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Wendy McDonald was an indomitable force in Canadian business

Wendy McDonald died of lung cancer on Dec. 30, 2012.

Dave Roels

In the 1940s, the West Coast party crowd flocked to the Panorama Roof supper club atop the Hotel Vancouver, where the Dal Richards Orchestra would swing through the tunes of the era, including Mr. Richards's rendition of As Time Goes By. He drew a loyal following among the city's stock promoters, lumber barons and resource magnates, their wives and girlfriends, but perhaps his most avid fan was a vivacious young woman named Wendy.

She was a sometimes fashion model married to an upwardly mobile engineer named Robert MacPherson. Over the decades, Mr. Richards played for her through trials and triumphs – the death of Mr. MacPherson in a plane crash, the sudden demise of two more husbands, the raising of 10 children, and Wendy's emergence as an indomitable force in Canadian business.

The small industrial bearings-distribution firm she inherited from Mr. MacPherson, known as BC Bearing Engineers, became a growth machine as it reached across Western Canada and into the U.S. and Latin America. Wendy – now Wendy McDonald – was a woman who thrived in a macho world of mine drills and oil rigs.

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She always kept a soft spot for Dal Richards. When Mrs. McDonald had something to celebrate, she wanted the bandleader to play for her. Last June, the Dal Richards Orchestra headlined a Hawaiian luau for her 90th birthday and Mr. Richards, now 95, watched his good friend hula into the night. "She was dancing her head off," he says.

Seven months later, on Dec. 30, she died of lung cancer, and, to those who knew her, it was the loss of a towering personality – and one of the most visible links between the old Vancouver of timber tycoons, industrial fortunes and big-band music, and the new global city of property flippers, video-game developers and Carly Rae Jepsen.

She was part of the pioneering group of families that built modern Vancouver, says Dan Muzyka, CEO of the Conference Board of Canada and the former business dean at University of British Columbia who, as Vancouver Board of Trade chairman in 2005, looked to Mrs. McDonald, a former chairman herself, for her can-do optimism.

She had an attitude typical of that pioneer generation, he says. "You looked at life, you took it the way it came, and you dealt with it."

Her life began as Wendy Burdon Stoker, and she grew up in North Vancouver, where her father tended a small farm and ran a dairy. She had a wonderful childhood, spending summers on Halfmoon Bay on the Sunshine Coast, where the family would stay at a resort known as Redrooffs.

She finished her formal schooling at 16, went to work for clothing companies, and modelled a bit, appearing in fashion shows at the Hotel Georgia. One night in 1941, at the Cave Supper Club, the 19-year-old was introduced to the intense, good-looking Robert MacPherson, who was 12 years older and trying to launch a bearings business in the wartime economy. They married in January, 1942, and she settled into the role of stay-at-home wife.

Mr. MacPherson joined the RCAF in 1943, and gave Wendy, now a mother of two, power of attorney over his business. While he was flying planes in Europe and Asia, she was expanding his bearings operation, taking it into Alberta on the eve of the huge petroleum boom.

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Mr. MacPherson came home in January, 1946, and sent his wife back to the kitchen. "Well, I wasn't happy at all," she said years later. She was comfortable with being at home, but she had tasted the life of an entrepreneur. And Robert MacPherson was a hard man to live with – he would put her down, using the cruel nickname "Dumb Ma." She focused on family and a new summer home, called "Camp," built on a lot on the old Redrooffs property.

In August, 1950, Robert MacPherson was flying from Vancouver to the summer place when, experiencing a mechanical glitch, he tried to land his single-engine plane at Point Roberts. It crashed and he was killed instantly. His 28-year-old widow had little time to mourn: She needed the company's cash flow to raise the four children she now had, and she took over the reins of management.

After she restored some order – Robert had been a messy manager with a lot of little deals – she got the company back on track. As a regional distributor, she needed the support of big European bearings manufacturers, such as Timken, SKF and FAG, which deployed networks of outfits like BC Bearing to get their products into the hands of clients.

To reassure these suppliers, she embarked on a European tour, setting up appointments under the name "W.B. MacPherson." The companies would book lunch or dinner at exclusive male clubs and, when "W.B." finally arrived, Wendy would enjoy watching them scramble to undo their reservations.

She reassured her suppliers that she intended to stay in business, but when she returned to Vancouver, one of her managers was attempting a coup. "He thought that it was time that I went out and played golf and looked after the children," she recalled in a 1999 interview.

But she meant to run the place, and fired the rebellious manager. He eventually set up a rival shop, bidding for customers and drawing away branch managers and key employees. "I was fighting for my life," she said.

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At one point, she was close to a breakdown, dealing at home with a six-week-old child who was born prematurely. But she didn't give up. She recruited new blood and hired a couple newly arrived from Britain to look after her household. She managed to keep key suppliers and customers on board, winning them over with a personable style that would be her strength.

Throughout this tough period, she was spending time with a charming young widower named Bill Dix, a top manager at Neon Products, a West Coast sign company. He became her second husband, and brought two children to the union, plus another they had together. In Mr. Dix, Wendy found the love of her life, someone who shared her sociability and zest.

On Valentine's Day in 1957, Mr. Dix was entertaining some colleagues at Halfmoon Bay, while Wendy was back home in Vancouver's British Properties spending time with their wives. Sam Cromie, assistant publisher at the Vancouver Sun, happened to be at a nearby cottage, and he and Mr. Dix decided to head out by themselves to test-drive a new boat. The next morning, the two men were discovered missing. Mr. Cromie's body washed ashore; Mr. Dix's was never found.

As she always did, Wendy pulled herself together, and the business was a welcome distraction. She drove BC Bearing's growth in the hot resources economy of the 1960s and 1970s, providing the bearings that made machines work faster and more efficiently.

She was a role model but never put herself forward as a feminist, says Janet Austin, CEO of the YWCA Metro Vancouver and a colleague on the Board of Trade. Ms. Austin describes Mrs. McDonald as "a practical feminist" who was interested not in rhetoric and theory, but in real-life action. "She understood the challenges women face in balancing work and life and being taken seriously in a male-dominated world."

In the 1960s, she married again, this time to mining promoter Syd McDonald, but it didn't work. They separated in 1966, and he died soon after. In interviews, she was reluctant to discuss the marriage or his death, but she took his three children under her wing.

That was the end of marriage for Wendy McDonald. There would be male companions, but she never tied the knot again. It had been all too difficult. Above all, she had survived. "Every event makes you stronger," she said.

She watched some of the children enter the business, and in the 1990s designed a transfer of power. Robby MacPherson, her eldest son, took over operations, while sister Penny Omnès ran the marketing side, Scott MacPherson looked after the U.S., and Bill Dix Jr. oversaw the international business.

Even after giving up the chief operating role to Robby in the late 1990s, she insisted: "I'm still the CEO and I have the right to go into anything I want."

People who dealt with her were struck by the combination of physical presence and a personality that exuded optimism – balanced by hard-nosed decision-making. She was known for her clear blue eyes, sparkly-framed glasses, her toy poodles, Winky and Dizzy, and a trademark line, "You got that right," which became the title of her authorized biography.

"She was one of the best networkers I ever met," says Darcy Rezac, a former Board of Trade managing director who sat on the BC Bearings board. "I've never seen her stuck or apprehensive about talking to anybody."

Always civic-minded, she was one of the original investors in the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer team in 1974, and even when she ended her involvement, she remained a fan.

She always seemed bigger than the company she owned, which grew in sales to more than $200-million a year – a nice size in Canada, but not big on the world scene. Yet it found a sweet spot as a distributor for big bearings companies in resource-rich regions.

After decades of leadership by her and Robby, the family turned the president's job over to an outsider. Then in December, 2009, Genuine Parts Co. of Atlanta offered to buy most of the North American business of BC Bearing. The family agreed, while retaining the Latin American business and their real-estate holdings, as well as Norcan Fluid Power, a provider of hydraulic and pneumatic components. The sale was a wrenching decision, says Mr. Rezac, but the timing was right.

As early as six years ago, Mrs. McDonald knew she had cancer, says daughter Penny Omnès, but she continued to squeeze as much as she could out of life: "She was always up."

That was evident on her 90th birthday, which Mrs. McDonald and her family planned meticulously, to the extent of flying in flowered leis from Hawaii for the guests. "She made sure she had one last blast," her daughter says.

She leaves eight children, as well as 27 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren. A crowd of 500 came out for the funeral service, according to her daughter, and 300 attended the reception that followed.

When Mrs. McDonald died, Dal Richards lost a friend. It would be the end of the great party that started at the Panorama Roof. His strongest recollection was how she threw herself into planning each event, right to the end. "She was a determined woman," he says.

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