It may not have been very romantic, but Albert Cohen’s around-the-world honeymoon turned into the business trip of a lifetime. It was 1955, and he and his bride were in Japan, which was then gaining momentum in the burgeoning home electronics field. Scanning the English-language edition of Tokyo’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper one day, Cohen’s eyes settled on an ad seeking distributors for a small local company that had produced one of the earliest transistor radios.
The portable tabletop device pictured in the paper was no larger than a toaster – a far cry from the weighty, vacuum tube pieces of furniture that graced parlours back home. Intrigued, Cohen immediately set up an appointment to visit the company’s facilities. When he arrived at the ramshackle wooden house that served as the factory, he was greeted by Akio Morita, co-founder of Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Ltd.
By this time, Cohen had earned his business stripes, having helped create a family-owned import company in 1939. He had scoured Europe and the United States for dishes, cigarette lighters, binoculars and other household goods. And a few years before his travels in Tokyo, he noticed someone in Vancouver using a Paper Mate pen, tracked down the company in San Francisco, and flew there to meet executives. In 1952, he signed a deal to bring the world’s first fast-drying ink pen to Canada. Within a year, the Paper Mate proved a top seller.
In Tokyo, he paid $1,350 for an order of 50 radios, and sealed the deal with a handshake. Three years later, the small Japanese company changed its name to Sony, and Cohen became the first overseas distributor of Sony products.
The deal paid off magnificently: The Cohen family’s stake in Sony Canada was sold to Sony Corp. in 1995 for $207-million.
A canny entrepreneur and big-pocketed philanthropist who died in Winnipeg on Nov. 21 at the age of 97, Cohen will be “forever known as the man who brought Sony to Canada and the world,” said his death notice. Cohen became a trusted adviser to the company on accessing markets and retailing outside Japan.
“ ‘Your word is your bond.’ That’s the message he drummed into us,” said his son James, now CEO and president of Gendis Inc., the family firm. And to his courtly father, a handshake meant more than a greeting, a conviction passed to his employees. In fact, in a case that made headlines in 1999, a Manitoba court ruled that a handshake deal between oil and gas magnate George Richardson and Allan MacKenzie, then CEO of Gendis, constituted a valid and binding contract.
“Guided by honesty, integrity and a real sense of noblesse oblige, the modest Mr. Cohen made a difference without raising his voice or seeking personal publicity,” wrote the Winnipeg Free Press in noting the death of a virtual household name in the city, but by all accounts, a low-key, media-shy man who was blasé about his success.
Albert Diamond Cohen was born in Winnipeg’s North End on Jan. 20, 1914, the third of six sons of Alexander Cohen and Bereka (Rose) Diamond, both of whom had fled Ukraine for Canada in 1905. The Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta relates that Alexander barely eked out a living delivering furniture with a horse and wagon, and later became a country peddler. Albert quit school after Grade 9 and sold shoes to help out at home. In 1931, he and his father formed A. Cohen and Son, selling candy and chocolate bars to theatres and restaurants throughout Manitoba and northern Ontario. Albert later said he’d learned salesmanship “the hard way,” but at 17, he was able to buy a car for $200.
Most of the clan moved to Calgary in the mid-1930s, where two of the Cohen brothers opened a small retail store. Another brother did the same in Winnipeg. In 1939, they formed General Distributors Ltd., (renamed Gendis Inc. in 1983) acting as sales agents and wholesalers for a variety of products. In time, all six brothers were involved in the business, each running a regional branch. There was Morley in Montreal, John (Chauncey) in Toronto, Harry in Calgary, Joseph in Vancouver, and Sam and Albert at headquarters in Winnipeg.
When war came, Albert enlisted in the navy. Stationed in Nova Scotia, he never saw combat, but served on small cruisers in Canadian and U.S. waters. It was in the service where he got the idea that the military surplus trade would be a good bet. In 1947, he and his brother Sam opened the first of what would grow to 300 SAAN (Surplus Army, Air Force and Navy) stores across Canada.
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