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Albert Cohen

Ruth Bonneville/Winnipeg Free Press/Ruth Bonneville/Winnipeg Free Press

It may not have been very romantic, but Albert Cohen's around-the-world honeymoon turned into the business trip of a lifetime. It was 1955, and he and his bride were in Japan, which was then gaining momentum in the burgeoning home electronics field. Scanning the English-language edition of Tokyo's Asahi Shimbun newspaper one day, Cohen's eyes settled on an ad seeking distributors for a small local company that had produced one of the earliest transistor radios.

The portable tabletop device pictured in the paper was no larger than a toaster – a far cry from the weighty, vacuum tube pieces of furniture that graced parlours back home. Intrigued, Cohen immediately set up an appointment to visit the company's facilities. When he arrived at the ramshackle wooden house that served as the factory, he was greeted by Akio Morita, co-founder of Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Ltd.

By this time, Cohen had earned his business stripes, having helped create a family-owned import company in 1939. He had scoured Europe and the United States for dishes, cigarette lighters, binoculars and other household goods. And a few years before his travels in Tokyo, he noticed someone in Vancouver using a Paper Mate pen, tracked down the company in San Francisco, and flew there to meet executives. In 1952, he signed a deal to bring the world's first fast-drying ink pen to Canada. Within a year, the Paper Mate proved a top seller.

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In Tokyo, he paid $1,350 for an order of 50 radios, and sealed the deal with a handshake. Three years later, the small Japanese company changed its name to Sony, and Cohen became the first overseas distributor of Sony products.

The deal paid off magnificently: The Cohen family's stake in Sony Canada was sold to Sony Corp. in 1995 for $207-million.

A canny entrepreneur and big-pocketed philanthropist who died in Winnipeg on Nov. 21 at the age of 97, Cohen will be "forever known as the man who brought Sony to Canada and the world," said his death notice. Cohen became a trusted adviser to the company on accessing markets and retailing outside Japan.

" 'Your word is your bond.' That's the message he drummed into us," said his son James, now CEO and president of Gendis Inc., the family firm. And to his courtly father, a handshake meant more than a greeting, a conviction passed to his employees. In fact, in a case that made headlines in 1999, a Manitoba court ruled that a handshake deal between oil and gas magnate George Richardson and Allan MacKenzie, then CEO of Gendis, constituted a valid and binding contract.

"Guided by honesty, integrity and a real sense of noblesse oblige, the modest Mr. Cohen made a difference without raising his voice or seeking personal publicity," wrote the Winnipeg Free Press in noting the death of a virtual household name in the city, but by all accounts, a low-key, media-shy man who was blasé about his success.

Albert Diamond Cohen was born in Winnipeg's North End on Jan. 20, 1914, the third of six sons of Alexander Cohen and Bereka (Rose) Diamond, both of whom had fled Ukraine for Canada in 1905. The Jewish Historical Society of Southern Alberta relates that Alexander barely eked out a living delivering furniture with a horse and wagon, and later became a country peddler. Albert quit school after Grade 9 and sold shoes to help out at home. In 1931, he and his father formed A. Cohen and Son, selling candy and chocolate bars to theatres and restaurants throughout Manitoba and northern Ontario. Albert later said he'd learned salesmanship "the hard way," but at 17, he was able to buy a car for $200.

Most of the clan moved to Calgary in the mid-1930s, where two of the Cohen brothers opened a small retail store. Another brother did the same in Winnipeg. In 1939, they formed General Distributors Ltd., (renamed Gendis Inc. in 1983) acting as sales agents and wholesalers for a variety of products. In time, all six brothers were involved in the business, each running a regional branch. There was Morley in Montreal, John (Chauncey) in Toronto, Harry in Calgary, Joseph in Vancouver, and Sam and Albert at headquarters in Winnipeg.

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When war came, Albert enlisted in the navy. Stationed in Nova Scotia, he never saw combat, but served on small cruisers in Canadian and U.S. waters. It was in the service where he got the idea that the military surplus trade would be a good bet. In 1947, he and his brother Sam opened the first of what would grow to 300 SAAN (Surplus Army, Air Force and Navy) stores across Canada.

Within a decade of General Distributors' founding, annual sales hit $1-million, and the company branched out to real estate holdings, oil and gas properties, and retail chains. By the mid-1970s, Gendis was riding high. As the Winnipeg blog West End Dumplings noted, its portfolio included 51 per cent of Sony Canada, 95 Metropolitan stores, 73 SAANs and 64 Greenberg and W.L. Green stores. Annual sales stood at $137-million. In the 1980s, Gendis acquired the Pomme Rouge clearance store chain in Quebec.

Cohen became a philanthropic powerhouse, contributing to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Manitoba Theatre Centre, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Manitoba Opera, and various Winnipeg hospitals and health research initiatives. As president, he found a new home for the Manitoba Theatre Centre, and at its re-opening in 1970, then premier Ed Schreyer handed Cohen the key to the door.

"He was my United Way call," said Winnipeg fundraising dynamo Gail Asper. "He always answered my calls, a true gentleman. [But]he was not an easy sell. You had to really convince him. He wanted to know the facts and was very detail-oriented. If you could convince him, he would always be a generous donor. It was very unusual not to see the Cohen name associated with the major initiatives in this city."

For 25 years, he headed the nominating committee for the University of Manitoba management faculty's (now the I. H. Asper School of Business) International Distinguished Entrepreneur Award (IDEA), whose recipients include Ross Perot, Heather Reisman, Martha Stewart and Peter Munk. In 1987, it went to his old business friend, Akio Morita.

"They were good friends for many years," said James. "When my father visited Tokyo, he would be invited for dinner to the family home. In Japan, that's the ultimate honour." In 2000, Cohen was flown to Japan to receive Sony's first Lifetime Achievement award. And this past June, he was awarded Japan's Order of the Rising Sun.

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Another close friend, as it later turned out, was James Bond author Ian Fleming. Through a mutual friend and fellow Winnipeger William Stephenson, the author of A Man Called Intrepid, Cohen and Fleming first met in London in 1960 and began a correspondence that lasted until Fleming's death four years later.

"I'm probably the only Canadian who knew Ian Fleming as a friend," Cohen said. "He saw something in me that I didn't. For some reason, he seemed to see me as a sort of James Bond character of the business world. He seemed to think that I led an adventurous life as opposed to what he felt was a ho-hum life that he had, even in light of his startling success."

Fleming, who even bought shares in Metropolitan Stores, sent his Canadian friend a rare first edition of Thunderball, and inscribed it, "To Albert D. Cohen – Man of Action. From Ian Fleming." In 2001, on the 100th anniversary of the author's birth, Cohen auctioned his valuable Fleming collection of letters and autographed first editions, and raised $10,000 for charity.

The 1994 entry of Wal-Mart changed Canadian retailing, and cracks began to appear in the Gendis empire. Quebec-based MMG Group, which held hundreds of Metropolitan, Greenberg, and Pomme Rouge stores, went bankrupt, which was tough on Cohen, his son said. The SAAN chain was sold in 2004 at a huge loss.

Cohen stepped aside as president and CEO of Gendis in 1999, at the age of 87, taking the title of co-CEO. The next year, he reassumed the reins from Allan MacKenzie, who was retiring at age 75. The story's headline in Canadian Business magazine was "Move Over, Sonny."

Infectiously vigorous, he regularly donned his old leather speedskates to whiz around an outdoor oval or inside at the Winnipeg Winter Club. This was not mere recreation: He held three Canadian speed skating records in the over-70 age category. He last skated at 94. His final golf game was at 96.

The Entrepreneurs, one of four books he wrote, was a business bestseller in 1985. He was inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame in 1994. That year, he was promoted within the Order of Canada to officer (he had been made a member in 1983). Five of the six Cohen brothers were named to the Order of Canada.

Apart from the handshake, "one thing we always talked about was that you're never going to be right 100 per cent of the time," said James. "But if you make more correct choices than incorrect ones, you're ahead of the game."

Cohen leaves his wife of 58 years, Irena (neé Kankova), children Anthony, James and Anna-Lisa, and four grandchildren. He was predeceased by his brothers.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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