Joe Segal: Risk and Reward

Sep 24, 2012

Namesake and builder of SFU’s Segal Graduate School of Business on leadership, entrepreneurship and taking life chances.

Joe Segal has never been one to mince his words – whether the topic is start-ups, philanthropy or the meaning of life. That’s a reflection of his gritty and inspired personal and business story. But it’s also an outcome of the values the namesake of SFU’s home for graduate business programs is so well known for: honesty, generosity, hard work and courage.

“Everything is a risk,” he says matter-of-factly when speaking of the complex intersection of career, business, family and health that forces individuals to make the hardest of life decisions.

Indeed, Joseph knows all about risk. He was born in Vegreville, Alberta, and grew up in a post-World War 1 era that included the Great Depression. It was a time when more fortunes were lost than made. But it was an environment that would help shape Joseph’s identity as a bold risk-taker and entrepreneur.

One of his first life adventures as a young man was spending two and a half years with the Calgary Highlanders, serving overseas for Canada during World War 2.

After the war, he moved to Vancouver and quickly transitioned into civilian life on the West Coast – by, fittingly, starting a war surplus business in Vancouver.

“When I came out of the army, I had no money, but I wanted to be successful,” he said. “I had no money, no opportunities – all I had were the leftovers.”

Those leftovers would be the symbolic start of an astonishingly successful and creative career.

“When I started in the surplus business, I found a use for the things that the big players at the time could not possibly imagine,” he said.

He parlayed that enterprise into the founding of the Fields chain of department stores.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be,” he said. “A policeman? A lawyer? An accountant? But I had to get started – and that was the important thing. You knock on one door, and if it doesn’t open, you knock on a second, same thing. And you knock on the third door, and it opens.

“That’s how you do it, instead of walking away with your tail between your legs.”

It was the start of what would become a hugely successful career in entrepreneurship and retailing. After taking Fields public, he would expand the company by purchasing the 240 franchise retail stores of Marshall Wells wholesale hardware. In 1976, Fields went on to acquire Zellers, and Joe Segal became chairman of the company.

The retail landscape of the 1970s was a different world, and did not include companies like Walmart, Target and Costco. At the times, Zellers was competing with retailers like Woolworth’s and Simpsons-Sears. There were no big box stores, power centres or factory outlet malls.

Even so, Joseph maintains that some retail rules remain in place in 2012 as they did in the 1950s, 60s or 70s. “To be a successful retailer,” he says, “you need the right merchandise, in the right place, at the right time, at the right price. And then you’ll be successful.”

His three incredible decades of retailing after the war would turn out to be just the beginning, however.

In 1979, he formed Kingswood Capital Corporation, a venture capital, real estate and acquisition firm. The company is currently involved in extensive developments in BC, Alberta and Washington and controls a diversity of manufacturing companies.

His approach to business – whether it is the retailing of clothing or the development of land parcels — is equally rooted in diligence and perseverance.

“Take real estate,” he says. “You buy one piece on a solid foundation. And then you buy another one. And then you grow. Today we’re a major player in the real estate industry and the investment industry in Vancouver. And that evolves. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

Joe is philosophical when he talks of his many real estate and investment wins, and a few of his losses.

“You don’t look back,” he said. “You live in the present, you look to the future, and you remember the past, but don’t try to recreate the past. It’s gone. What you can’t change, you don’t try to change.”

It’s part of a larger life lesson he offers up to others who hope to follow in his footsteps.

“Life is a runway,” he says. “It starts when you are born. It ends when you die. What you do along that runway is up to you.”

For would-be risk-takers, that means getting a head start on big life and business decisions earlier rather than later. “When you are in your 40s, the runway is shorter. You’re halfway down the runway. When you’re 50, you are locked in.”

It also means to take advantage of the moment, and stop dwelling on what might go wrong moving forward. “The present is the foundation for the future,” he says. “What drives you – pleasure, money, ego? Something has to drive everyone.”

As the embodiment of self-made man and entrepreneur, Joe Segal has shown extraordinary vision, generosity and sense of connectedness in the way that he helps others get ahead in the community.

Segal’s name is of course front and centre for students at Simon Fraser University, especially those business students who study at the Segal Graduate School of Business, but the Segal name is also prominent at SFU Vancouver campus venues such as Harbour Centre and the Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

Joseph convinced the SFU board in the 1980s to bring SFU down from Burnaby Mountain to the downtown Vancouver community.

“SFU was the best kept secret up on the hill, but if you wanted to be acknowledged by the business community, you needed a presence.”

Joseph would serve on the SFU board for over 12 years, and was chancellor for 6 years – and the thriving Harbour Centre campus is the direct result of his tenure.

He also chaired the capital campaign for the creation of the Wosk Centre for Dialogue, and the Segal family would go on to donate the stunning heritage building that is today the SFU Segal Graduate School of Business.

The building – “a phenomenal work of architecture” – hosts all of SFU’s MBA programs, as well as a MSc in Finance and a PhD program.

The burgeoning SFU Vancouver campus is in part a stunning legacy of Segal’s brilliant vision – that Canada’s most engaged university could thrive not only at the top of Burnaby Mountain but also in the heart of Vancouver’s bustling downtown peninsula.

Indeed, by transforming a section of Vancouver’s core into a place of higher learning, he has altered the DNA of the city core permanently, and most would argue for the better.

It’s no surprise then that Joseph is proud of the city he has had a hand in building.

“Vancouver I think is the greatest city in the world – bar none,” he says. “And we are in the greatest province in the greatest country.”

The community he embraces reciprocates that admiration.

Those who have read Peter Newman’s book “Titans: How the new Canadian Establishment seized power” will remember one of author Peter Newman’s most telling comments: “If the Titans [of Vancouver] ever held a popularity contest, Joe Segal would win hands down.”

Those in the broader British Columbia community also know that Segal’s name is synonymous with philanthropy and community impact. He is someone who has given back in an exceedingly generous way to many institutions and charitable causes.

Of recent note is his contribution to the Vancouver General Hospital and its mental health ward (he made a record-setting $12 million donation for a new building for the ward in 2010).

The back story on the gift is as compelling as the contribution itself. In May of 2010, Joseph had suffered an unexpected stroke. Immobilized, he was in Vancouver General Hospital for 12 days recovering.

“I saw so much, and our system is not such a bad system. But we can’t leave it all to the government to do.” Upon inquiry, he learned from hospital staff that the most neglected department was the mental health unit.

“In mental health, I wanted to do something that is really overlooked. Because it is out of sight, out of mind, that’s where I wanted the money to go.”

The result: a $1 million donation to the hospital for each of the 12 days he spent recovering.

“We live in a community. You have to give back,” he says. “And you give in one of two ways. One, because you have an obligation and you should, and two, you give back because you have a heart.”

“There is a saying: The more you give, the more you get. It is true, if you give it in the right manner.”

It’s advice Segal shares widely with strangers and friends alike.

Back at the SFU’s Segal Graduate School, Joseph also has words of wisdom for the MBA students and graduates who are trying to make the same kind of mark in business and society that he did.

“When you start to reach the point where you’ve reached the limit of your reach, you have to join hands with other people,” he says. “The bigger the chain, the further the reach. That’s how you build a business.”

BC’s future business leaders have reason to look on the bright side, even in the face of economic uncertainty and a fast-changing business environment.

“It’s about the power of positive thinking,” he says. “You have to think positively and objectively. If you are not positive, you will never succeed.”

This story was first published in the summer edition of Ideas@Beedie magazine, the Beedie School of Business’ new iPad and digital magazine showcasing the business school’s academic research, industry impact and engagement with the community. The iPad app can be downloaded at the Apple iTunes store, at http://itunes.apple.com/az/app/ideas-beedie/id532907167?mt=8. The magazine can also be viewed on the web with most browsers at http://beedie.sfu.ca/ideas

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