The retail visionary WG Galen Weston, who has died aged of 80, was the inheritor of the struggling Canadian supermarket group, which in a lifetime of work he turned into an £8billion personal fortune. His commercial interests spanned the Atlantic.
An unassuming billionaire, he liked nothing better than to wander the elegant halls of his landmark Canadian store, Holt Renfrew, chatting to customers about their experience and engaging with staff on the progress of new products and lines of fashion.
It was under his tutelage and that of his daughter, Alannah, that the family bought control of a fading and dowdy Selfridges store on London’s Oxford Street in 2003.
Power couple: Galen Weston was married to wife Hilary – a former Irish fashion model – for 55 years
With an enormous investment, modernisation and a keen interest in high fashion and style they re-created the Selfridges of old, arguably turning it into Britain’s most alluring department store in an age when the format was in decline.
The food hall and restaurants, famously serving sandwiches with lashings of salt beef, have become a go-to destination for tourists from the US, Japan and China.
Galen Weston was a scion of an empire built by his grandfather George Weston on the Canadian prairies, supplying the wheat for a bread and bakery business in Toronto.
By the time Galen took the reins from his father Willard Garfield in the 1970s, the bakery firm had expanded exponentially, acquiring what is now Canada’s biggest supermarket group, Loblaw.
It would be easy to regard Galen as just the caretaker of the family name. But his colleagues credit him with being one of the greatest wealth creators in Canada’s history.
Shopping landmark: Selfridges on London’s Oxford Street has been restored to its former glory
He was born in Buckinghamshire on October 29, 1940, the youngest of nine children in an already prominent family.
His early years in commerce were spent acquiring supermarkets in the UK before returning to Canada to rescue Loblaw.
Over a long career – retirement did not come until the age of 75 – he developed a retail colossus which today employs more than 200,000 people , and includes the Canadian chains Shoppers Drug Mart and No Frills. Among the most renowned of Loblaw’s products is the Decadent chocolate chip cookie brand.
‘I think when people think of the Westons, they think of the history and the family. But he was a real retailer,’ said Gordon Nixon, the former head of the Royal Bank of Canada who served on the Loblaw board.
Legend: Galen Weston in his prime
The acquisition of Selfridges, and, later, the upmarket Brown Thomas and Arnotts stores in Ireland, appealed to his taste for the preservation of great shopping landmarks.
In the 1980s, Galen was the subject of a failed kidnapping attempt by the Irish Republican Army. Despite his Canadian roots, he was a deeply loyal to the UK, the country of his birth, and forged a close friendship with Prince Charles.
In 1975 he acquired the lease of one of Britain’s most famous houses, Fort Belvedere, in Surrey, owned by the Crown Estate.
Built in 1750-1755 for William Augustus, a son of George II, its main claim to fame came as the residence of the late Edward, Prince of Wales, the Duke of Windsor, where he entertained his future wife, Wallis Simpson.
Under Galen Weston it has been restored and renovated at his own cost. The house proved a great venue for sumptuous champagne gatherings, marking his philanthropy through the Weston Family Foundation in Canada and the Selfridges Group Foundation in Britain.
It has been a long tradition in all branches of the Weston family for dividends on their considerable shareholdings to be directly paid to charity.
A separately, British branch of the Weston family currently controls Associated British Foods, led by chief executive George Weston.
It is the owner of the no-frills fashion concern Primark, as well as luxury store Fortnum & Mason.
Galen Weston died peacefully after a long illness. He is survived by Hilary, his wife of 55 years, a former Irish fashion model who served as Ontario’s lieutenant-governor, his daughter Alannah (Cochrane) and his son Galen G Weston.
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