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Ron Southern, chairman of Atco Ltd., addresses shareholders during the company's annual general meeting in Calgary, Alberta, May 9, 2012.TODD KOROL/Reuters

Ron Southern, an icon of Alberta business who transformed a small trailer rental company into a global industrial empire, has died. He was 85.

Mr. Southern, who founded the Atco Ltd. group of companies and the Spruce Meadows equestrian facility, leaves behind a far-reaching legacy that spans business and philanthropy.

"He had the heart of a lion, both in terms of courage and in terms of compassion," his daughter and current Atco chair and chief executive officer Nancy Southern said in an interview. "And he loved winning."

Mr. Southern founded Atco in 1947 with his father, Donald, and served as president for 48 years. The company started as Alberta Trailer Hire Co. with the purchase of 15 utility trailers for rent in Calgary. It eventually grew into a sprawling conglomerate with operations in utilities, logistics and energy that spanned the globe. He also founded Akita Drilling Ltd.

Among his accomplishments, Ms. Southern said the repatriation of Canadian Utilities Ltd. was a particular triumph. "It was really important for him to have those essential services brought back to be Canadian," she said.

"He watched a lot of hollowing out in Canada. And he watched a lot of fads and a lot of trends and a lot of companies come and go, and he felt so privileged and so committed and proud to be Canadian that that's what he wanted to give back."

Despite the far-flung businesses, Mr. Southern emphasized the company's Alberta roots. "I respect and admire Toronto immensely," he once said. "But it strengthens our country to have business decision-making powers in centres other than Toronto."

He also drew criticism for a dual-class share structure that ensured the empire of companies remained firmly under the family's control."It has been a family goal to have the businesses perpetuated through the generations," Mr. Southern said shortly after Ms. Southern was appointed deputy chairman. She took over as CEO in 2003.

He founded Spruce Meadows in 1975. In recent years, the show-jumping facility played host to an annual roundtable that brought together private sector and government leaders from around the world to discuss major issues in economics and business.

"He was just such a determined man in everything he did, whether it was being a bus boy at the Banff Springs Hotel or a basketball coach, or someone selling trailers in high school," said Ian Allison, senior vice-president at Spruce Meadows. "He had an extraordinary ability to bring complete focus to what was going on. He had a tremendous capacity. He was just a remarkable guy."

Mr. Allison said Mr. Southern had been struggling with a number of health issues in recent months. Nonetheless, he was able to enjoy the recent 40th anniversary of Spruce Meadows.

Calgary business legend Dick Haskayne and Mr. Southern watched their careers in Calgary bloom over the same decades. They relied on one another for advice. Their wives went to university at the same time. On Thursday, Mr. Haskayne fondly remembered a dear friend.

"It was like having a neighbour who was always with you when you need something," he said in an interview.

Canada has few business leaders as strong as Mr. Southern, he added.

"I've known hundreds of business leaders across the country and have served on more than 20 public company boards myself, and have been chairman of a number, and he was an outstanding corporate leader and entrepreneur combined," Mr. Haskayne said.

"He built that company starting from Alberta Trailer, which was a tiny little company – quite frankly – he and his father. He had an instinct for business from day one."

Tony Kay, the British Consul-General in Calgary, said the Southern family have been close friends of Britain for decades, and Atco is a significant investor in the U.K. Mr. Kay said Mr. Southern's legacy will live on through Spruce Meadows – which holds an annual British Day and hosts British military training exercises. "Ron is a giant of Alberta," Mr. Kay said. "He is a Canadian giant as well."

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley extended her condolences on Twitter, calling him an important figure that will be sorely missed.

Tsuut'ina First Nation Chief Roy Whitney described Mr. Southern as "a true and loyal friend to Tsuut'ina people," who supported education initiatives for children on the reserve located just west of Calgary.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Mr. Southern was a true community builder. "It is because of Ron's vision for Spruce Meadows more than 40 years ago that we as Calgarians are lucky enough to enjoy this iconic venue," the mayor said in a statement.

"And Spruce is only one example of the extraordinary work of Ron and his family. Their legacy is felt here every day and we will remember Ron with deep gratitude."

Mr. Southern was a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and received a companion of the Order of Canada in 2007. He received a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012, as well as an Alberta Order of Excellence.

Besides Ms. Southern, he leaves his wife Margaret Southern and a second daughter, Linda Southern Heathcott.

With files from reporters Kelly Cryderman in Calgary and Brent Jang in Vancouver

Follow Jeff Lewis on Twitter: @jeffalewisOpens in a new window

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