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Guoman Liao/Globe and Mail

My grandfather came to Canada in 1896, and in 1903 he started a general store in what is now Vancouver’s Chinatown. It originally served Chinese immigrants, but eventually he developed it into a wholesale operation. It continued like that until 1926, when he incorporated into H.Y. Louie Co. Ltd.—the company that survives today.

We got into retail operations with the IGA franchise and expanded that into a second banner called Fresh Street. In 1976, my father purchased a small chain of drugstores, London Drugs. For the next 25 years, he grew those 10 stores, and today we have over 80 stores in Western Canada. We’ve bought into a number of other businesses over the years, and we now have about 10,000 employees.

My father didn’t believe anybody should come into a family business as soon as they finished school. He believed they should go work for somebody else—let somebody else train you, where there are no safety nets. I trained as an accountant. My son Gregory is a doctor, and my younger son, Stuart, is the lawyer.

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We don’t make short-term decisions, because we’re a private company. We’re not having to show every quarter that we can increase profits and sales. And we don’t believe in using public money. We prefer to do our expansions with our own funds. It’s a lot slower, but you sleep better at night.

Our online business is very strong, particularly in the drugstore business. It is growing by double digits, but surprisingly, even our brick-and-mortar business is growing. We must offer something the consumer likes.

We get letters all the time saying, “We used to shop with you when we lived in the West. When are you coming to Toronto?” Our businesses are very well known in Western Canada, and we know it would be a tough fight going east.

I was the third generation to run the business, and last year I transferred it to my sons, who are joint presidents—though I’m still chairman and CEO. They’re married with children, so I see the fifth generation being developed. Hopefully, we can continue to be a successful family business.

It’s very difficult, if you’re the founder of a business, to let go. But being the third generation, I’ve merely inherited that responsibility, and I’m quite prepared to give it up to the next generation when I think they’re ready.

My sons were brought up to be each other’s best friend. They know their own strengths and weaknesses. They rarely have disagreements, but when they do, they actually sit down and talk it through.

I come into the office every day. I’m in charge of running the two family foundations—I take my role in philanthropy very seriously. I also like to see what direction my sons are going. I’m not afraid to speak up when I believe we’re going in the wrong direction, but I’m also not afraid to admit they may be doing something I couldn’t do.

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I recognize that maybe I’m not so much in touch with the millennial shoppers today, so it’s nice to have younger people provide that input for me.

Guoman Liao/Globe and Mail

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