On a business trip to Rotterdam back in 1954, George Taylor Richardson found himself being taken on a short flight in a helicopter. For the 30-year-old scion of the Winnipeg-based grain and securities empire James Richardson & Sons Ltd., it was love at first sight. Utterly enthralled by the experience, he obtained his pilot’s licence, acquired a small chopper and took to the skies.
Throughout his life, Mr. Richardson, who died of natural causes at the age of 89 on May 14, flew himself all over the country by helicopter instead of relying on the more traditional forms of transportation available to wealthy business owners, such as chauffeured limos and private jets.
He would rely on the low-flying, versatile vehicle for fact-finding missions – checking out the crops and rail spurs and prairie grain elevators that formed the backbone of JRSL’s sprawling business. And he’d use his chopper to get to his office in the Richardson Building in downtown Winnipeg, as well as the family cottage on a Lake of the Woods island.
But perhaps most significantly, Mr. Richardson regarded his helicopter as a means of exploring Western Canada and the North. “He loved just getting in the helicopter and picking a destination,” says his son Hartley Richardson, who describes his father as relentlessly inquisitive and curious about the world.
Those journeys didn’t always go smoothly. According to a commissioned biography published in 2010, Mr. Richardson, his wife, Tannis, and another couple once flew from Winnipeg to Churchill, Man., a remote community on Hudson Bay. On the way back, they flew into a wall of bad weather and had to make an emergency landing on an isolated patch of tundra.
Instead of radioing for assistance, Mr. Richardson dug out emergency provisions and found some firewood, and the four middle-aged adults camped out overnight. The weather was still dodgy the next day, however. As soon as the clouds broke slightly, Mr. Richardson tossed all the unnecessary objects off the helicopter and powered the vehicle up toward clearer skies.
“We used to say he had a PhD in common sense,” says Chuck Winograd, who worked for JRSL’s securities division for 27 years before assuming senior leadership positions with the Royal Bank of Canada. “He was a very logical guy who had a good feel for things.”
Western Canadian royalty
Born in Winnipeg on Sept. 22, 1924 to James and Muriel Richardson, George was part of the fourth generation of a family that had dominated Winnipeg’s business community for decades. “Mother always said I was born with a cigar in my mouth and a gear shift in my hand,” he told biographer Tim Higgins.
Like Montreal’s Desmarais clan or the Irving family in New Brunswick, the Richardsons are like royalty in Western Canada, says Mr. Winograd. According to a Canadian Business magazine ranking in 2013, their net worth is $4.45-billion, making them the ninth-richest family in Canada.
JRSL traces its roots to Kingston, in 1823, which was when James Richardson arrived in Canada as a 4-year-old from northern Ireland. He set himself up as a grain merchant in 1857. In the 1890s, the company relocated to Winnipeg’s Grain Exchange, where it managed a far-flung trading and exporting empire that included the iconic Pioneer grain elevators located across Western Canada and in key ports such as Thunder Bay and Vancouver.
By the Depression, the company had a customer base of more than 55,000 farmers, and later established a radio station, an airline (later known as Canadian Airways, the country’s first commercial carrier) and a securities division to help Western Canadian firms raise capital.
Named after an uncle killed in France in the First World War, Mr. Richardson – the third of four children – excelled in both sports and academics at Winnipeg’s Ravenscourt School for Boys.
Mr. Richardson knew if he wanted to get a university degree, though, he would have to pay his own way. So he bought several head of beef cattle, rented some pasture land and gradually sold the growing herd to generate the funds he needed.