"People will eat horseshit if it's got enough icing on it." George Weston, the son of a Cockney immigrant to Canada, knew whereof he spoke. Starting out selling buns door to door as a baker's boy at a Toronto breadworks in 1875, he opened his own bakery in 1882 and made such a success of it that he off-loaded his business for an estimated $1 million in 1911. On this foundation, three further generations of Weston men (all with names beginning with "G") have built a multinational food-and-fashion empire.
The family divided its holdings in the 1970s, with one part managed by the British branch and the other by the Canadian side--who are oft-dubbed Canada's Royal Family. Apart from pointing to the family's status in the U.K., the royal designation captures the aura that distinguishes them from the dour dynasties that predominate here. Unlike their peers, the lanky, soft-spoken Westons appear to enjoy their money--making it and, especially, dispersing it, lavishly, on parties and charities. "There's a reason successful families are successful," says William Thorsell, head of the Royal Ontario Museum, a frequent recipient of Weston largesse. Indeed, but what is it?
Born in 1898, the dynasty's second "G," Garfield, left Toronto's storied Harbord Collegiate to serve in the First World War, touring English biscuit factories while on leave. After the war, he convinced his father that making biscuits available to the tea-swilling masses at an affordable price would be a smart move. Indeed it was, but it was followed by a dumb one: Shortly before the Wall Street crash, the now-in-charge Garfield--George died in 1924--expanded into the U.S. While struggling to avert bankruptcy, he was sidelined by an ulcer. "During my convalescence [in a Boston hospital]" he later recalled, "I bought 20 or 30 of the finest books I could find in biography and history. ...I went back to Canada a failure, but a different man."
Instead of retrenching, Garfield used his remaining capital to go on a buying spree, moving to England with his growing brood (he'd eventually sire nine children). The food companies he bought (often for a song) throughout the Depression formed the empire's foundation. Too old to serve in the Second World War, the ardent anglophile pitched in as a Tory MP.
After the war, Garfield continued the spending spree, adding Fortnum & Mason--the Queen's own grocery and quintessential British tearoom--to his stable in 1951. Only slightly less rough around the edges than his plain-spoken father, Garfield loved to make stockholders sing militant hymns at annual meetings, and to weigh in on international affairs, much to his increasingly refined family's embarrassment. In support of apartheid, he was once quoted as saying, "Every black pickaninny or mammy can call on the government for solutions to every social problem."
Amid marrying his six daughters off, mainly to well-to-do Americans, Garfield tested his three sons. The eldest, Grainger, opted out, starting a cattle-ranching business in Texas--where his seldom-heard-from branch of the family remains. Garfield Jr., known as Garry, was sent to Australia to oversee the family's interests there, while Galen was dispatched to Ireland and Canada. Both Garry and Galen managed their regions adeptly, and when their father died in 1978, both felt entitled to lead the consortium. After a discreet power struggle, the assets were split, leaving Britain and points east to Garry, and Ireland and points west to Galen.
The two brothers' styles differed markedly. The elder, Garry, was as scholarly, shy and cautious as the younger, Galen, was party-hearty, outgoing and risk-courting. The Oxford- and Harvard-educated Garry was wont to visit family factories in a decrepit Ford that, as often as not, needed jump-starting. Remembered since his death in 2002 primarily as the inventor of the chocolate-and-marshmallow Wagon Wheel, Garry sold off many of the companies Garfield had bought, holding on, however, to such well-known brands as Twinings, Ryvita and Ovaltine, as well as the U.K.-based discount clothing retailer Primark. Two of Garry's six children, Guy and George, now oversee these operations. (Taking the "G" naming convention to a whimsical extreme, George has a son named Gulliver.)
Not surprisingly, it was the flamboyant Galen who put the glitter in the Weston name. A member of the varsity crew in his undergrad years at the University of Western Ontario, the tall, fair-haired youth is remembered by a university contemporary, former Ontario premier David Peterson, for his "crummy old car" and for living with roommates in a "hole" of a house. "It took me months to figure out he had two cents," Peterson says. When Galen left Western one credit shy of a degree, he embarked on a career building the family's higher-crust retail properties--the couture-carrying Holt Renfrew (in Canada), Brown Thomas (in Ireland) and Selfridges (in the U.K.)--not to mention moving Loblaw upmarket.
As a young man, Galen might have struck an alliance through marriage with another prominent or wealthy family. Instead, his was a love-match, to Hilary Frayne, the daughter of a Dublin appliance salesman. Galen espied the leggy teen model on a billboard (wearing hot pants and Sheer Dynamite stockings) and finagled an introduction. Three years later, in 1966, they were married in a Klondike-themed ceremony at a family estate on the Thames. So raucous were the celebrations, a guest fell overboard from a steamer rented for the occasion.
The pair settled down at Roundwood Park, a 17th-century castle in the picturesque Wicklow hills south of Dublin. Here their two children, Alannah and Galen Jr.--both born in 1972--spent many of their formative years. But the idyll was not to last. In 1983, the IRA attempted to kidnap the family. Because of a tipoff, none of them were on site during the pitched gun-battle between police and the seven terrorists assigned to make the snatch--in fact, Galen Sr. was playing polo in Windsor with Prince Charles.
Galen and Hilary retreated from Ireland to a home in Toronto's Forest Hill and a castle in Windsor--Fort Belvedere, in which Edward VIII famously signed the papers of abdication. In addition, the couple bought a 416-acre island off Florida's Atlantic coast and developed it into one of the world's most exclusive gated communities, affectionately named Windsor.
Vanity Fair dubbed Galen and Hilary "the golden couple of the Nineties," in large part for their deluxe parties. In 1993, for the Oxford-educated Alannah's 21st birthday at Fort Belvedere, they threw an elaborate Alice in Wonderland-themed do, reputed to have cost upward of \£250,000. Alannah has gone on to become one of London's brightest young things. After slumming for a couple of years as a reporter at the Telegraph, she assumed the creative direction of Selfridges; in off-hours, she has dated the pop star Seal, and has been seen in the right places sufficiently often to routinely make Tatler magazine's most-invited list.
Where his father is an adherent of the traditional gentlemen's club--White's in London, the Brook in New York, the York in Toronto--Galen Jr. has opted for a hip update. Taking their cue from Soho House in London, Galen Jr. and an Upper Canada College pal, Michael Shore, opened Toronto's Spoke Club in 2004. The King Street spot is designed for young creative types, but to date is an uneasy mix of art and Mammon.
The Harvard- and Columbia-educated G2 (as he's known) celebrated his marriage to Bata heiress Alexandra Schmidt at a chateau in the south of France--and in a Toronto Loblaw warehouse decked out with orchid chandeliers and waterfalls.
But the swankiest Weston do of all was Hilary's 60th birthday party in 2003. In a huge marquee next to Fort Belvedere, she hosted the likes of the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Brian Mulroney and, as chronicler, the gossip columnist Taki Theodoracopulos--who duly gushed over Alannah's appearance and described the fireworks as "Dresden without the destruction."
For all this high-society hobnobbing, and for all their money (net worth: around $10 billion), the Westons have an earnest streak, highly valuing hard work, philanthropy and family ties. If Galen Sr. sometimes swanned into George Weston Ltd.'s head office in Toronto wearing a floor-length fur, flanked by two Dobermans (it was the 1970s), he still sweated over his hires, fires and the major decisions needed to keep the company in the black. If Hilary often made international best-dressed lists, she also took seriously her work at Holts, on the Florida development and as Ontario's Lieutenant-Governor, from 1997 to 2002. ("I may not be the man who accompanies Jackie Kennedy to Paris," her proud spouse joked, "but I am the man who gets to accompany Hilary Weston to Timmins, Kingston or Kenora.") On Saturday mornings throughout the '80s, Galen and Hilary would take their children on spot visits to local Loblaw stores. As Weston biographer Charles Davies comments: "Underneath the modern, efficient and ruthlessly stylish shell is a soft centre of middle-class sentimentality."
Galen Sr. is staunchly loyal to his close friends. When Dave Nichol, his college buddy and former lieutenant at Loblaw, was in a Beverly Hills hospital recovering from cancer surgery in 2001, Galen Sr. sent his private jet to pick up Nichol and bring him home to Toronto. "That's a nice friend," Nichol says appreciatively today.
Through the W. Garfield Weston Foundation and personally, the family usually dispenses over $10 million per year, making major gifts in recent years to the British Museum, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Ontario Science Centre and the Royal Ontario Museum. "When I met with Hilary to see if she'd head our fundraising campaign," the ROM's William Thorsell says, "she'd read all the briefing books. Looking out over Toronto, she turned to me and said, 'If you can promise me that you won't ever compromise the quality [of the proposed addition] I'll help.' " For Thorsell, herein lies the secret of the Westons' success. "They're careful, but not cautious," he says. "They assess the risks, but if they decide to do something, they go the whole way."
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