Among friends and acquaintances, Edgar Kaiser Jr. was known for his handwritten Christmas cards.
The cards often came with another personal touch: poems, composed by Kaiser himself, often turning on serious themes and always written from the heart.
“I don’t think I ever got a Christmas card from Edgar that didn’t have a poem in it,” said Vancouver businessman Jim Pattison, who first met Kaiser in the 1970s and remained an acquaintance until Kaiser died last month of natural causes at the age of 69.
The poems, along with music, a record-setting around-the-world flight and a passion for boats, were part of a life that featured business deals – both savvy and failed – a taste for sports and adventure and a long-time commitment to improving the lives of those who grappled with mental illness and substance abuse.
Edgar Kaiser Jr. was born in 1942 in Portland, Ore., to an industrial heritage. His grandfather, Henry Kaiser, had built a business network that included shipbuilding – family shipyards turned out Liberty Ships during the Second World War – along with steel, cement and aluminum operations.
After finishing a degree in politics at Stanford University and an MBA at Harvard, Kaiser worked for the United States Agency for International Development as an economist in Vietnam, telling BCBusiness magazine in 2010: “I didn’t believe in what we were doing there, but, as I told my grandfather, I felt I should go in order to understand what I instinctively felt would be an important part of our country’s history.”
After a stint in Washington, where he was a White House Fellow, he came to Canada to work for Kaiser Resources. The family-owned operation was tapping the rich coal seams of southeastern British Columbia and played a key role in developing Westshore Terminals. The Roberts Bank export coal port, the biggest in Canada, opened in 1970 and is now part of the Jim Pattison Group.
Kaiser became a fixture in B.C. business coverage, sporting large glasses and gaining a reputation for driven work habits and some flamboyance, including a private jet, a yacht and luxury offices.
He became a Canadian citizen in 1980, the same year he sold Kaiser Resources to what was then known as British Columbia Resources Investment Corp. in a deal that generated considerable controversy at the time because of the premium BCRIC paid for the company.
“Folklore has it that we really took their pants off and did it to them,” Kaiser told BCBusiness magazine in 1991. “But when you separate fact from fiction it doesn’t hold water.”
He went on to other ventures such as owning the Denver Broncos in the 1980s and heading public companies, including VSE-listed Harvard Technologies, which was perhaps best-known for developing a french-fry vending machine. It ended in bankruptcy in 1994.
With regard to the Broncos, Kaiser is the owner who brought quarterback John Elway to the team. Kaiser reportedly doubled his investment before selling the franchise in 1984.
He also served two years as the chairman and chief executive officer of the Bank of British Columbia, a regional bank absorbed by the Hongkong Bank of Canada in 1986.
He launched the Kaiser Foundation in 1985, with the aim of furthering research in and the treatment of mental illness and substance abuse. The foundation had modest beginnings, getting its start by putting together a directory of B.C. agencies and organizations that worked in the field. Over time, it branched into other areas, including, since 2005, awards that provide a cash prize and recognition to innovative programs or treatment.
Unlike some corporate heavyweights who become involved in social endeavours, Kaiser took emotional and social costs into his overall accounting, said Geoff Plant, a former B.C. attorney-general and a board member of the Kaiser Foundation.
“His concern was to reward and acknowledge the really human achievement of people who worked in the sector,” said Plant, now with a law firm in Vancouver.
“He wanted to give folks who toiled in the trenches, of helping advance awareness and treatment around mental health and addiction, a moment of recognition.
“He was not someone who sat there and worked on key performance indicators or all those things that business people sometimes do in the not-for-profit sector.”
Plant, as did Pattison, recalled the handwritten Christmas cards and thank-you notes.
“Edgar was a poet, he was a songwriter,” Plant said, describing the poems as “heartfelt attempts to kind of speak to the importance of relationships.”
Through the Kaiser Foundation, Kaiser raised funds, worked connections and lobbied governments to improve programs and strategies relating to mental illness and substance abuse, emphasizing the toll that both take on society.
Once a fixture on business pages, he stayed mostly in the background, working on the foundation that became the focal point for him and his wife, Susan.
“He made a choice that this was going to be his vocation and his work,” said Bill Wilkerson, who is vice-chair of the Kaiser Foundation as well as the co-founder and CEO of the Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health. He worked closely with Kaiser for the past decade.
In the last two years, Kaiser had been keen on programs and initiatives focusing on aboriginal concerns, particularly among young people, Wilkerson said, as well as reaching out to police and military organizations.
Last year’s award ceremony took place at Regina’s Depot Division, the force’s training academy, and included a new award for excellence in RCMP leadership.
Fond of boats, Kaiser at one point owned a yacht and spent time in coastal waters off B.C. and around Orcas Island, where he had a home and, according to Pattison, was known to sing and play guitar for guests.
Kaiser served on numerous boards and commissions and was a member of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.
In 2003, he was named to the Order of British Columbia, with his citation noting that he flew a BA3 800 jet aircraft around the world to raise public awareness of drug and alcohol abuse, establishing a world record for round-the-world speed and distances between the seven refuelling points for that class of aircraft.
He capped the flight with a visit to his son’s Grade 3 classroom, where he traced his flight path on a map for the youngsters.
He is survived by his wife and two children.