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George Weston Ltd. chairman and president W. Galen Weston at the company's annual general meeting in Toronto on May 14, 2009.

Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

W. Galen Weston, the patriarch of one of the country’s wealthiest families and an architect of modern food retailing in Canada, has died at the age of 80.

Over more than four decades in retail, food distribution and real estate, Mr. Weston helped to build the Loblaw, Choice Properties, Selfridges Group and Weston Foods brands, before retiring as chairman of George Weston Ltd. in 2016. Mr. Weston and his wife Hilary have also been known for their dedication to philanthropy.

Mr. Weston, who had faced a long illness, died at home on Monday. He leaves his wife, son Galen and daughter Alannah, as well as four sisters, one brother and four grandchildren.

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“He taught me that making a decision is more important than making the perfect decision, and that you need to do what you love to have an interesting life,” Galen G. Weston said in an e-mail on Tuesday. “His lasting legacy will be the breadth of his business passions and accomplishments – spanning five countries and four distinct industries.”

Mr. Weston, left, with his son, Galen G. Weston, after the Loblaw annual general meeting for shareholders in Toronto on May 5, 2010.

MARK BLINCH/Reuters

“The luxury retail industry has lost a great visionary,” Alannah Weston said in a statement. “His energy electrified those of us who were lucky enough to work alongside him to reimagine what customer experience could be.”

Born Oct. 29, 1940, Mr. Weston was the youngest of nine children and scion of a family that had already been in the retailing business for nearly 60 years. His grandfather, George Weston, opened his own bakery in 1882 after working as a baker’s boy in Toronto, selling buns door to door. George Weston’s son, W. Garfield Weston, went into the family trade, buying up food companies during the Great Depression, and expanding the business into the United States, Australia, South Africa and Ireland.

Garfield and Reta Weston raised their three sons to learn about the business from the ground up. The family lived between Britain, Canada and the U.S., depending on Garfield’s business activities at the time. As a teenager, Galen was sent to do jobs such as packing Christmas hampers at Fortnum & Mason, and washing photo pans in the grocery division’s advertising department. Later, during a summer break while attending the University of Western Ontario, Mr. Weston worked at a German supermarket chain in which the family held an interest.

Mr. Weston left Western in 1961 and went to Dublin, where he bought a grocery store with money inherited from his grandmother. With guidance from older brother Garry, who managed the family’s Associated British Foods business in Britain, Galen built up the business in Ireland into a supermarket chain, called Power. He also bought department store Brown, Thomas & Co. and other assets.

While in Ireland, Mr. Weston first laid eyes on his future wife, Hilary Frayne – on a billboard, modelling Sheer Dynamite stockings – and decided he wanted to meet her. They married three years later, in 1966, in a lively Klondike-theme reception held at a Weston family estate in Britain. The young couple’s starter home was a 17th-century castle south of Dublin called Roundwood Park. In January of 1972 they had a daughter, Alannah. Their son Galen was born later the same year.

Mr. Weston married Hilary Frayne in 1966 in a lively Klondike-theme reception held at a Weston family estate in Britain.

Jenna Marie Wakani

In 1968, Mr. Weston was appointed to the boards of Associated British Foods and George Weston Ltd. In 1971, Galen’s father Garfield asked him to look into the Loblaw business, to determine whether it could be saved, or should be sold off or closed. The following year, he moved his young family to Toronto and was named chief executive officer of Loblaw Companies.

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The supermarket chain was teetering near bankruptcy at the time. Mr. Weston recruited his friend and college roommate Dave Nichol, who would later become the recognizable pitchman for the Loblaw business and its President’s Choice private label, but at the time was working at consulting firm McKinsey. Mr. Nichol introduced Mr. Weston to his colleague Richard Currie, who was also brought on board. Together, the team closed underperforming stores, shuttered divisions, restructured the operations and paid down debt. Poaching talent from around the industry, they then set about revamping the entire look of the stores, with the help of designer Don Watt. Under his leadership Loblaw launched private-label businesses that became a model for the retail industry across North America, including President’s Choice and No Name.

“Galen was very good at making sure he hired good people, but he was really the visionary behind it all ... pushing the envelope, and changing the retail landscape,” said former Royal Bank of Canada president Gord Nixon, who sits on the board of George Weston Ltd. “He basically turned Loblaw into the most powerful retail brand in Canada.”

Mr. Weston at the Loblaws Queens Quay in Toronto in 1999.

Handout

As a leader, Mr. Weston inherited “an addiction to detail” that he shared with his father and grandfather, former Loblaw executive Allan Leighton wrote in his 2007 book On Leadership. He was known for making spot visits to Loblaw stores to check up on the operations – often on Saturday mornings, with the children in tow.

“The first thing I look at is the trash bucket, to see what has been thrown out. The amount of waste tells the story,” Mr. Weston told Mr. Leighton. He would also survey the energy in the stores, and walk with customers as they pushed their buggies through the aisles, asking what products they were looking for but couldn’t find. “I like to see senior people on the floor and I think it’s an important example,” Mr. Weston said. “People like to see and talk to the person whose face is on the cover of the annual report.”

Rob Prichard, a longtime director at George Weston Ltd. and non-executive chair of Torys LLP, remembers Mr. Weston jumping on a plane to visit the Weston Foods cookie factory in North Sioux City, S.D., to “touch base with all the people there,” Mr. Prichard said. “To him, that was as much fun as going to Wimbledon. He got fun out of every single thing he did.”

After shoring up the business, Mr. Weston led Loblaw’s expansion through the 1990s and early 2000s, buying up grocers such as Provigo and expanding the bakery business.

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Mr. Weston also built up the family’s luxury retail business, in 1983 buying upscale Dublin department store Brown Thomas (in which he had held a stake since 1971), followed by Holt Renfrew in 1986, a high-end chain then due for an overhaul. In 2003, the family’s private holding company, Wittington Investments Ltd., announced a deal to buy a majority stake in luxury-goods retailer Selfridges PLC for US$1-billion. Selfridges Group acquired a chain of luxury department stores called de Bijenkorf in the Netherlands in 2010, and Montreal’s prestigious Ogilvy department-store chain the following year.

Mr. Weston, right, with his son, Galen G. Weston, and grandson, Graydon Weston, at the Design Exchange in Toronto on July 15, 2013.

Philip Cheung/The Globe and Mail

“He was a risk-taker,” recalled Tony Fell, former chairman of RBC Capital Markets and former chief executive officer of RBC Dominion Securities, who sat on the boards of both Wittington and Loblaw. “He always had big ideas, and he implemented them. He never went overboard, but he was pushing the limits, let’s put it that way, in terms of taking risks and expanding the business.”

The Westons moved within a rarefied universe, throwing lavish parties and frequently summering at Fort Belvedere, an 18th-century manor in the Great Park of Windsor Castle, west of London, where King Edward VIII signed his abdication in 1936. The high-profile family’s wealth and ties to royalty made them a target: An IRA kidnapping attempt in 1982 was foiled when an informer tipped off the authorities. Police intercepted the would-be kidnappers at the Westons’ Irish estate, Roundwood Park.

But for all his wealth, Mr. Weston did not seek the limelight. Friends described him as relatively unassuming and modest.

“He’s quite at home with the Royals and he’s quite at home when he goes into a Loblaws. He just had that incredible ability to relate to almost anyone,” said Charlie Baillie, the former Toronto-Dominion Bank CEO and George Weston Ltd. director, when reached by phone at the Windsor residential community that Mr. Weston developed in Florida.

Mr. Weston took pride in Hilary’s term as the 26th lieutenant-governor of Ontario, from 1997 to 2002.

Tom Sandler/The Globe and Mail

He remained famously publicity-shy throughout his life, guarding his family’s privacy closely over the years.

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The couple were also dedicated to philanthropy, through the Weston Family Foundation, the Weston Brain Institute and other organizations. They contributed to the revitalization of the Royal Ontario Museum, and were dedicated to environmental causes.

Mr. Weston took pride in Hilary’s term as the 26th lieutenant-governor of Ontario, from 1997 to 2002. He once quipped, “I may not be the man who accompanies Jackie Kennedy to Paris, but I am the man who gets to accompany Hilary Weston to Timmins, Kingston or Kenora.” They were married for 55 years.

Since his retirement, Mr. Weston’s children have continued the family’s connection to the business. Alannah Weston is chair of Selfridges Group, and Galen G. Weston is chair and CEO of George Weston Ltd. and will soon return to leading Loblaw as president.

“They were actively engaged in so many areas, including public service,” Mr. Nixon said of the Westons as a couple. “It is a loss for Canada.”

With a report from James Bradshaw

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