On June 6, 1968, Murray Koffler was about to walk to the podium in the ballroom at Toronto's Inn on the Park Hotel, to tell hundreds of pharmaceutical executives about the pending merger of his Shoppers Drug Mart chain with Plaza Drugs, and the plans for the combined company to go public. But just before he took the stage he learned of the death of Robert Kennedy, who had been shot a few hours earlier.
Stunned at the description of the killer as a "drug-crazed youth," Mr. Koffler abandoned his speech and implored the drug-company bosses, who thought they were selling their products for the benefit of mankind, to take some responsibility for drug misuse. A few months later, the industry provided the seed funding for the Council on Drug Abuse, under Mr. Koffler's leadership, and almost half a century later the organization is still actively involved in drug education aimed at young people.
That kind of decisive action to improve society – based on a personal experience – was a hallmark of Mr. Koffler, who died on Sunday at his home in Toronto. Mr. Koffler created what is now Canada's largest drugstore business, but his legacy extends to a much broader swath of Canadian life thanks to his enormous philanthropic efforts in the arts, medicine, education and social justice. Because of his involvement, his name lives on in a dizzying array of institutions – the Koffler Centre of the Arts in Toronto, the Koffler Student Services Centre and the Koffler Scientific Reserve at the University of Toronto, the Murray Koffler Urologic Wellness Centre at Mount Sinai Hospital, the Koffler Accelerator in Israel – and many that aren't named for him but were created or supported by him.
Murray Bernard Koffler's parents were both Jews born in Romania, but they didn't know each other until they arrived in Canada. His mother, Tiana, came as a child with her family, who initially farmed in Saskatchewan. They arranged for Tiana to meet Leon Koffler, who had come to Toronto as a teenager and was planning to open a drugstore on College Street.
In the drug business, Leon proved to be a marketing innovator. His was the first in Toronto to install an in-store post office, and the first to hire a fleet of bicycle delivery boys. Leon and Tiana's son Murray was born in the apartment above the store in January, 1924.
An only child, Mr. Koffler developed a reputation as a bit of a brat who took advantage of the soda fountain in his father's store to treat his friends, according to a biography written by journalist Frank Rasky in the mid-1980s. He went to King Edward Public School on Bathurst Street for a couple years, then to Forest Hill Village Public School after his family moved to the new and tony suburb in the north end of the city. The family was now affluent, and Mr. Koffler was sent to summer camps and learned to ride horses.
By 1941 Leon Koffler had expanded to two drugstores – one on College Street and another farther north on Bathurst. But suddenly, at the age of 47, Leon died of a heart attack. Murray was just 17 and knew next to nothing about running a business.
"There I was, a high school boy, in the middle of the war, and in the middle of my final fifth-form year at Oakwood Collegiate, and with no business knowledge of how to even run a peanut stand," he is quoted in Mr. Rasky's book. "I was the sole supporter of my mother. … I had no training in figures or finance at all … I got a year-end report and even that was too complex for me."
But with help from his father's accountant, lawyer, and the pharmacists employed in the stores, he managed to keep the business going while completing his training at the Ontario College of Pharmacy.
At the school, he recognized a huge gap in how budding pharmacists were trained. They were taught nothing about running a business or marketing their products. Years later, to help remedy that deficiency, Mr. Koffler was a supporter and financial backer of a new Institute of Pharmacy Management at the University of Toronto.
After graduating, he focused his attention on the drugstores, and made some dramatic changes. He got rid of the soda fountain, stopped delivering non-drug items, and put more emphasis on drug dispensing. He tried all manner of new ventures, including a foray into distributing perfume dispensers in women's washrooms. One enduring idea was to create a house brand of men's cologne, after-shave lotion and talc, using the "Life" name. In later years, the Life house brand became a key component of the Shoppers Drug Mart business.
In 1950 he married Marvelle Seligman, whom he had met at Lake Simcoe in the summer of 1944.
In the 1950s, Mr. Koffler recognized two key trends that would eventually help vault his pharmacies into expansion mode. He saw the suburbs around Toronto explode with development, and watched as grocery stores shifted to self-service models where customers could pick up products on their own and bring them to a cashier. His first self-serve store was opened in York Mills Plaza in 1953, but it was not an immediate success in the still-developing suburb. "All I could see when we first opened were Black Angus cows out the window and I wondered, 'What am I doing up here?'" he told The Globe and Mail in an interview in 1984.
But it was another innovation that really set the groundwork for the Shoppers empire. Mr. Koffler created a franchise system that allowed pharmacists to be owner-operators of their drugstores, while receiving marketing and advertising support from the parent chain. The cost to the pharmacist: a percentage of revenue. The idea was embraced by pharmacists, many of who had struggled to operate independently, and a period of dramatic expansion began. In 1962, the Shoppers Drug Mart name displaced Koffler Drug Stores after the company opened an outlet in the Shoppers World plaza in east-end Toronto. In 1968 the 17-store Shoppers chain merged with bigger Plaza Drugs chain, pushing the total number of outlets to 50. At the same time, the combined company went public.
By 1978, a decade of coast-to-coast expansion had boosted the chain to 364 stores, including the Quebec Pharmaprix group. That year it was sold to the conglomerate Imasco Ltd. in a cash-and-share deal with about $70-million. Mr. Koffler, who instantly became a large Imasco shareholder, stayed on as CEO, then chairman, until 1986. Shoppers has had several ownership shifts since then and is now owned by Loblaw Companies Ltd., after the grocery giant bought the 1,200-store chain for $12.4-billion in early 2014.
Mr. Koffler's philanthropic efforts often stemmed from his personal experiences.
In 1960, returning from New York where he and his wife had spent part of a day strolling around an outdoor art show at Washington Square in Greenwich Village, Mr. Koffler read in a Toronto paper that some artists had been kicked off the City Hall steps where they were trying to sell their paintings. Outraged at the provincialism, in contrast to New York, Mr. Koffler decided to help arrange an outdoor art show for Toronto. The Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition has now been operating for more than 50 years, and is one of the largest in the world.
In 1982, two incidents that took place on a visit to Calgary prompted him to take action. While inspecting a partly completed Four Seasons Hotel – in which he was an investor – he found a homeless Indigenous family huddled in the basement. On the same trip he saw an Indigenous boy being removed from a Shoppers Drug Mart for shoplifting. Appalled at the conditions facing many First Nations people, Mr. Koffler convened a think tank and began the work on an organization to build economic skills among Indigenous people. The Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business was established in 1985, and still works to advance business ventures by Indigenous people.
His support of Jewish causes also stemmed from a life-changing personal experience. After an inspirational visit to Israel while in his 30s, Mr. Koffler became a big backer of the Jewish community in Canada and in Israel. He helped create the Koffler Centre of the Arts, which was initially located at the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre; he helped save the Canadian Jewish News from collapse in 1971; and he raised large amounts of money in support of the 1967 and 1973 wars that threatened Israel's existence. He also made large contributions to the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, where he served as chairman of the board of governors in the late 1980s
Mr. Koffler is survived by his wife, Marvelle; five children; and many grandchildren.