatre, or up to bedrooms fit for royalty.
Every morning, after breakfast cooked by a Chinese chef and served by a housekeeper, a short, dark, sallow man of sixtyfour, with lively brown eyes, a beaky nose, courtly manners and a broken-English accent, gives his blond wife a peck on the cheek, and leaves by a side door. He walks through a profusion of flower beds to an old coach house, deeper in the grounds. Here he has an office overlooking, through sliding lloor-to-ceiling windows, a goldfish pond and an arbor of
fruit trees. When he takes his place behind a mahogany desk he is joined by a woman secretary who lives in an apartment above the adjacent three-car garage.
His name is Leon Koerner. His wife is the former Thea Rosenquist. once a star of the Vienna stage. Although Koerner has been in Canada only seventeen years he plays, in that office, the role of a miniature Carnegie.
Since 1939, when he came to Canada as a Czech refugee, and founded a Vancouver company now known as Alaska Pine and Cellulose Ltd., Koerner has built a stake of more than a million dollars into a fortune said to run between five and ten million dollars. Alaska Pine is B. C.’s biggest producer of the kind of wood pulp that now goes into textiles. As a producer of lumber, Alaska Pine is outstripped in B. C. only by its neighbor the giant MacMillan and Bloedel Ltd. It rates fourth in the province after the Powell River Co. Ltd., MacMillan and Bloedel Ltd., and Crown Zellerbach Canada Ltd., as a producer of wood pulp for paper and newsprint. While most other lumber millionaires enjoy running race horses, sailing yachts or building fabulous homes Koerner prefers sharing his wealth. He lives in the same house he once rented at the Depression rate of seventy dollars a month and later bought from the CPR for ten thousand. Although he has spent a small fortune on renovating the house, he has given much more money away since coming to Canada—more than two million dollars.
“This is only the beginning,” says philanthropist Koerner, and gives away a third million
Last year he gave one million dollars for the establishment of the Leon and Thea Koerner Foundation for the promotion of art, culture and welfare. Jointly with his brother Walter, today’s president of Alaska Pine, he has given one hundred and sixteen thousand dollars to the University of British Columbia. He has willed UBC a fortune many times bigger, plus his house and all its contents. His day-by-day philanthropy runs into tens of thousands of dollars a year. “And this,” he says, “is only a beginning of what I intend to do."
In the old photographs on the walls of Koerner’s office, in the woodwork of the walls, and in the filing cabinets against the walls, there is evidence of why he works four or five hours every-day at the uncommon and exacting *tàsk pf givhig most of his money away. -•?/' vtóf
The photographs shóV ''fcwitonger, glossy-haired Koerper whp, im mir i^ir*^ ties, was a third-g’ene^tion näf^j^illwtaB aire, a senior partnJipin11^^ firm of J. Koerner Lumber IiyJusfftes,. Ltd., of
Prague. It was an international lumber empire that employed fifteen thousand people in the forests and sawmills of Czechoslovakia, Poland and Saxony, Germany. Founded by his grandfather Joseph, it allowed Koerner, his three brothers, six sisters, numerous in-laws, nieces and nephews to live in the grand manner in every capital of Europe.
Standing close to Koerner in some of the pictures are Engelbert Dollfuss, the “pocket chancellor” of Austria who was assassinated by Hitler’s agents in 1934; Kurt Schuschnigg, the later Austrian chancellor who bowed to Hitler in 1938; Eduard Benes, the Czech president who capitulated to Hitler in 1938; Joachim von Ribbentrop. the ignoble German ambassador to Britain, and Count Galleazo Ciano, the foxy Italian foreign minister. who helped Hitler in 1939 to reduce the old Europe to a charnel house.
These calamities left Leon Koerner. his older brother Theodore, and his younger brothers Otto and Walter, with only a fraction of their former fortune— about one million two hundred thousand dolors.
|¡e office walls behind the photographs are made of lumber produced by a firm that Leon Koerner founded when he
reached Vancouver in 1939, as a refugee from his native Czechoslovakia. At New Westminster, twelve miles south, he bought a derelict mill, hired forty-five men and, amid much local derision, began to saw hemlock, a wood then regarded by most builders as rubbish. But he submitted the hemlock to special processes he had learned in Europe, changed its name to Alaska Pine, and sold it throughout the world. He rapidly absorbed a neighboring company and with this produced seventy-five percent of the ammunition and ration boxes used by British Commonwealth forces during World War II.
Today Alaska Pine and Cellulose Ltd., with its affiliated company, Western Forest Industries Ltd., operates twelve logging camps, five sawmills, two cellulose plants, two shingle mills and a box factory. Managed from headquarters in the Alaska Pine Building, one of Vancouver’s newest and swishiést skyscrapers, it processes eleven percent of B. C.’s log output, employs forty-five hundred people and meets a payroll of twenty million dollars a year.
Half of the original company was bought by Abitibi Power and Paper Co., of Toronto, in 1951. In 1954, shortly
after Leon Koerner retired and handed the presidential chair over to his brother Walter, eighty percent of the stock was bought by the American company Rayonier Inc., one of the world’s leading manufacturers of cellulose. The Koerner brothers, who still retain ten percent of the stock, cleared more than nine million dollars.
Leon Koerner lights a cigarette, brushes a speck of dust from his costly tropicalweight suit, looks shyly across his desk and says, "My wife and I’ feel very humble in Canada, and very proud of living here. Long ago we regarded the circumstances that drove us to Canada as God's curse on our former good fortune. Now we know that they were God's blessing. We feel we must make amends for having misjudged Him.”
In the filing cabinets of Koerner’s garden office are thousands of letters relating to the manner in which he is making amends. Many are connected with the Leon and Thea Koerner Foundation which, under the chairmanship of Norman A. M. MacKenzie, president of the University of British Columbia, is today helping scores of cultural organizations.
Most of the letters, however, are from the hundreds of individuals who have enjoyed Koerner’s more discreet largesse. Aided by his secretary and a card index of names, addresses and significant dates, Koerner works from eight a.m. to one p.m. each day, distributing his money.
Every month hundreds of food parcels ire dispatched to old friends now behind the Iron Curtain, such as eighty-twoxear-old General Victor Hoppe, formerly chief of protocol to Thomas Masaryk, founder of Czechoslovakia. Some Iron Curtain countries recently prohibited sifts of new clothing, so now Koerner buys from rummage sales near-new clothing which, after cleaning, sterilizing and pressing, is sent off by the packingcase-full.
Within Canada, Koerner’s generosity is more diverse and subtle. When Mrs. Frank Fletcher, wife of Koerner’s retired gardener, returned from a Californian holiday last February, she found waiting on her sitting-room table a bowl of rare hyacinths and a splendid silk stole. A xear or so ago a daughter of UBC’s Norman MacKenzie was sick in hospital. Every day books, candy and flowers arrived from Koerner. Hundreds of people, prominent and obscure, in British Columbia receive cards and gifts on a birthday, a wedding anniversary, the arrival of a baby, or some other date or expected event Koerner has noted in casual conversation and carefully filed.
“His munificence,” says MacKenzie, would be embarrassing to the recipients did they not know the reason behind it. Leon Koerner loves Canada more emotionally than the average native-born citizen and this is his way of showing it.”
Koerner’s capacity for sending the right gift at the right time is matched only by his virtuosity as a host. In response to mailed invitations, he receives at home, with a slight bow from the waist, a stream of visitors ranging from sawmill foremen like Tommy Norstrand, the first Canadian he employed, to union executives like Percy Bengough, former president of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada, and from concert artists like Rudolf Firkusny, the celebrated Czech pianist, to overseas millionaires like Sir Seymour Howard, last year’s Lord Mayor of London.
Though most of Koerner’s social evenings are devoted to hi-fi records from his library of eighty-five complete operas, or to documentary movies or to scholarly conversation around the big log fire, some, under the stimulus of youth or unlimited supplies of refreshment, nowadays end in singing and dancing. Koerner will telephone for a professional dance band at the drop of a hat if his guests are in that mood.
When he leaves each November for his winter home in Palm Springs, Calif., where he relieves for a few months his chronic asthma, Koerner encourages many Vancouverites to spend a few days of their vacation with him. Dean Geoffrey Andrew, of UBC, visited Palm Springs a few winters ago and found Koerner’s chauffeur-driven yellow Cadillac waiting for him at the airport. He was shown to a room full of cut flowers. As he was unpacking Koerner came in with a fine dressing gown. “Just in case you’re traveling light,” he said, "I thought I'd get you this.”
Last winter Koerner entertained a lean gangling sawmill foreman named Jack Bennett, with whom he once almost had a fight. The memory of that scene prompts Koerner to remark, “At first the Canadian working man puzzled me. Then he inspired me.”
Koerner was not equipped by birth or environment for easy assimilation within Canada. He was born in 1892 at Novy Hrozenkov, one hundred and fifty miles
from Prague in the province of Northern Moravia, at that time part of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was reared in a society devoted to high ceremonial and caste, and he circulated in the orbit of Emperor Franz Josef’s court. J. Koerner Lumber Industries Ltd., the family business, was the biggest lumber company in what is now Czechoslovakia.
After the fashion of the Rothschilds, the Koerner boys were schooled for the priestcraft of international finance. Leon Koerner graduated from the Export Academie in Vienna, absorbed the progressive theories of the London School of Economics and learned some philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. His education was topped off by a couple of years' practical experience in the banking and brokerage houses of several European capitals.
He was no sooner ready for work than World War 1 broke out. As an artillery officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army he fought on the Russian, Balkan and Italian fronts, was wounded once and on another occasion he was buried alive by falling debris from a shellburst. Among eight decorations he won are two equivalent to the DSO and MC. The division of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918 left him a citizen of Czechoslovakia.
A race with the Nazis
During the Depression, while his brothers ran the family business. Leon Koerner took on an international task. He was one of the architects of the European Timber Exporters’ Convention which, from headquarters in Stockholm, associated the lumber industries of Czechoslovakia, Austria, Rumania. Poland, Yugoslavia, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Latvia and Russia in a common fight for survival.
When Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia in 1938 Koerner was in the uniform of a reserve captain, and ready for fight. When the Czechoslovakian government, deserted by Britain and France, was forced to capitulate, he knew there was nothing left for his family but flight.
Koerner calls himself a Protestant, although by blood he is half Jewish, half Slav. He is not a member of any Vancouver church but in Europe he worshiped at a Lutheran church. Because his grandmothers were Jews — though married to Gentiles — the Nazis rated Koerner and his brothers as Jews, and confiscated their property.
With the Czech capitulation the brothers dispersed to collect, before the Nazis could seize them, outstanding accounts due to J. Koerner Lumber Industries, and to safeguard a number of foreign investments. On the securities they deposited at Brown, Shipley and Co. Ltd., a London banking house with which their family had done business for more than fifty years, they raised a credit of three hundred thousand pounds, then equal to roughly one million two hundred thousand dollars.
Leon was sent to North America to investigate the possibilities of setting up in business again. Although he was one of the richest refugees Canada has ever admitted, Leon Koerner says he reached Vancouver "in an acute state of depression.” He was still smoldering at the manner in which Chamberlain had abandoned Czechoslovakia at Munich six months earlier, still harrowed by the disappearance of relatives and friends into Hitler’s concentration camps, and still furious at the loss of a fortune.
Though Koerner has never admitted it, he found the social climate of Vancouver, at first encounter, uncongenial. He was carrying letters of introduction from many distinguished Europeans and Americans, including one from Jan Masaryk, Czechoslovakian ambassador to Britain and son of his country’s founder, and another from Lester B. Pearson, then on the staff of the Canadian High Commissioner in London and now Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs. “But let’s be frank,” says a close Vancouver friend, “there were circles here in which Koerner was not wanted.” He was cold-shouldered by some B. C. lumber tycoons who knew of his European record and feared his competition, and snubbed by some Vancouver socialites who disapproved of his foreign features, formal clothing and heel-clicking manners.
"Come on - have a beer,” said their chauffeur, and the astonished Koerners knew the past was dead
Pained by this reception Koerner was also tormented—as war between Germany and Britain became more certain— bx the prospect of further humiliation in Canada under the tag “enemy alien.” He was about to seek a friendlier haven in the United States when Thea contracted mumps. Koerner says he looked on the delay as the last straw in a load of misfortune and frustration. “Yet,” he says, “Thea’s mumps were divine guidance.”
With time on his hands he paid polite, almost apologetic, visits to B. C. sawmills, then in the doldrums of the Depression. He was amazed at the wastefulness engendered by the province’s plentiful supplies of lumber, and became convinced he could succeed where many Canadian lumbermen had failed. “But,” he says, “I decided that if 1 was to go into business in B. C. I would have to find some way of doing so without arousing antagonism.”
Everybody hated hemlock
His chance came one day when he learned about hemlock, the Cinderella of the B. C. forests. A coarse inferior timber, hemlock was cut largely to clear the ground around better-quality trees. A limited amount was sold to the United States. But in Britain hemlock was detested. It had been the custom to ship to Britain only the surplus of hemlock unwanted by the Americans, and it arrived cut to American sizes which caused construction problems. Because hemlock contained much more moisture than other B. C. woods it was twice as heavy, cost more to ship, and set workmen grumbling. Failure to dry the hemlock properly resulted in serious warping and discoloration during the voyage. In consequence exports of B.C. hemlock to Britain had dwindled to vanishing point.
But there were hundreds of British builders who had been used to buying the Czech lumber of J. Koerner Lumber Industries, and Koerner circulated these old customers, guaranteeing them supplies of Canadian lumber that would match the former Czech lumber in size, quality and price. Wage rates were much higher in Canada but Koerner knew he could stick to the old prices because B. C. lumber entered Britain under imperial preferential tariffs.
Koerner, of course, made no mention of the fact that he was proposing to send his customers the hated hemlock. Instead, he flipped through a dictionary and found that a second name for hemlock was Alaska Pine. He called the late Ernest Manning, then chief forester for B. C., and asked, “If I sold hemlock to Britain under the name of Alaska Pine, would it be legal?” Manning replied, “If you can sell hemlock to Britain, you can
call the stuff any darn name you like.”
On the Fraser River at New Westminster, Koerner bought a mill that had been closed for three years and was being cared for by a janitor named Tommy Norstrand. Koerner hired him and gave him the job of foreman in charge of a lumber-piling crew; today Norstrand is foreman in charge of all kiln-drying operations at the mill.
Next Koerner invested a quarter of a million dollars in fitting up the mill, adding new machinery and a number of special drying kilns. When Fred Hume, now mayor of Vancouver but then mayor of New Westminster, heard that Koerner was preparing to saw hemlock for Britain he pleaded with him not to waste his money. But Koerner stuck to his plan.
In July 1939 he opened up. Three hundred men applied for the forty-four jobs. Koerner sawed hemlock to British sizes, then kiln-dried it in a process his old family firm had used on inferior European white woods. The lumber was shipped under the name Alaska Pine.
Sales, helped by the stimulus of war, boomed. Within six months of opening Koerner received a telephone call from Kapoor Singh, B. C.’s East Indian lumber millionaire. Singh said, “I'll give you a one-hundred-percent capital gain on your investment, no matter what it was, for that business.” Koerner courteously turned him down. New Westminster’s tradesmen were not so optimistic about Koerner’s chances and for months refused to cash Alaska Pine’s pay cheques.
Koerner’s brothers hurried out to join him. Otto was made president of the company because he had had most experience in production in Europe. Walter, also, was given a senior executive post, but Theodore, who had already retired in Europe, took no part in the business. He lived quietly in Vancouver until his death, at seventy-two, in 1951.
At first there was a feeling of strangeness between the Koerners and their workers. The brothers made endless inspection tours of the plant. The workers, already confused as to which Koerner was boss, found these short dark men in formal clothes embarrassingly courteous and very exacting. For their part, the brothers found the Canadian workman disconcertingly forthright, even rude.
Once, Jack Bennett, the foreman who was a guest of Leon Koerner in Palm Springs last year, stayed long after his shift was up to plane off some wrong markings erroneously applied to a stack of lumber by one of the men under him. Leon Koerner approached, thought Bennett was responsible for the mistake and blew up. “I was so mad,” says Bennett, “that if he’d been a bigger and younger man I’d have hit him.” Instead Bennett stalked away. Relations between Leon Koerner and Bennett were cool for weeks. As Christmas approached and word went around that all hands would receive a turkey from the management Bennett said, “Huh! Not me!” But he got a turkey—from Leon Koerner personally— plus a handsome apology for the misunderstanding. “It was the first time a sawmill boss had ever apologized to me,” says Bennett, “and it made me think.”
The Koerners, long used to more respectful employees in Europe, were also thinking hard. Once Otto and Leon hired a chauffeur-driven car for a business trip. After traveling for a couple of hours without speaking to the driver they were astonished when he turned round and said casually, “How about a beer?”
Leon had had a chauffeur in Europe
for seventeen years and not once had the man spoken until he was addressed. Faintly. Leon Koerner told the Canadian driver, “We don't want a drink. But please have one yourself.”
The driver pulled up and was about to enter a beer parlor alone when he swung around, opened the back door of the car and said, "Aw, come on. Have a beer.” In bewildered obedience the two Koerners followed him. When the man insisted on paying—“I asked you, didn’t I?” —they were speechless.
Later Otto said, “What do you make of them. Leon?”
Leon replied, "I’m beginning to like
I Silly Saws
| Can you guess the famous say|| ing that is concealed in these ï| drawings? It’s as familiar as “A || rolling stone gathers no moss.” Check your answer below.
them. There is no virtue in servility. This is one of only two countries in the world where a man can do what he’s best suited for and suffer no feeling of social inferiority to other people. They are natural, candid and proud. They are strong, healthy, intelligent and mechanically minded. And they are loyal if you treat them well. They are the finest workers in the world. We must break with the past, for this is our future.”
The Koerners had some surprises up their sleeve for the Canadians too. “When I joined the company in 1943,” says foreman Albert Rose, “I was amazed —everything was so clean. I had always been used to mills where you ate your lunch sitting on a log, washed your hands in the boiler room, and went into the bush to the toilet. But here was a fine cafeteria, indoor plumbing and concrete runways between the stacks to save the men from getting their feet wet.”
Cleanliness halved the accident rate at the mill. Men no longer lost time through tripping over end pieces spilled off trucks and left lying around, or slipping on patches of grease. Heads were
saved from bumps by the first safety helmets introduced into a B. C. sawmill.
In 1940 Koerner installed a company union, the Alaska Pine Employees’ Advisory Committee, in his plant to act as a bargaining agency. He had learned much about union philosophy from his friend Joseph Macek, the leader of the prewar Czech Social Democrat Party, the onetime mentor of union executives all over the world and today a lecturer in economics at the University of Pittsburgh, Penn.
When, in 1943, the workers voted for the establishment in the plant of a local of the International Woodworkers of America, Koerner accepted the decision by saying, “What the law of this grand country of ours stands for, and what the majority of our fellow workers express through secret vote, within reason, and the limits of your management’s possibilities, will be your management’s guidance for action.”
Once, addressing his employees as "fellow workers, and friends,” he castigated them because only twenty-eight out of five hundred had voted at the election of the plant union committee. “I know,” he said, “that loyal men hesitate to take on union duties because they fear these might not be in the interest of the company. That attitude is wrong. It leaves power in the union open to Communists. Exercise your right and vote.”
Until the number of employees exceeded two hundred and fifty he knew the Christian name of every man, and had visited them all at home. Four nephews, Fred Koerner, Peter Sloane, Henry Schindler and Francis Reif, became executives, but Koerner told the workers to call them, since they were so young, by their first names. Reif, today general manager of the lumber division, is still called Francis by five hundred men and women in the plant.
The Koerner mill at New Westminster was the first in B. C. to introduce a lunch room, a Christmas bonus, holidays with pay and a medical plan that was subsequently superseded by the provincial government’s own scheme. Until Koerner’s arrival it was the custom of B. C. mills to pay more for day-shift work than night-shift work. Koerner, deciding that night work was tougher, reversed the practice, and Alaska Pine was the first mill in the province to pay five cents an hour more for night work than day. Now all sawmills pay the night shift more.
Koerner’s personal relationship with his men was perhaps best illustrated when the workers were out on a five-week IWA strike over wages and hours in 1946. At the height of the strike Koerner was invited as an honored guest at a dinner of the workers' bowling club.
At a recent plant Christmas party the employees presented Koerner with an enlarged replica of a cheque. Four feet long and eighteen inches deep it is drawn on The Bank of Goodwill. Against the word “pay” is written Koerner’s name. On the line marked "the sum of” is written the word “gratitude.” It is signed, “Alaska Pine Employees.” Few visitors leave Koerner’s office without being asked to admire it, as it hangs in a frame on the wall.
For several months after the outbreak of the war Koerner had to report to the RCMP at regular intervals as an “enemy alien.” The routine was brought to an end only when the Czech governmentin-exile was formed under Benes in London. But it was never so humiliating as Koerner had feared. Today he still entertains one of the RCMP officers with whom he went through the formality (“a most polite and friendly man”).
By 1954 Koerner had expressed his thanks for Canada’s hospitality and bounty in half a dozen grants to the University of British Columbia of sums ranging from five thousand to twenty-five thousand dollars. To show his gratitude toward Canada in 1951 he gave ten thousand dollars for the extension of the law faculty library.
In 1946 Otto Koerner died, at fiftytwo, from a heart attack brought on by overwork. He was buried according to the rites of the United Church. Leon Koerner became president. Jointly with his brother Walter, he gave a twenty-fivethousand-dollar grant to the UBC library in memory of Otto. When Canadian citizenship was introduced in 1947 Koerner was one of the first four hundred people in the country to receive his certificate. He was invited to attend a formal ceremony in Vancouver at which prominent men became the first Canadian citizens. His certificate, number 0388, hangs on
the wall of his office. “That,” he says, “is the most valuable document in my possession.”
Since then Koerner, who had earned a reputation for gravity and reclusiveness, has frequently manifested gaiety and gregariousness. His lighter side was seen at its best in 1951 when Sir Dennis Lawson, then Lord Mayor of London, was his guest. Lawson expressed admiration for a troupe of Hawaiian dancers who were appearing at the Pacific National Exhibition. At once Koerner invited them to his home and threw a party. The Hawaiians arrived bearing leis. Soon forty guests, including Lieutenant-Governor Clarence Wallace, Premier Byron Johnson and Mayor Fred Hume and their wives, were also dancing the hula.
Thea Koerner, who quit the stage in 1922 but never lost her theatrical spirit, was one of the ringleaders of the revel. A full-length portrait of her, painted at the age of twenty-four, shows her to have been a radiantly beautiful woman. In her veins two volatile racial strains explode. Although she was born in Germany, her parents were of Polish and
Swedish descent. She is given, on occasion, to swinging rapidly between tears and laughter.
Her devotion to Canada equals that of her husband. Recently she wrote a song entitled Song of an Immigrant. Set to music by a nephew, Paul Reif, printed at her husband’s expense, and copyrighted throughout the world, it begins:
Oh Canada, my Canada, my dear beloved land,
You opened arms, you opened hearts
So our wounds could mend . . .
And it ends:
Oh Canada, my Canada, wherever 1 shall be
From here into Eternity
My heart belongs to thee . . .
It’s hardly up to Yeats or Auden or Birney. But as Leon Koerner says, as he proudly presents all visitors with a copy, “It’s not how it’s written that matters, but what it means.” ★