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Ron Southern (Handout)
Ron Southern (Handout)

Atco co-founder Ron Southern was a giant of a man with a patriotic zeal Add to ...

At the beginning, Ron Southern believed his family’s small trailer-for-hire business was simply a means to pay his university tuition. But the company he created with his father in 1947, at the outset of Alberta’s first major oil boom, evolved into a global conglomerate, making him a billionaire and an elder statesman of the province’s business community.

Mr. Southern was the co-founder and controlling shareholder of Atco Ltd., a sprawling, international operation with its hands in power generation, natural gas distribution and an array of camp services for remote and temporary work sites. The company is best known for its distinctive Atco work trailers, and has built everything from lodges for oil sands workers in Northern Alberta to modular buildings for Abu Dhabi construction workers, to mobile shelters in Antarctica.

“He was a giant of a man,” his daughter Nancy Southern said of her father at his memorial service this week. Mr. Southern died Jan. 21 in Calgary at the age of 85. The cause of his death was not made public. “He touched the lives of so many, all over the world.”

Although he had a broad international business perspective, he remained an ardent booster of his hometown of Calgary, his province and his country. A number of sites around the city’s downtown were lit up in Canadian-flag red in his honour this week. In some instances, his business interests aligned with his patriotic zeal; Mr. Southern maintained that one of his proudest moments for his company was the 1980 repatriation of Canadian Utilities Ltd. from a Philadelphia firm.

“He had the ability to be so very, very local while at the same time being so very, very global,” said his long-time lawyer, Perry Spitznagel, managing partner at the Calgary office of Bennett Jones LLP.

He was renowned for his powers of persuasion, for his tough but fair approach as a taskmaster and for being a remarkably down-to-earth person – he loved family singalongs and greeted parking attendants by name at his Spruce Meadows show-jumping facility. Mr. Southern was known to compose thoughtful notes to friends and colleagues. He devoured newspapers, as well as biographies, historic works and books on military and business strategy. “You get one day to bleed, you get one day to celebrate. Then get back at it,” was one of his favourite sayings.

The patriarch of the Southern dynasty attributed much of his success to being surrounded by strong women, including his wife, Margaret (née Visser), and his two daughters, who have taken over the family firms. Nancy, his eldest, is chair, president and chief executive of Atco. His younger daughter, Linda Southern-Heathcott, presides over Spruce Meadows.

“I must tell you, we have very few leaders in this country like Ron Southern,” said Calgary business legend Dick Haskayne, who added that of all of the man’s accomplishments, raising two competent and outspoken chief executives is likely his most important.

“He’s brought along Nancy and Linda, and that’s unusual.”

In Calgary, his life story has become legend. Ronald Donald Southern was born on July 25, 1930, in Calgary, the only child of Ina and Donald Southern, a firefighter with a strong entrepreneurial bent.

In the late 1940s, oil field workers began streaming into the province, prompted by the discovery of oil in Leduc, Alta. It was the beginning of the first major boom. Young Ron planned to become a doctor but needed first to pay his way through a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Alberta. Recognizing a niche that needed to be filled, he and his father started a trailer-for-hire business.

They found quick success with Alberta Trailer Co., but one issue appeared early on: their little trailers – many of which looked like old-fashioned holiday campers – weren’t tough enough for Alberta’s harsh climate and its burgeoning oil and gas industry.

“These little trailer homes weren’t standing up to the heavy toils of oil-field workers stomping in and out with big boots,” said Siegfried Kiefer, a family friend and confidant whose father, a carpenter, was the company’s fourth employee.

The head of Shell Canada Ltd. asked the Southerns whether it was possible to manufacture something hardier.

“That’s how the first Atco trailer got built. They kind of laid it out on a piece of paper,” said Mr. Kiefer, who now serves as president and chief operating officer of Canadian Utilities Ltd., an Atco company.

“And as far as we know, that was the start of the remote work-force housing industry … and the business took off from there.”

In this post-war era, the owners of major industrial projects who once had to build towns for their workers instead bought trailers and modular buildings from the Southerns. More contracts followed, including work in Alaska and the country’s first overseas contract: supplying housing for the Mangla Dam project in Pakistan. They won contracts with Boeing – although Nancy Southern said at one point her parents had to drive to Seattle to implore the company’s president to pay his invoices – and opened new manufacturing plants in the United States and Australia.

“I will remember him bustling around the world – running through airports and driving too fast, pushing us hard and carrying a tatty old bag with his most important assorted sundries so he could meet the next day and make it to the next meeting,” Nancy Southern said of her father.

Atco became a public company in 1968 – but implemented a sometimes controversial dual-class share system, so the family is able to keep a tight grip on the reins of power. The company began diversifying, and Mr. Southern’s company founded what would become Akita Drilling Ltd.

Calgary businessman George Brookman, who worked for Atco in the late 1970s and early eighties, called Mr. Southern his business mentor. One key lesson was “his ability to analyze a deal, and his ability to walk away from a deal – no matter how much time and effort all of his people had put into it.”

Mr. Brookman said his boss was loyal to his employees, but had exacting standards. On one occasion early in his employment at Atco, Mr. Brookman had too many glasses of wine and told too many jokes at a dinner for an important group of British investors.

Two days later, he was summoned to Mr. Southern’s office. “He tore a strip off me 10 inches wide, and six feet, two inches long. He said, ‘Don’t you ever do that to me again. Don’t you ever embarrass me again. Don’t you ever embarrass my company again.’

“I tell ya, I didn’t have to open the door. I could have gone underneath.”

On the other hand, “R.D.,” as he was known, would make a point of calling close friends and business associates to chat during the Christmas holidays, often while on vacation in Hawaii. He would ask after spouses and children, and try to get a sense of where the economy was going.

In a corporate chapter with current resonance, Mr. Kiefer said the acquisition of Canadian Utilities in 1980 – which returned the utility giant to Canadian ownership – was meant to insulate Atco from the volatile business cycles of the resource sector. However, the purchase of the controlling interest was followed by a period of lower oil prices, the ruinous-to-Alberta National Energy Program and an interest-rate surge. In that environment, debt from the Canadian Utilities takeover was nearly unmanageable. It deepened Mr. Southern’s understanding that many factors were out of his control.

“The lesson of the 1980s was a well-entrenched sense of never overextending the company,” Mr. Kiefer said, adding that the internal tongue-in-cheek name for this principle was “the Southern comfort” factor.

Though a busy executive, Mr. Southern was dedicated to his home life. By all accounts, he adored Margaret, his wife of 61 years. A strong-willed former physical-education instructor, she cooked for and entertained business clients in their home, and oversaw much of the building of Spruce Meadows. A photo displayed at Spruce Meadows shows the couple in middle age looking happy and at ease, laughing and leaning toward one another as Mr. Southern plays a ukulele.

But there were everyman struggles. Margaret told the Calgary Herald that her husband’s international schedule of schmoozing and drinking got out of hand in the 1960s. “He recognized he was destroying his marriage, destroying his business,” she said, adding he didn’t drink again in the five decades following his pledge to quit.

When their daughters were young and participating in show-jumping events, the couple bought an old feed lot at the southern end of the city. Their dream was to build a world-class equestrian facility there. Genteel show-jumping didn’t seem a natural fit for the Stampede city, but Spruce Meadows – established in 1975 – has indeed become an internationally recognized show-jumping competition and training facility, and a huge draw for Calgary. The grounds are also the site of his annual business roundtable, which attracts economists, chief executives and bank governors.

Mr. Southern believed there was a “natural affinity” between men and horses, and his well-attended memorial on Thursday was held at a sumptuously decorated Spruce Meadows riding hall, featuring wall-sized photos of Mr. Southern celebrating business milestones, and smiling with his family.

Over the past two decades, Mr. Southern gradually handed over day-to-day leadership duties at his companies to his daughters even while maintaining control of Atco through a private company. A news release the day after his death said Mr. Southern’s will dictates that Atco and other business interests are to be kept in the family’s hands. According to Forbes, Mr. Southern’s net worth stood at about $1.14-billion (U.S.).

Mr. Southern had used a wheelchair during recent public appearances, and friends said he appeared especially weakened in recent months. He leaves his wife, two daughters, six grandchildren and extended family.

Even with his passing, Mr. Southern’s fingerprints remain all over the city. In a rare honour, the Calgary Tower’s Olympic flame – a 4,000-kilogram cauldron built by Atco Gas for the 1988 Olympic Winter Games – was lit up this week in his memory.

At his memorial, former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge and Canadian equestrian Ian Millar – set to compete in his 11th Olympic games this summer at the age of 69 – spoke glowingly about Mr. Southern. Other attendees included former prime minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen; Alberta Premier Rachel Notley; Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi; interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose; and Conservative MP Jason Kenney, along with other politicians and dozens of Calgary business leaders. Governor-General David Johnston and his wife, Sharon, walked hand-in-hand with Margaret as they exited the service.

In the final words of her eulogy, Ms. Southern-Heathcott made a pledge that would have pleased her father, the consummate entrepreneur and a true family man. “We will keep the highest of standards, have the courage to make the right choices no matter how difficult, and we soldier on. We will continue to work hard, and I promise we will continue to keep the family strong,” she said.

“But most of all, we promise to take care of mom.”

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