On the night of March 12, 1938, eight-year-old Peter Bentley was lying awake in bed when his father told him to get dressed. The boy quickly complied – without realizing that his affluent Jewish family’s life in Vienna was ending. He and other family members fled as Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss.
“Within hours, my mother, my cousins [two girls], and I were being driven with our [two] nannies to the Czech border,” Mr. Bentley recalled in his autobiography, A Family’s Journey: Canfor and the Transformation of B.C.’s Forest Industry. “My father had little trust in my grandparents’ chauffeur, so he followed behind to ensure we got through. Our car was the last to cross the border that night, and we were probably permitted to get through because my nanny and I spoke fluent Czech.”
Mr. Bentley, who died of a blood infection in Vancouver on Sept. 6 at age 91, went on to cross many more borders as he became a legendary Canadian business leader and philanthropist. For more than half a century he played leading roles in the family’s lumber company, which evolved from Pacific Veneer, a small factory operator in New Westminster, B.C., into Canadian Forest Products (Canfor), a Vancouver-based global industry giant.
In addition, he held board positions with such major companies as Shell Canada and the Bank of Montreal, and earned numerous distinctions, including induction as an officer of the Order of Canada. Mr. Bentley was also one of the earliest members of the national organization known today as the Business Council of Canada (BCC).
Mr. Bentley ranked as one of B.C.’s most influential national-policy voices, according to Thomas d’Aquino, who headed the BCC from 1981 to 2009. But Mr. Bentley’s policy interests transcended the province’s boundaries.
“He was always very generous to me with both his advice and his counsel – very supportive of me, as I was of him,” Mr. d’Aquino said.
He praised Mr. Bentley as a straight talker “who said what he meant and meant what he said.”
Mr. Bentley, he added, made his greatest policy contributions in the areas of free trade, federal debt reduction and national unity. “Maintaining the unity of the country was very important to him,” Mr. d’Aquino said.
When Mr. Bentley fled from his childhood home in 1938, Austria had been far from unified. His father, Leopold (Poldi) Bloch-Bauer, returned to Vienna to shore up the family assets and take them out of the country. But the family sugar company, Austria’s largest, was illegally seized by the Nazis as part of a bogus prosecution. Mr. Bloch-Bauer was jailed for nine days, until a family friend managed to secure his release.
“I certainly didn’t understand the danger my father was facing, and I had no idea how close he would come to being sent to a concentration camp,” Mr. Bentley wrote.
When Mr. Bentley was born in Vienna on March 17, 1930, his name was Peter Heinz Bloch-Bauer. He was the only child of Poldi and Antoinette (née Pick) Bloch-Bauer.
The Bloch-Bauer surname is famous for its connection to Adele Bloch-Bauer, an aunt of Mr. Bloch-Bauer and great-aunt of Mr. Bentley, who was the subject of a famous gold-flecked 1907 portrait by Gustav Klimt. The work sold for a record US$135-million to cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder in 2006 after Mr. Bloch-Bauer’s sister, Maria Altmann, wrested its ownership from the Austrian government in a lengthy Nazi-looting restitution case involving several precious works of art. (Mr. Bentley, however, did not participate in the legal action.)
Upon the family’s arrival in Canada in 1938, Mr. Bloch-Bauer changed their surname to Bentley, and they converted from Judaism to Christianity. Poldi Bentley, as he was now known, and his brother-in-law John Prentice (né Hans Pick) launched Pacific Veneer, Canfor’s predecessor, later that year with funds from a cotton business that they managed to hold out of the Nazis’ reach. They also obtained capital through a 60-40 partnership with two Hungarian immigrants and the Rogers family, owners of a Canadian sugar dynasty.
Poldi Bentley knew the Rogers family through his uncle Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer (the husband of Adele Bloch-Bauer), who co-owned a sugar company seized by the Nazis, along with Otto Pick, Mr. Prentice’s father.
(In 2005, to compensate for the theft of the family’s sugar business, a New York court awarded US$21.8-million to Bloch-Bauer and Pick descendants, including Peter Bentley and his five children.)
Pacific Veneer took off when it was contracted to supply ultrathin, but highly strong and flexible plywood for the de Havilland Mosquito, used by the Allies during the Second World War.
Mr. Bentley began attending Pacific Veneer board meetings when he was 11 and started working various summer jobs for the company at age 14, first as a fire spotter.
“I don’t think anyone, including me, assumed that I would end up anywhere other than in the family business, even if that looked doubtful a few years later on,” he wrote.
Mr. Bentley had his heart set on a law career but followed his father’s wishes and studied forestry at the University of British Columbia, where he helped the Thunderbirds golf team win back-to-back conference titles in 1948 and 1949. He also gambled, earning $64 – “big money in those days,” he wrote – and ran raffles. But he was expelled in 1950.
“I did not want my parents to know, so I became secretive,” he wrote. “I was rebelling in a big way.”
The “self-made outcast” worked for another local lumber company and then joined a wood wholesaler in Chicago but his father and uncle invited him to rejoin Canfor. Altogether, he spent 53 years on the board, chairing it for 24 of those years, while also spending two decades as the company’s chief executive officer.
Jean Sorensen, a Vancouver-based freelance journalist who has covered B.C.’s forest industry for more than four decades, said Mr. Bentley expanded on a foundation of innovation and conservation launched by his father and uncle in 1938. Like them, he welcomed change in a sector that relies – and thrives – on technology.
“While the two founders began the process, I believe that Peter continued it and also learned how to put together the resources needed to exist – which is saying something in the forest industry,” Ms. Sorensen said. “There are a barrage of companies that have parachuted in and left, and others that failed, and others that were absorbed.”
Ms. Sorensen noted the B.C. sector has many multigenerational companies engaged in such activities as logging and specialty-wood products manufacturing. But Mr. Bentley was a rarity in that he learned the business of running a large integrated company from childhood.
“Logging used to be pretty helter-skelter in that guys would go up, they’d work in these camps, and then they’d come and spend their money,” she said. “It was mainly a single guys’ licence, whereas [Peter Bentley, his father and uncle] turned it around a bit. In the Nimpkish Valley [on Vancouver Island], they formed communities, they built houses for people, they put in a school at their main camp, they brought in families and stabilized things. I think that was a big change, No. 1, because guys were willing to stay there and that meant that you weren’t always having to source labour or deal with guys who were sitting in the bunkhouse drinking on weekends or whatever.”
Over the years, she said, Canfor’s innovative efforts included logging at higher elevations in summer and lower elevations in winter; heli-logging; using rail to get logs to water for transport; obtaining B.C.’s first pulp-harvesting licence; establishing a pulp-research division and building a pulp mill in Prince George, B.C., where the company is now proposing to build biomass and biofuel plants that will offer an alternative to fossil-fuel consumption.
The company overcame several challenges, such as the mountain pine beetle infestation, Canada-U.S. softwood lumber disputes, labour unrest, forest industry downturns and boardroom battles – some involving Mr. Bentley’s daughter, Barbara Hislop, who held senior executive and board positions with the company. In 2004, the board bypassed Mrs. Hislop for company’s CEO position.
“I accepted [the board’s decision] better than he did,” said Mrs. Hislop, who left her executive post following 28 years as an employee.
In 2019, Mr. Bentley and Mrs. Hislop held opposing views on majority owner Jim Pattison’s bid for full control of Canfor in an effort to take the company private. Mr. Bentley supported the plan, but Mrs. Hislop, a minority shareholder, balked at Mr. Pattison’s $16-per-share offer. Mr. Pattison subsequently scrapped his privatization effort.
“My dad respected that I had a different viewpoint,” she said.
Outside of Canfor, Mr. Bentley pursued his passion for sport. In 1966, while chairing the organization now known as Golf Canada, he steered the Canadian Open’s return to Vancouver following an 18-year absence. He also helped the city land a National Hockey League franchise as he and his father invested in the Canucks’ fledgling ownership group.
“We were well received by eleven [NHL] cities,” Mr. Bentley wrote. “Only the Toronto Maple Leafs owners, Harold Ballard and Stafford Smythe, did not support our entry, saying that they did not want to lose the western Canadian market for the Leafs.”
Mr. Bentley’s group sold its franchise before the club’s first game in 1970, however, following a disagreement with the NHL over how the Canucks’ roster would be stocked, he wrote.
“From my standpoint, we accomplished our mission of getting Vancouver into the big time,” Mr. Bentley wrote.
He also helped the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame reach new heights, according to curator Jason Beck, contributing “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to various projects.
“Whenever we were doing a fundraising campaign, he was always one of the first to contribute,” Mr. Beck said. “He wouldn’t make a big show of it.”
Mr. Bentley’s contributions were sought early, Mr. Beck said, because other benefactors followed his lead. Mr. Bentley also chaired the Hall in 1974 and 1975 and served as a trustee from 1969 to 1993.
“I developed a [sense of] civic responsibility from my father and Uncle John, who passed along a profound appreciation of how Canada accepted our families when we first arrived,” Mr. Bentley wrote. “They showed me how important it is to give back through hard work, time and donations and causes we believed in.”
Mr. Bentley’s philanthropic endeavours included the VGH-UBC Hospital Foundation, which he founded in 1980 at the urging of then Social Credit B.C. premier Bill Bennett. The foundation has raised $1-billion in donations.
Mr. Bentley died in one of the hospitals supported by the foundation – Vancouver General – after spending a week in palliative care.
“He told us all that he had had a very good life,” Mrs. Hislop said. “He told us repeatedly that he loved us, but he was ready to go.”
Michael Bentley said his father’s mind was “sharp right to the end.”
Peter Bentley leaves his wife, Sheila (née McGiverin); five children, Mrs. Hislop, Susan Kololian, Joanie Ball, Michael Bentley and Lisa Turner; 15 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.