Businessman John Bitove Sr. was known for dreaming big ideas and delivering on them, along the way playing an influential role in the development of downtown Toronto.
The son of Macedonian immigrants, he built what began as a small coffee shop into a food and beverage empire, Bitove Corp., supplying the food concessions at Toronto's SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre) and at Pearson International Airport in the 1980s and 1990s.
When discussions of a domed stadium for downtown Toronto were taking place in the mid-1980s, Mr. Bitove was keen to be involved.
"When I came in, he was one of the leading guys who was putting the SkyDome together," David Peterson, the former Ontario Liberal premier and a family friend, recalled in an interview. The stadium "became the symbol of the new Toronto."
Mr. Bitove died in hospital on July 30 at the age of 87, of natural causes, said one of his sons, John Bitove Jr., the businessman known for starting the Toronto Raptors basketball team and founding the wireless carrier Mobilicity.
He said one of his father's proudest moments was when the Blue Jays won the World Series title in 1993 on their home field. "We were operating all the catering at the SkyDome at the time," John Jr. said in an interview. "It was a double-triple win – it was great for the city, for the family business and just being a sports fan."
The senior Mr. Bitove, a well-connected Conservative and party fundraiser over the years, was also deeply involved in charitable work – from medical centres to housing for senior citizens to community programs for young people. He didn't hesitate to call upon family, friends, colleagues and politicians whenever he saw a need.
One of his final projects was in conjunction with Toronto's University Health Network and York University: the Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy, which opened in 2013. The centre helps people with mild to moderate dementia and is named in honour of his wife, Dotsa, who has Alzheimer's disease.
"He was doing work with Alzheimer's patients and he came to me for advice and a little help with that. I was very, very happy to be engaged in a very worthwhile project that he drove," Mr. Peterson said.
Years earlier, Mr. Bitove and his wife saw the need for another worthwhile project – a retirement home for people of Macedonian descent, where residents could eat familiar foods and speak their native language in comfortable surroundings. In 1978, the couple founded Canadian Macedonian Place in Toronto's East York area.
For his wide-ranging philanthropy, and his lifelong support of Macedonians, he was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1989 and was given a medal of honour from the Republic of Macedonia in 2012.
His inclination to help extended to family, as well. As his four sons branched out on their own, he "became more of a senior adviser, a counsellor, to each of us in our own businesses," said John Jr. "Sometimes he offered his opinion without asking. If he ended up being right, you would say, 'I should have listened to Dad.' And if he ended up being wrong it didn't matter – he was never short of giving advice."
During his lengthy career, Mr. Bitove ran into some financial troubles (he pleaded guilty to personal tax evasion in 1974), while Bitove Corp. faced several legal battles. In the 1990s, a disagreement arose between the family business and the federal government about rental payments for concessions at Pearson airport; that was followed by a dispute with management at the SkyDome and private box-holders about the prices of concession foods. (The company won the rent tussle, but lost the food-price fight.)
John Louis Nicholas Bitove, the youngest of three children, was born on March 19, 1928, in Toronto. His father, Nikola, was a butcher; his mother, Vana (née Kizoff), was a homemaker. They immigrated to Canada from the village of Gabresh in Aegean Macedonia (now part of Greece) after the First World War.
John dropped out of school after Grade 9. While he held down three jobs – delivering newspapers, working in his father's butcher shop and delivering goods for convenience stores – he also found time to play many sports, his favourite being hockey.
By the time he was 12, he was managing, coaching and playing for a midget hockey team he founded, the Toronto Young Leafs. With big ideas even then, he persuaded officials at famed Maple Leaf Gardens to let his team use the ice for home games. They went on to win city and provincial championships, and many of his teammates would later play for the NHL.
In 1946, he was invited to try out for the Detroit Red Wings, but the Second World War had just ended and money was tight; the 18 year old decided to stay at home and help in his father's shop on Queen Street East.
Three years later, he borrowed $1,500 and opened a 14-stool coffee joint, the Java Shoppe, in North York, which he ran with his new wife, Dotsa Lazoff, whom he had met at a Macedonian convention in Indiana. By 1962, he had built the business into a chain of five restaurants before selling his 50-per-cent stake to his older brother and business partner, Jim.
In 1969, Mr. Bitove bought the Canadian franchise rights to two U.S. restaurant chains, Big Boy and Roy Rogers. He named his new venture JB's Big Boy, which grew to more than 40 outlets across Canada before he sold the franchise rights in 1979.
He took a break from the restaurant industry for a few years and turned his attention to the energy sector. By 1983, his Petroinc Resources Ltd., a penny-stock company, sold its listing on the Toronto Stock Exchange to a fledgling form of Peter Munk's Barrick Gold Corp. Mr. Bitove was paid in shares for the acquiring company and made a consultant for three years afterward.
"[He was] really popping up in all sorts of places where you wouldn't expect," Trevor Eyton, a retired Conservative senator and long-time friend, said in an interview. "He wasn't there very long, but at one time he was a significant shareholder in the company that became Barrick Gold. He loved playing the markets. He loved buying and selling anything, and he did it with great success."
In the fall of 1983, York County Quality Foods Ltd., a company Mr. Bitove owned with a group of partners, won a 10-year food-and-beverage contract for two terminals at Pearson airport, beating out Cara Operations Ltd., which had held the contract for 20 years. The contract was a family affair, as Mr. Bitove's two eldest sons, Tom and Nick, moved in to manage the terminals.
Another business opportunity arose in the mid-1980s, when Mr. Bitove became part of the private-sector consortium for the SkyDome; each participant made a $5-million commitment to its construction. The downtown stadium was to be built by a Crown corporation but run by private-sector companies.
"He was one of a very small band that conceived and funded the SkyDome," said Mr. Eyton, who at the time was president and chief executive officer of Brascan Ltd. (now Brookfield Asset Management) and was organizing the stadium's private-sector consortium.
"He saw that the stadium should be located where it is, and the result was that it has transformed that section of the city. Twenty years ago, there wasn't much down there. Now, of course, it's a vital part of the city," Mr. Eyton said.
In exchange for Mr. Bitove's financial commitment, Bitove Corp. got a monopoly on fine-dining rights, supplying all the stadium concessions (except McDonald's). Throughout the late 1980s, the family business took on a variety of food concession services, such as Via Rail's club cars, Toronto General Hospital and, in the late 1990s, the En Route service centres on major Ontario highways.
By then, Mr. Bitove had taken a step back from day-to-day operations of the business, leaving it to his sons to manage, and focused more on his charitable work.
He and his wife were actively involved in the Macedonian community, at home and abroad. Both had relatives who were among the thousands of Macedonian children who became refugees after the Second World War, sent to Eastern European countries to escape persecution in their homeland. In 1984, the couple organized and financed a gathering in Skopje, Macedonia, to reunite displaced families.
In 1991, Mr. Bitove co-ordinated and raised money for an international campaign to have the Republic of Macedonia recognized as an independent country. "When the chance came for independence with the breakup of Yugoslavia, he dedicated about two years of his life to work with the governments, lobbying and raising funds toward making sure that Macedonia was recognized as an independent country," said his son John Jr.
"His goal was to make sure it was recognized without any bloodshed – it was very important for him to make sure there was no civil war and no bloodshed, no lives lost in getting the country recognized. Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. were three countries that he spent a lot of time making sure that he got the endorsement, and the recognition from those countries."
Also in 1991, Mr. Bitove founded Proaction Cops and Kids, which raises money for programs developed and delivered by Toronto police officers that specifically engage at-risk youth to help them make better life choices.
In 1992, he received the federal government's Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of Confederation, honouring people who made a significant contribution to Canadian society. In 2012, he was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his contributions to Canada as a philanthropist and businessman.
Mr. Bitove and his wife spent winters in Boca Raton, Fla., where she attended the Louis and Anne Green Memory and Wellness Center at Florida Atlantic University. That centre served as the model for the Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy, said son John Jr.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Bitove leaves his daughter, Vonna; sons Nick, Tom, John Jr. and Jordan; and 16 grandchildren.
Family was so important to Mr. Bitove that, in 1988, he built a family compound in Collingwood, Ont., where his children and grandchildren could gather for holiday visits.
"[The Bitoves] would all go out there and go at each other, and compete and have a great big loving dinner and all hug each other, and that was just his idea of heaven, I'm sure," Mr. Peterson said. "Big John inculcated that deep love of family into all of his family."
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