Weston boss uses retail therapy for his 'addiction'

 

Galen Weston has helped lift the firm to the number one spot in the food retailing sector in Canada, write Sophy Buckley and Susanna Voyle

"People will eat horseshit if it has enough icing on it." So said Mr Galen Weston's grandfather, who founded a bakery in Toronto in the late 1800s and started piling up the family dough.

The regulars of the exclusive Selfridges Food Hall in London must be hoping the billionaire grandson has shed his forebear's attitude now that the polo-loving friend to royalty has won Oxford Street's trophy store.

Uncle to Mr Guy Weston, who engineered the 2001 buy-out of Fortnum & Mason, the Queen's local grocer, Mr Galen Weston is no stranger to retail.

As chairman and majority shareholder of George Weston Limited, in his 30 years in the job he has helped lift the Canadian company from fourth to first in the food retailing sector in its home territory.

Nor is he a stranger to retail bids, looking at Selfridges in 1998, and last year toying with Liberty, the underperforming Regent Street store favoured by the discerning individualist. He was also linked with talk of a bid for House of Fraser last year.

The department store bug has been biting Mr Weston for quite a while now.

He first became involved in exclusive Irish department store chain Brown Thomas more than 30 years ago, when he stepped in to prop up the ailing brand with a €760,000 investment. The €10.8 million acquisition of Switzers followed in 1990, with a €380 million revamp a few years later, leaving Brown Thomas as it stands today.

At the time, Mr Weston described his involvement with Brown Thomas as "a labour of love".

Simple affection may since have been displaced by pursuit of profit, however, with the last set of accounts filed by the group reporting pre-tax profits of close to €8 million.

Mr Weston also owns Canadian department store group Holt Renfew.

He is said to be sufficiently close to the ground in his investments to drop in to his stores unannounced, just to check how things are going. He has described retail as "an addiction".

These days, the dapper, silver-haired billionaire is based in Canada but rents a six-bedroom folly in London's Windsor Great Park for his frequent visits to Britain.

Until the mid-1980s, however, the Weston family home was in the Republic.

The family - Mr Galen, his Irish-born wife, Hilary, and two children - lived at Roundwood Park, a 17th century castle nestled in the Wicklow Hills.

The Irish link was first established when Mr Weston was in his mid-20s and his father, Garfield, sent him to oversee the family's supermarket interests in the North and the Republic.

His previous commercial experience - said to have included selling Christmas trees and picking tobacco in southern Ontario - paid off when it was combined with inherited business sense.

The Weston-owned Quinnsworth empire (sold to Tesco in the late 1990s) prospered and, in transatlantic mode, Mr Weston soon took on new business interests in Canada while continuing to live at Roundwood.

The Irish experience turned a touch sour in 1983, however, when it was discovered that Mr Weston was the target of an IRA kidnap plot, which was designed to raise a huge ransom for the terrorist group.

In the event, the gang of would-be kidnappers was intercepted by the Garda and a shoot-out ensued. Mr Weston, meanwhile, had stayed away from Wicklow that weekend, preferring to play polo in England instead.

Three weeks after five of the gang were sentenced to jail terms, the IRA successfully kidnapped Mr Don Tidey of Quinnsworth, and demanded a ransom of £5 million sterling (€7 million) from his employer.

Mr Tidey was eventually found alive in Co Leitrim. Mr Weston has since moved on, albeit in a more security-conscious fashion.

He is said to be keen on maintaining his royal connections, a link which was reinforced when his wife, a former model, completed a stint as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the British Queen's representative in the region.

The couple are firmly fixed on the international social scene and can name the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, among their close friends.

Playing host to the late British Queen Mother in Toronto, the two, with their grown-up children, Galen Junior (also reportedly known as G2) and Alannah, are "Canada's royalty".

But he is also sometimes described as a property magnate, turning hundreds of acres of Florida into a gated community for the super-rich.

Windsor, perched above the Atlantic, offers residents polo fields, a croquet lawn, beach and golf clubs, as well as a village shop.

As he enters his 60s and maintains his position as one of Canada's richest businesspeople, some might think Mr Weston would be ready to slow down.

He has given up polo in favour of tennis and golf, and his last big deal was the $1.7 billion (€1.5 billion) acquisition of a US bakery business from Unilever in February 2001.

But his move on Selfridges could spark further activity if, for example, he merges the group with Brown Thomas. For the moment, Brown Thomas is expected to trade under its own name and operate separately from the London store.

A spokeswoman for Wittington Investments, which is buying Selfridges, said earlier this week that Mr Weston wanted Brown Thomas to maintain its own identity. - (Financial Times Service; additional reporting Una McCaffrey)