Despite that entrepreneurial start, he didn’t do especially well in his first year in commerce at the University of Manitoba. In 1942, the following year, he transferred to Queen’s University, in Kingston, but was promptly sidelined after he crushed several vertebrae playing rugby.
Mr. Richardson spent four months in a body cast recovering from surgery, and many more recuperating in Winnipeg. His elder brother James – later a cabinet minister in the Trudeau government – enlisted in the armed forces, but the back injury prevented George from following suit.
It was a tumultuous period at the company: James A. Richardson, George’s father and the head of the family business, died unexpectedly in 1939. His funeral drew thousands of mourners and made headlines in Winnipeg. But when it ended, the Richardson family had to figure out what to do with the company. Against the advice of her advisers, Muriel, George’s mother, took the helm, becoming the first woman to run a major Canadian corporation.
In 1946, after he’d completed a commerce degree, George Richardson went to work for JRSL. He spent one summer working in menial jobs at Pioneer’s massive grain elevator in Thunder Bay, Ont., but soon became Muriel’s “eyes and ears,” travelling extensively to check up on the company’s domestic and international operations.
Two years later, he married Tannis Thorlakson, the daughter of a prominent Winnipeg surgeon and a member of Manitoba’s large community of Icelanders. They had four children: Pamela, David, Hartley and Karen.
At the height of the Cold War, JRSL, working through a client of Richardson Securities’ Hong Kong office, landed a $20-million grain sale to China, ending a long-standing ban by the Communist government on Western imports.
George Richardson, who had overseen the development of the Richardson office tower at Portage and Main, was appointed president in 1966 (brother James was named chairman at the same time), and soon began focusing on a plan to repatriate the venerable Hudson’s Bay Co., which, despite its chain of prime retail locations, was still chartered as a British corporation, with its board based in London.
It was more than just a business deal. From childhood, Mr. Richardson had known how to work a trap line on his family’s farm, catching mink, ermine and even coyote, according to journalist and historian Peter C. Newman. Mr. Richardson, according to his biographer, had even tried to sell skins to a Hudson’s Bay Co. “raw fur warehouse.”
During negotiations, Mr. Richardson devised a plan to have his company’s securities division buy large blocks of Hudson’s Bay Co. shares in the U.K., break them up and sell them to Canadian investors. He also insisted that the archives be transferred to Canada. It was a herculean task, Mr. Newman points out, which involved shipping almost 70 tonnes of files to Winnipeg.
Once the deal was consummated, on Hudson’s Bay Co.’s 300th anniversary, Mr. Richardson became its first Canadian governor. He’d fly to remote trading posts and even commissioned the construction of a replica of an early company ship, the HMS Nonsuch. Mr. Richardson also oversaw the expansion of the chain, acquiring Zellers and then Simpsons, the chief rival to Eaton’s in Eastern Canada.
But he didn’t hold the position for long: In 1979, newspaper baron Ken Thomson and his senior adviser John Tory Sr. orchestrated a takeover bid; the Richardsons ultimately sold their holdings, for $38.50 per share.
George Richardson (or “GTR,” as he was known inside the family business) took a highly pragmatic approach to sustaining and growing the company. As a manager, Mr. Winograd says, he eschewed the role of the remote CEO. “He was always around. He didn’t know the difference between people. To him, the Queen of England and someone working in the cafeteria were the same person. He just had an affinity for people.”
Joe Martin, an expert in Canadian business history at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, points out that Mr. Richardson carefully steered the private company, successfully avoiding the family feuds and commercial implosions that afflicted clans such as the Eatons and the McCains.