Harold Milavsky, a real-estate tycoon and Westerner who built some of the most distinctive buildings against Calgary’s Rocky Mountain skyline, was known for his competitive temperament – in business, on the tennis court and on the ski hills of Banff.
Born in small-town Saskatchewan during the Great Depression, Milavsky was a formidable fundraiser for whatever he set his sights on, whether it was a community organization, tennis tournament or Alberta’s long-governing Progressive Conservative Party. In politics, he was not only a key member of former Alberta premier Ralph Klein’s inner circle of unofficial Calgary advisers, but over a number of decades he was remarkably successful at convincing the city’s business elite to contribute a small part of their petroleum and construction riches to the PC Party.
In his final years as he struggled with Alzheimer’s disease, many of his friends and colleagues lamented that such a giant intellect had been cut down. Milavsky died in Calgary from the complications of the disease on Dec. 4, at the age of 81.
“I respected him greatly. He was absolutely tenacious and he had to win,” said Martin Cohos, a Calgary architect who designed various projects for Milavsky – including the city’s distinctive twin Bankers Hall towers.
“He was brilliant with numbers and memory,” said former Progressive Conservative senator and MLA Ron Ghitter. “The tragedy in my mind … is a man who I thought had one of the finest minds in business that I’ve ever encountered ended up with the sadness of a sound body but a frail mind.”
Milavsky was the youngest of six children born to Jack and Clara Milavsky, Belarussian immigrants who settled in Limerick, Sask. His son Gregory said one of Harold Milavsky’s enduring memories was of the corner grocery store that Jack Milavsky saved to buy, and its dwindling ledger entries in the 1930s. A picture of the Prairie store, which eventually went bust, still hangs in Milavsky’s downtown office.
“What my father always told me was that his family tried as best they could to ensure that they had at least enough money to put the boys through [university]. And they did not have enough money for the girls,” Gregory Milavsky said.
“Harold also felt a sense of responsibility, that if he had the ability or the capability to help, or to contribute, or to make a difference, then he should do so.”
Milavsky married Miriam Shugarman of Edmonton in 1954. With a commerce degree and high marks on his chartered accountant exam under his belt, Milavsky and his wife moved to Calgary in 1956 so he could take a job with the legendary Mannix family. Working alongside a young Peter Lougheed before he had entered provincial politics, Milavsky rose quickly through the ranks.
He would go on to work for Power Corp., which was taken over by Paul Desmarais in 1968, and then real-estate development companies that would eventually lead him to Trizec Corp.
Gregory remembers that when Edward and Peter Bronfman asked his father to head the company, they pushed him to move to its headquarters in Montreal. Milavsky – a strong Calgary booster – declined. They asked him to move to Toronto. He said no again. Finally, the company ended up moving 200 Trizec employees and their families from Montreal to Calgary in 1976. Milavsky took the job.
“It probably set the tone for the relocation of many other corporate head offices to Calgary,” Gregory said.
In its 1980s heydays, Trizec was a mammoth when it came to interests in office buildings, shopping centres and seniors housing in major cities across the United States and Canada. In Toronto, it owned properties including the Yorkdale Shopping Centre and Scarborough Town Centre. When it opened Calgary’s Bankers Hall in 1989 – the largest construction project in the city following the 1981 recession – the company reported it was the largest publicly traded real-estate company in North America with assets of more than $9.5-billion. Trizec owned or built a number of other Calgary skyscrapers, including Western Canadian Place, Calgary Place and the Scotia Centre.
However, business was not Milavsky’s only interest. Ghitter – a close friend and lawyer who worked for Trizec – remembers that when the two of them skied, Milavsky counted the number of runs he made. “He had to be first up the mountain and last down the mountain.”
Tennis was a huge part of Milavsky’s life. He spent more than a decade on the board of Tennis Canada, raised funds, pushed for the development of the Rexall Centre in Toronto – home of the Rogers Cup – and helped bring the Davis Cup to Calgary. He was inducted into the Canadian Tennis Hall of Fame, in the builder category, in 2009.