Young Dave picked up his mother’s passion for food. He learned early from her that “you can have good food and not have a lot of money,” says his widow, Terri Nichol.
Gladys had high expectations of her children. She was involved in the church of Christian Science and ensured that her children attended Sunday school. Dave found that getting high marks at school was a way to please her. His father, more reserved and a bookworm, was a family man who kept to himself.
The family moved often because of his father’s work. In many ways, Dave was raised like an only child. There were 10 years between him and his closest sibling, John, a star athlete who went on to become a Baptist preacher. Keeping out of trouble, Dave focused on succeeding at school. When another boy was given first-place honours in his high-school graduating class, Mr. Nichol, suspecting a mistake, wrote to the principal asking that the grades be reviewed. Mr. Nichol had indeed placed first. He didn’t ask that anybody be told, not even the other boy, simply that the records be corrected. “It was a rare moment of consideration for others,” his late sister Joanne is quoted as saying in The Edible Man.
At the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., Mr. Nichol was drawn to Mr. Weston, who came from a prominent family that owned a food and retail empire in Britain. They both studied business and became roommates. “I recall Dave’s mother being an extended mother to both of us, always ensuring our house was presentable, neat and tidy,” Mr. Weston says. “Dave was my best man at Hilary’s and my wedding in England, as was I for Dave’s first marriage in Vancouver. He was an excellent scholar, finishing in the top five at both Western and Harvard.”
Mr. Weston became a pivotal figure in Mr. Nichol’s life. The closest that Canada has to royalty, Mr. Weston and his wife, Hilary, move in wealthy and connected circles: he has played polo with Prince Charles; she is a former lieutenant-governor of Ontario. His friendship with Mr. Weston gave Mr. Nichol a window to a different world.
After earning an undergraduate law degree at the University of British Columbia and a post-graduate degree from Harvard Law School, Mr. Nichol worked at the prestigious consultancy McKinsey & Co. Then Mr. Weston asked him to help breathe new life into Loblaw. Controlled by the Weston family, the grocer was stumbling at the time. Along with Richard Currie, who went on to become chairman of telecommunications titan BCE Inc., they spearheaded a massive turnaround, focusing on lucrative private labels and newly designed stores.
As Mr. Weston says: “Working shoulder to shoulder with me, we saw the Loblaw business grow from 10 per cent of Canadian retail to 25 per cent,” referring to gains in its share of the grocery market.
A perfectionist with
‘a brilliant palate’
At Loblaw’s head office, Mr. Nichol met Terri, who worked as an executive receptionist on the 18th floor, two floors down from his office. For six months he asked her out, but she kept turning him down until finally she accepted. “He said, ‘I don’t want to marry you. I just want to take you to supper,’” she recalls with a laugh.
They eloped in Hawaii in 1978, both having been married previously. “David loved the attention of the press, but he wanted it to be private,” Ms. Nichol says. “He had a big ego, but under it all he was a family man.” She had two small children, Leigh and Michael. Inspired by their stepfather, Leigh is a brand strategist who worked at Loblaw for a couple of years, while Michael became a chef.
When she met Mr. Nichol, Terri didn’t know how to cook. So he sent her to France to learn. She travelled with him to food shows and beyond, hunting for new fare. “Galen really gave him carte blanche to explore that part of his life,” she says. “He didn’t put any restrictions on what he should do and what he shouldn’t do.”