April 20, 2018
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North Toronto's Person of the Year: Galen G. Weston

Trailblazer, philanthropist and North Toronto’s ‘greenest’ grocer

EVERY CANADIAN WHO owns a television will recognize North Toronto’s Galen G. Weston (or Galen Weston Jr. or GG or G2, as his family addresses him — Galen Sr. is G1). In his button-down shirt, light brown hair and glasses,Weston is the boyish-looking spokesman for President’s Choice,offering up products that are “worth switching supermarkets for.”

The Weston family is notoriously media shy, and Galen Jr. is no exception: He lived a privileged upper-class North Toronto existence growing up, well-connected and well-educated. He attended Upper Canada College and spent summers at tennis camp. He graduated with a BA from Harvard and went on to complete an MBA at Columbia.

He returned to Toronto to work his way up through the family business. Since then,his shy looks and onscreen charm have garnered him something of a fan club: In a 2008 Vancouver Sun story, writer Shelley Fralic confessed to crushing on the 35-year-old executive chairman of Loblaw Companies Ltd., and commenters on the story online were quick to agree with her.

Likewise, a silly but charming video on YouTube featuring outtakes from a President’s Choice commercial shoot Weston filmed with a few babies has garnered more than 20,000 views and a few dozen comments along the lines of “OMG he’s so cute. I’m like totally gonna marry him!” (Indeed, until he married Bata Shoe heiress Alexandra Schmidt in 2005,Weston was considered the most eligible bachelor in Toronto.)

But anonymous YouTube commenters thinking you’re “yummy” doesn’t make you North Toronto’s Person of the Year. Weston is more than just a bespectacled, shaggy-haired figurehead. He’s been faced with plenty of skepticism and pessimism since he inherited the top job at Canada’s largest supermarket chain from his father in 2006 when he was just 33 and when the company’s stock was floundering.

But over the past three years, he’s proven himself more than just a dreamy spokesman: he’s managed to keep the company profitable during a recession and while learning on the job. More importantly, he has been intrinsic to introducing a number of environmentally and socially responsible initiatives.

In 2009, which happens to be the 20th anniversary of the President’s Choice Green branded product line, Weston undertook a number of these measures. Loblaws had the first stores in Toronto to charge a five-cent fee for plastic bags, a policy Weston enacted way back in January of this year, months before Mayor David Miller made it a city bylaw. Loblaws has been selling 99-cent reusable grocery bags made of recycled plastic for years now. It may seem like a small measure, but studies have shown that this policy has reduced wasteful plastic bag use by more than 50 per cent.

The plastic bag fee was announced in conjunction with a partnership with World Wildlife Fund. In April, on Earth Day, Loblaws announced their commitment of $3 million to WWF over the next three years.

But this isn’t the only environmental initiative Weston has come up with. Addressing an issue perhaps more urgent than plastic bags, last spring he announced the Loblaws “sustainable seafood policy initiative,” which seeks to address the current crisis of the oceans by working with environmental stakeholders, such as Greenpeace and the Marine Stewardship Council, to assess the sustainability of the store’s seafood sources. Loblaws has committed to sourcing 100 per cent sustainable seafood by 2013.

Completing a trifecta of environmentally aware moves, last month Loblaws announced that they will become the first grocery chain to have their “organic trimmings” converted into energy by late 2010. (In layperson’s terms, that means unsold produce.) Organic trimmings from the 47 stores in southwestern Ontario will be converted into energy at a new StormFisher Biogas renewable energy facility in London, Ont.

In 2006, shortly after Weston took over, Loblaws developed “five pillars of corporate social responsibility.” The aforementioned initiatives reflect those pillars (one is “source with integrity”), as does the recently implemented Loblaws “grad program,” the goal of which is to hire recent graduates from a variety of scholastic backgrounds for an 18-month program. Loblaws hopes to hire 1,000 grads over the next five years.

“We look at setting up this program as a long-term approach to investing in our future talent,” senior director of recruitment and diversity Nan Oldroyd recently told the Calgary Herald. With so many news stories these days about how hard it is for college grads to find jobs, this program couldn’t come at a better time.

A lover and supporter of the arts,Weston co-founded the Spoke Club, a private club for Toronto’s artistically minded, in 2004. By all accounts, he is modest and kind. In a Maclean’s article from August 2008, Anne Kingston calls him “the Stuart McLean of Canadian groceries.”

“He’s a very classy guy and cool under pressure,” says an acquaintance, relating an anecdote about a tied tennis match they played together. “In the third set, I was up five to three, serving for the set. I was sure I would win.We’d been playing for an hour, and I figured this hard-working CEO would be exhausted.”

But all those PC Blue Menu meals must be paying off, because Weston won the set. “He was very gracious in victory. It’s clear to me that he has a feisty, competitive spirit beneath his well-groomed corporate mien,” says the acquaintance.

Despite his privileged upbringing, Weston has never coasted along on his family’s wealth. Humble and hard-working, he has worked his way up through the Loblaws’ chain of command, and since he’s been in charge, he has used his influence as the President’s Choice figurehead to introduce a culture of corporate social and environmental responsibility.

This past year saw a significant number of improvements in the way Loblaws and President’s Choice relates to the community and to the environment.We can think of a few corporate figureheads who could do worse than to follow Weston’s lead.

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