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Donald Smith of construction company EllisDon shown here with a collection of early carpenter tools in 1982. (John Wood For The Globe and Mail)
Donald Smith of construction company EllisDon shown here with a collection of early carpenter tools in 1982. (John Wood For The Globe and Mail)

Obituary

Donald Smith, founder of EllisDon had visible impact on lives of Canadians Add to ...

When Geoff Smith was about 12, another boy told him something about his father that he simply couldn’t believe. The friend, son of a property developer, claimed that Donald Smith, well on his way to becoming one of Canada’s leading builders, had no qualms about showing up at a construction site and dismissing everyone on the spot.

His son was unconvinced. “I said, ‘Well, that’s just stupid. How would you ever get a job filled when you fire everybody?’ ” Mr. Smith recalls.

But to be certain, he went home and confronted the accused tyrant – and was shocked a second time. “Well,” he was told, “sometimes you’ve just got to shake things up.”

It was only later he learned there was method to this apparent parental madness: If a project wasn’t going well, his father would clean house so he could send in a new superintendent with the power to hire back only the workers he knew could get the job done.

Because he knew how to get jobs done, and done well, EllisDon Corp. founder Don Smith had a visible impact on the day-to-day lives of many Canadians.

He died Tuesday morning, at 89, in a hospital in London, Ont., that is among the many public structures – including schools, office towers, shopping malls and the world’s first stadium with a fully retractable roof – that his company has taken from blueprint to reality over the past six decades.

Not that all of his building involved bricks and mortar. Mr. Smith also will be remembered for reviving the fortunes of a political party that hadn’t seen power since Canadians were fighting in Sicily, for charitable works, especially on behalf of children and the underprivileged, and for helping to ensure that London’s establishment opened its private clubs to Jewish members.

It’s an expansive footprint for a man whose mother, having suddenly lost her husband early in the Great Depression, moved the family from small-town Alberta to Toronto in search of work.

Mr. Smith was just 6 when his father “just kind of up and died,” as his son Geoff puts it, in 1930. Two decades later – on April Fool’s Day, 1951 – he and older brother David Ellis Smith joined forces (and their names) to launch EllisDon.

What began as a little construction shop that worked on additions to homes in London (where he had been relocated by a previous employer) now has revenues of more than $3-billion a year.

A pivotal moment came in the mid-1980s. “The company was still nowhere near the size it is today, and Don bet the whole company, at 61 years old, put everything on the line, so that they could do the SkyDome,” says Geoff Smith, now EllisDon’s chief executive officer.

Since renamed the Rogers Centre, the 54,000-seat taxpayer-supported stadium was costly and controversial but represented Mr. Smith at the height of his career. True to form, he ruffled feathers by boldly parachuting in a new chief manager when he became worried the project wouldn’t be finished for the Blue Jays’ 1989 home opener. But construction strikes derailed the bid to make up for lost time, and the Dome opened two months behind schedule.

Also a force in politics, Mr. Smith was president of the provincial Liberal party when fellow Londoner David Peterson became premier in 1985, ending 42 years of Tory rule in Ontario.

As well, he acted as chief fundraiser for Mr. Peterson, who describes him as “a legend” and “an absolutely unique cat. He built this great business, but also did it in such a unique way.”

According to Paul Godfrey, the former chairman of Metro Toronto and a driving force behind the SkyDome, “when EllisDon took on a contract to do something, they did it with such excellence that they became the standard in the industry.”

 

From Prairies to Yonge and Eg

Mr. Smith was born in Provost, southeast of Edmonton, near the Saskatchewan border, on March 23, 1924. After the death of his father, who managed a bank, the family headed east in search of better prospects. His mother found work as a clerk at Eaton’s then-flagship store on College Street, and Mr. Smith grew up in the north end, near Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue, along with his brother, sister and a young cousin.

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