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.
But everyone chuckles when they recall Milavsky’s tennis style. He would wear his opponents out – but he was more heart than skill, and Ghitter nicknamed him “Milobsky.” Even during a casual match, his anger flared when Ghitter hit a ball out of bounds.
“He wasn’t really a good tennis player,” Ghitter said.
“He was tenacious in whatever he did, in business and tennis. It was take no prisoners. It was fair and with honour, and the like, but he was a competitive individual.”
Milavsky never let up, taking a prominent role in the Calgary Stampede – where Calgary’s elite compete for top-drawer volunteer posts – and the 1988 Winter Olympics.
In 1989, he was in the news under more bizarre circumstances. Two men with connections to the Ku Klux Klan were sentenced to five years in prison for conspiring to blow up a Calgary Jewish centre and Milavsky’s home. The plotters didn’t realize that Milavsky, who had recently been awarded the B’nai Brith Award of Merit, no longer lived in the house that was the intended target.
At times, Milavsky ventured into the world of public policy. In 1989, he spoke about the need to forge broader public acceptance of higher taxes to reduce Canada’s national deficit and, ahead of his time, said a tax surcharge on the wealthy shouldn’t be ruled out. Against the Alberta grain, he welcomed the implementation of the national sales tax.
“Everyone is going to have to deal with their fair share,” he said.
However, most of his involvement in politics came down to fundraising.
“Milavsky raised more money for the Progressive Conservative Party in Alberta than everyone else combined,” said Rod Love, an Alberta political operative and chief of staff to former premier Klein.
He also gave advice. Love remembers a 1993 lunch meeting at Edmonton’s Petroleum Club, during which Milavsky sat Klein down just a month after the upstart politician had won the leadership of the PC Party. He told Klein that people were going to approach him to say they wanted to donate to his party, but he had to be wary of those who asked what they would get in return – whether it was an appearance at a ribbon-cutting ceremony or a fast-tracked government permit.
“Milavsky looks at Ralph, and he says, ‘Mr. Premier, no matter what anybody asks for, you look them in the eye and you say, ‘For your donation, you will get good government.’”
By 1993, Trizec was grappling with a daunting list of maturing debt, and Milavsky, amid restructuring at the top of the company’s management ranks, announced his retirement as chairman of the board.
In the years that followed, he remained busy – working out of his Quantico Capital Corp. office and serving on dozens of corporate boards, including Viterra, TransCanada, Enmax, Telus and PrimeWest Energy.
Brian Felesky, a Calgary accountant and tax lawyer, said Milavsky was regularly sought out as a business adviser.
“Harold was always seen as the person that the CFO and the audit committee had to be really prepared for, because he had this innate sense to ask the question that was the seminal question, and that would be precisely pivotal to the financial reporting,” Felesky said.
“It was an intuitive sense about an incongruity or something out of step.”
On weekends, Gregory recalled, his father gave his time to the family. Often they skied at Sunshine Village in Banff, where Milavsky had worked on a number of expansions during his time at Power Corp.
“The family would load up the station wagon, head out to the airport and pick him up from his flight, head to Banff, ski Saturday and Sunday, drive back into the city and, on Monday morning, he’d be on another airplane,” Gregory said.
“It was wonderful skiing and wonderful time in the mountains.”
In recent years, as his father’s dementia progressed, his son said there was an unexpected silver lining in that it removed Milavsky’s ability to obsess over details, forced him to slow down and allowed him to enjoy more time with his family.
Although friends say Milavsky wasn’t overly “mushy,” there was a different side when it came to his 12 grandchildren. He always boasted about their academic and athletic accomplishments, especially when it came to skiing and tennis.
“Especially in later years, he seemed to live for the tradition of the whole family gathering in Florida,” Felesky said. “He did that year after year. And then he would feast off the stories from Florida until he did it again. And that was kind of lovely.”
Milavsky was married and divorced twice, his second marriage being to clothing designer Marilyn Romanosky. His five children and his only surviving sibling, his sister Jean Bortnick, were at his side when he died.