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Donald Sobey stands in front of a painting he donated to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.Sandor Fizli/The Globe and Mail

Recognized as an astute businessman who helped the grocery store business his father founded in rural Nova Scotia expand into a multi-billion-dollar national company, Donald Sobey was equally lauded as a philanthropist who championed Canadian visual art and post-secondary education.

Mr. Sobey joined the family business after completing a commerce degree at Queen’s University. Appointed president of Empire Company Ltd., the parent company for Sobeys, in 1969 and chair in 1985, Mr. Sobey died peacefully on March 24 at his art-filled home, overlooking the beautiful Northumberland Strait, outside Stellarton, N.S. He was 86 and had suffered from heart troubles, his son Rob Sobey said.

“His passion wasn’t about making money. It was about what to do with it to make an impact,” Rob said. “He was a real inspiration for the next generation.”

Donald Creighton Rae Sobey was born in the old coal town of Stellarton on Oct. 23, 1934. One of Frank and Irene Sobey’s four children, Donald, like his two older brothers, started helping in the family business as a boy. Their first job was bagging potatoes in the store basement. The potatoes arrived in 34-kilogram bags and it was their task to dump them into bins so they wouldn’t rot, snap off the sprouts and put the spuds into 7-kilogram bags for sale.

Canadian art philanthropist and businessman Donald Sobey dies at 86

“I’d go to the store at 7:30 a.m., and between then and 10:30 at night, I’d get out of there only for lunch and supper. I hated it. I thought, I can’t make my living this way,” he told author Harry Bruce in his book, Frank Sobey: The Man and the Empire.

Having left school after Grade 8, Frank believed his youngest son would benefit from university. When Donald completed Stellarton High School, he set off for Kingston, Ont. With a $1,100 provincial scholarship, which covered tuition, he went to Queen’s University – an eye-opening experience for a young man from rural Nova Scotia. Economics was his favourite class, but his best grades were in accounting. Donald loved to tell people how the dean told the commerce class of 1957 that they were the worst he had ever seen.

After graduating from Queen’s in 1957, Sobey worked for a brief time in finance in London, England, before returning home to join his father and brothers in the family business. Working in real estate financing for the growing business, he began his career with Sobey Leased Properties in 1958. In 1963, he moved to the board of directors at Empire, which had been established to diversify the family holdings. That same year he married Elizabeth (Beth) Purvis, a young woman who worked as a teller at the Royal Bank of Canada in Stellarton. They had three children.

By 1971, Donald and his brothers had taken over the management of the company, with Bill as president, David as executive vice president, focusing on operations, and Donald heading up the growing investment company, Empire.

“We each had our sphere of influence, the three of us. We all, in my mind, made a major contribution to the development of the company. We were able to work as a team and as a family because I think our father, Frank Sobey put together a pretty good foundation for us to work on,” David said.

“Fortunately, as we worked together, we had an awful lot of really talented people working with us,” he added, in the same understated way his younger brother and close friend was known to speak.

In 1987, for the first time, Sobeys achieved sales of more than $1-billion. That same year, the company opened its first store outside Atlantic Canada, in Guelph, Ont. By 1998, Sobeys tripled its size and became a national company when it acquired The Oshawa Group.

“[Donald] really helped to diversify the company,” said Dr. Harjeet Bhabra, dean of the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, pointing to the buying of Lawtons Drug Stores in 1976 and Empire being first publicly traded in 1982. “His ability to see opportunities, to seek and take advantage of those opportunities, that was instrumental in growing the business during that time.”

In 2004, Donald retired as chairman and was named chairman emeritus, continuing to be actively engaged in the business as a member of the board of directors until 2015.

“Empire and Sobeys owe so much to the leadership, business acumen, and passion of Donald,” Michael Medline, president and CEO of Empire, said in a statement following his death.

After his retirement, Donald became increasingly involved in philanthropy, at the National Gallery of Canada, where he was chairman of the board of trustees, and with several universities and the Nova Scotia Community College. He became best known as the spark behind the Sobey Art Award. Founded in 2002, it has since become Canada’s pre-eminent award for contemporary Canadian art and is among the richest visual arts prizes in the world.

A gentle, thoughtful man, Donald didn’t like the spotlight and preferred giving credit to others. At the art award’s 10th anniversary celebration, his son Rob spoke to the audience. “In attracting him here today, I promised Dad he wouldn’t have to say a word – unless he wants to.”

His father, standing nearby, shook his head. Rob continued: “Dad – Donald – without your efforts 10 years ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight. So, thank you.” Loud cheers erupted from the adoring crowd and Donald is reported to have turned a visible shade of pink.

A youthful, serendipitous encounter with artist Alex Colville and his murals at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., in 1949, sparked Donald’s life-long love of Canadian art. By the late 1960s he started to collect, and like his father, became a notable collector.

When asked if he learned about art from his father, he laughed. “No!” Donald told Canadian Art magazine in 2013. “I didn’t grow up with anything! We had calendars – my mother loved calendars, with big pictures. I was the first one who ever bought a painting.” It was a small painting by John Lyman, of St. Vincent in the Caribbean. Donald bought it when he was in his 20s, and his father liked it.

“So, when [Frank Sobey] built a bigger house, he wanted to have art.” Donald smiled. “He got to be a better collector, though.”

Last November, the Donald R. Sobey Foundation, with the Sobey Foundation, donated $10-million to Nova Scotia’s new art gallery which is expected to open in 2025 on Halifax’s waterfront.

Outside of art, Donald believed passionately in the transformational power of education and created scholarships at several post-secondary institutions, hoping to reach young people who might not otherwise have the opportunity to continue their education.

“He came alive when we talked about the success of students,” said Don Bureaux, president of the Nova Scotia Community College. “He would always say, ‘Don, tell me a story.’”

When Diane Brisebois, president and CEO of the Retail Council of Canada, sat down to talk with Donald and David about being picked to receive the council’s Canadian Grocery Industry Grand Prix Lifetime Achievement Award for their family’s commitment to their community, employees and philanthropy, they listened attentively and then peppered her with questions: Who nominated them? What were the award’s criteria? They wanted to ensure they were worthy of the honour.

“Donald was so down-to-earth and unassuming,” Ms. Brisebois said. “People looked up to him and people sought him for his views and his insights.”

The recipient of several honorary degrees, he was invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 2014 for his business and philanthropic contributions to the country. When he wasn’t working or travelling to visit an art gallery, you could find him playing tennis or reading a presidential biography in the home he loved, not far from where he grew up.

He leaves his wife, Beth; children, Rob, Irene and Kent; grandchildren, Jane, Matthew, Connor, Charlie and Josephine; brother, David; and sister, Dianne. He was predeceased by his parents and brother, Bill, who died in 1989.

“He had an incredible sense of responsibility to the betterment of society,” Ms. Brisebois said.

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