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W. Galen Weston, Who Transformed a Family Food Empire, Dies at 80


W. Galen Weston, a polo partner of Prince Charles who transformed and expanded the international food empire founded by his grandfather, a baker, and went on to collect luxury department stores, died on April 12 at his home in Toronto. He was 80.

His death was announced by George Weston Ltd., the family-controlled holding company where he had been chairman until retiring in 2016. The announcement did not say what the cause was.

When Mr. Weston joined the family business in 1961, it controlled bakeries in Canada, the United States, Britain and Australia, as well as food shops including Fortnum & Mason, grocer to Queen Elizabeth, and British, Canadian and American supermarkets and food wholesalers. Dairies, chocolate makers and a Canadian paper mill were also in the mix.

In 1972, after working for the business in Ireland, Mr. Weston was given the unenviable task of deciding the fate of Loblaw Groceterias, a Canadian supermarket chain the family had gradually taken control of by 1956. Burdened with debt and poor sales, the chain was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Part of Mr. Weston’s plan was conventional: He swiftly closed unprofitable stores, slashing Loblaws, as the company is now known, in half.

But he also hired Dave Nichol, a former college classmate who was with the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Working with Richard Currie, another Canadian hired away from McKinsey, and the designer Don Watt, Mr. Nichol turned the remaining stores from fluorescently lit boxes filled with metal shelving into outlets that were spacious and almost luxurious.

The key to making Loblaws the dominant grocer in Canada was the group’s approach to the previously sleepy private-label business, beginning with household staples. Mr. Watt came up with vivid yellow packaging with bold, black Helvetica lettering for a line of “No Name” products that promised to exchange fancy packaging for low prices and quality.

The real breakthrough, however, was the decision to create private-label products, like Memories of Kobe Tamari Garlic Sauce and Candy Cane Chocolate Fudge Crackle Ice Cream, that were of higher quality than brand-name goods and, more important, distinctive and fashionable, while still being less expensive.

President’s Choice, as the line was named, began with a chocolate chip cookie. The market leader at the time, Nabisco’s Chips Ahoy, had 24 percent chocolate chips and used vegetable oil. President Choice’s Decadent cookies were 40 percent chips and used butter.

To pitch the new line, Loblaws supplemented its traditional grocery store fliers with something that resembled a cross between a magazine and a comic book, which it called the Insider’s Report. Rather than promote weekly sales, the report featured Mr. Nichol in photos with his family dog, telling stories about new products, all of which became more profitable for Loblaws than brand-name products.

While President’s Choice attracted imitators, some American grocers began buying or licensing the products. Walmart hired Loblaws to develop similar products for its stores in the United States.

“The impact was profound,” said Daniel Bender, a cultural historian of food at the University of Toronto. “Loblaws upscaled their stores so that they were meant to look like a market rather than a supermarket.”

Willard Gordon Galen Weston was born on Oct. 29, 1940, in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, England. He was the youngest of nine children of Willard Garfield Weston, who had become president of the family company in 1924, and Reta Lila (Howard) Weston, a former schoolteacher.

The family returned to Canada after World War II. According to a brief profile in The New York Times in 1978, as a young man Mr. Weston was “the archetypical playboy of the Western world” who “chased girls and spent almost as many college hours in movie theaters as in the classroom.”

Mr. Weston studied at the University of Western Ontario before joining the family business. He started in Ireland, where he bought supermarkets as part of an expansion. When in Dublin, where he had also acquired the luxury department store Brown Thomas, his eye was caught by images of a model on billboards throughout the city. He married that model, Hilary Frayne, in 1966, in a ceremony followed by a reception where the wedding party wore clothing styled after that of the 1890s gold rush in Canada’s Yukon Territory.

Ms. Weston was active in the family’s luxury store operations, which are now anchored by Selfridges in Britain and include Holt Renfrew in Canada.

In 1983, antiterrorism police officers in Ireland warned Mr. Weston that he was the target of a kidnapping plot by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. At their request, he left a car behind at his Irish home as a decoy before heading to England. When a shootout between seven masked gunman and police took place at the home, injuring four of the would-be kidnappers, Mr. Weston was playing polo in Windsor on a team with Prince Charles.

Under Mr. Weston, Loblaws continued to expand through acquisitions, including a takeover of Canada’s largest drugstore chain, and by introducing new varieties of stores. But it also initially struggled when Walmart added fresh groceries to its Canadian stores in 2006, and the botched launch of a new inventory system led to empty shelves in Loblaws stores and bulging warehouses for the company.

Mr. Weston left Mr. Nichol (and his French bulldog, Georgie Girl) to be the face of Loblaws in television commercials and in print advertisements. But he did regularly visit Loblaws stores, both to speak with shoppers and to inspect the store’s garbage, one of his preferred indicators of efficiency.

While he rarely gave interviews, Mr. Weston became more of a public figure when his wife became the lieutenant governor of Ontario — Queen Elizabeth’s proxy in the province — in 1997. She served in that position for five years.

Mr. Weston’s wife survives him, as do his son, Galen, who succeeded him as chairman and chief executive of George Weston; his daughter, Alannah Weston, the chairwoman of Selfridges Group; five of his siblings, Grainger Weston, Nancy Baron, Wendy Rebanks, Gretchen Bauta and Camilla Dalglish; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Weston’s transformation of George Weston was underscored not long before his death when the company announced that it was selling the last of its bakeries, long its predominant operation, to focus on its grocery stores and real estate holdings.

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