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Fredrik Eaton of the T. Eaton Company smiles as he addresses Eaton's employees outside the company's flagship store at the Eaton Centre in Toronto on Aug. 15, 1997.Kevin Frayer/The Canadian Press

Fredrik Eaton belonged to the fourth – and final – generation to run Eaton’s, the family’s department store empire. One of four brothers, he had more in-store experience than any of his brothers, starting on the sales floor and rising to run the firm from 1977 to 1988. Mr. Eaton, who died at home in Caledon, Ont., on Feb. 20 at the age of 82, also served as Canada’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom in the early 1990s.

Less than a decade after Mr. Eaton’s tenure as chairman, president and CEO of the T. Eaton Co. Ltd., the once-dominant retailer sought bankruptcy protection, having fallen out of step with the times. The company had been thrashed by its competitors, including Sears and Walmart, which arrived in Canada in 1995. In response, Eaton’s had made the mistake of aiming for the high-end market.

The department stores were sold to Sears and the Eaton family’s name was removed.

It is hard to imagine now, two decades after the company’s demise, but from the end of the 19th century to almost the close of the 20th century, the Eatons were among the most famous families in Canada, considered business and social royalty.

As recently as 1992, the family was listed on the Forbes richest list with an estimated wealth of US$1.2-billion.

Their retail chain boasted as many as 14 main stores, usually the anchor of a shopping centre, and 42 smaller outlets across Canada; in 1960, they had 45,000 employees. They also co-owned the Toronto Telegram newspaper and, from 1960, were the principal owners of CFTO, the richest private television station in Canada.

Eaton’s was more than a collection of stores; it was a Canadian institution.

One innovation was its mail-order catalogue, which was first printed in 1884 and distributed at Toronto’s Industrial Exhibition (later named the Canadian National Exhibition). The first issue was text only, but within three years it began including illustrations of some goods for sale. It was a brilliant idea for a predominantly rural country with a population of 4.8 million in 1891. The Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1885, could deliver goods across the country.

The Eaton’s catalogue, which was offered in French as well starting in 1910, figures prominently in Roch Carrier’s famous 1979 short story, The Hockey Sweater. The tale is based on a real-life incident when Mr. Carrier was a hockey-loving kid in small-town Quebec. When young Roch’s red Montreal Canadiens sweater wore out, his mother ordered a replacement from the Eaton’s catalogue and a blue sweater of the arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs arrived instead. In real life and in the story, the boy was ostracized for wearing the enemy’s sweater. The story became such an important piece of Canadiana that a pictorial reference to it appears on $5 bills printed between 2001 and 2013.

Another Eaton’s practice was to manufacture its own goods, including clothes, cutting out the middle man and making the family even richer.

Fredrik Stefan Eaton was born in Toronto on June 26, 1938, the second son to John David Eaton, who owned and ran the Eaton’s department store chain, and the former Signy Hildur Stefansson. The spelling of Fredrik Stefan’s given names reflected the Icelandic heritage of his mother, who came from the Icelandic community in Gimli, Man. His brother Thor, who died in 2017, also had an Icelandic name.

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Signy Hildur Stefansson, wife of John David Eaton, with her children John Craig, Fredrik, Thor and George, published on March 21, 1949.Ballard of Eaton's

The family business was founded in Toronto in 1869 by Fredrik’s great-grandfather Timothy Eaton, an immigrant from County Antrim in Northern Ireland. The original shop grew into a department store and kept expanding. By 1900 the company employed 2,500 people, and the Eaton family owned mansions in Toronto, farms in the country and houses on Lake Rosseau in Muskoka, where they kept a large, fast yacht to travel from the train station to their lakefront property.

Timothy Eaton died in 1907. His son Sir John Craig Eaton ran the store from 1907 to 1922, and his son John David Eaton owned and ran the T. Eaton Co. from 1942 to 1969. Professional managers ran the company during the in-between years.

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The Eaton brothers Fred, George, Thor and John Craig walk through Eaton's in Toronto with new president George Kosich second from left on June 5, 1997.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Fredrik, known to his family and friends as Fred, first visited the downtown Toronto store in May of 1945 when he was nearly seven years old with his father and older brother John Craig to celebrate the end of the Second World War. Young Fredrik went to Upper Canada College, then the University of New Brunswick, where he studied philosophy and earned a bachelor of arts. He worked briefly as a police reporter at the Toronto Telegram, which his family co-owned.

His first job at Eaton’s was in the children’s department; he then crossed the country to work at the Eaton’s store in Victoria, then moved to the buying office in London, England. Finding the goods to fill department stores across Canada and supplying the Eaton’s catalogue was a complex business, and Eaton’s had buyers in major European capitals. The store prided itself on being able to source goods that Canadians couldn’t find elsewhere.

When Fredrik returned to Canada from his stint in London, he managed the Don Mills store in suburban Toronto. During the time he served as chairman, president and CEO, the Eaton Centre mall in downtown Toronto opened in 1977. The nearby College Street store closed and sales were higher than expected at the Eaton Centre outlet. In 1988, Fredrik’s younger brother George became president; Fredrik remained on the board until 1991.

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Fredrik Eaton and E.G. Burton, presidents respectively of Eaton's and Simpson's department stores at the construction site of the Toronto Eaton Centre on Aug. 31, 1977.Derek DeBono/The Globe and Mail

Eaton’s first sponsored a Santa Claus parade in Toronto in 1904. In 1913 it brought caribou from Labrador to pull Santa’s sleigh. Eaton’s sponsored similar parades in Winnipeg and Montreal. Eaton’s ended its sponsorship of the Toronto parade in 1982, and other corporate interests took it over.

As the most public of the four Eaton brothers, Fredrik was in demand to lend his support and money to many causes and organizations. On the volunteer side, among other things, he was chancellor of the University of New Brunswick, president of the Toronto General Hospital, which his family first supported early in the 20th century, and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), where he was president from 1984 to 1986.

Nance Gelber, whose family had a long connection with the AGO, recalls asking Mr. Eaton a question at the annual general meeting, where no one ever asked probing questions, about why the gallery never used any of the newer art it had stored in the basement.

“I felt the gallery was a little stiff and should open itself to a wider public and tourists,” Ms. Gelber said. “[Mr. Eaton] promised to get back to me, and he did. I thought he cared about the gallery and had a real interest in it.”

On the corporate side, Mr. Eaton was on many boards, including the Toronto-Dominion Bank, where the T. Eaton Co. banked for decades. He was on the board of Conrad Black’s Hollinger, though the two men, long-time friends, fell out when Mr. Eaton left the board as the company faced legal troubles.

A long-time supporter of the Progressive Conservative Party, Mr. Eaton was named High Commissioner to the United Kingdom by prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1991.

“There were lots of people who wanted the post. I chose Fred because he was a royalist, and I knew he would represent Canada with dignity,” Mr. Mulroney told The Globe and Mail in an interview. “Fred and Nicky did a tremendous job. He also had the means to travel and entertain much more than a civil servant would. Fred Eaton was the illustration of the perfect gentleman.”

Mr. Eaton used his business contacts to help Canadian firms.

“My father worked hard to promote ties between British and Canadian business,” his son, Fredrik, said. “What he enjoyed most in his time in London were the people he met.”

When Mr. Eaton returned to Canada in 1994, he was still a director of the T. Eaton Co. but was not running it. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in 1997. The following year the company went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange, but the money raised did not help. In 1999, Eaton’s declared bankruptcy and the chain was sold to Sears. The Eaton name was taken off the stores in 2002.

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Fredrik Eaton on May 13, 1997.Edward Regan/The Globe and Mail

The company’s problems began before Fredrik Eaton was born, according to Rod McQueen, who wrote an unauthorized book on the family, The Eatons: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Royal Family. The company voluntarily returned the wartime profits it made to the federal government, Mr. McQueen wrote, which weakened the company. “By the end of the Second World War,” he wrote “the [Eaton’s] factories were so decrepit they would never recover.”

Mr. McQueen also contends that management at the company became so bloated after the war that it “hobbled the decision-making process.”

Fred Eaton gave a four-hour interview to Mr. McQueen, the only one of the four brothers to speak to him. None of them was happy with the final product.

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Fredrik Eaton and Royal Ontario Museum Director & CEO William Thorsell chat about the art work The Death of General Wolfe (1776) by Benjamin West in the ROM's Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada in Toronto, on March 31, 2009.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Eaton was an officer of the Order of Canada, a member of the Order of Ontario and had honorary doctorates from the University of New Brunswick and Queen’s University in Belfast. He was a member of a number of clubs, including the Caledon Mountain Trout Club. He also enjoyed salmon fishing on the Restigouche River.

Mr. Eaton leaves his wife, Catherine, known as Nicky; his children, Fredrik D’Arcy and Flora Catherine; four grandchildren; and two surviving brothers, John Craig Eaton and George Ross Eaton.

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