Obituary: Joe Segal, the former owner of Canadian department stores and more, is remembered for his generosity

Joe Segal (Credit: Simon Fraser University)

Vancouver billionaire businessman, philanthropist and Order of Canada recipient Joe Segal has died at the age of 97. His funeral was held at Schara Tzedek cemetery in New Westminster, B.C., on June 1.

Born in Vegreville, Alta.—about 100 km east of Edmonton—Segal began his business career as a 14-year-old selling frozen fish door-to-door on his bicycle to make money after his father died.

“He never had a formal education, but he was one of the smartest people I knew,” his son Gary said at his father’s funeral, adding that his father dropped out of school when he was 10 but was nonetheless a “voracious reader.”

“Throwing a number of dollars doesn’t do justice to his real wealth, which is priceless,” Gary said in his eulogy, calling his father a “natural born philosopher.”

The son also recalled his father’s sense of humour, telling a story about a lunch Joe Segal had with a journalist who previously wrote a profile of him.

When Gary asked how it went, Joe Segal told him her son was shrinking and didn’t know how much longer she’ll be around, which he thought was an odd medical condition.

Joe then revealed she was speaking of the Vancouver Sun, which was going through a round of layoffs at the time.

“I’ve never seen him laugh so hard and it was infectious between the two of us,” Gary said.

Joe Segal served in the Second World War, after which he established an army surplus store in Vancouver, which evolved into the Fields department store chain with more than 100 locations across Western Canada.

Fields acquired a majority stake in Zellers in July 1976, which was followed by a reverse takeover. Two years later, when Zellers was sold to Hudson’s Bay Company, he became one of its major shareholders.

More recently, he served primarily as a developer with Kingswood Capital Corporation.

He was a frequent guest of Vancouver’s Four Seasons hotel, which closed two years ago, where he would make business deals, including his 1988 acquisition of Block Brothers Realty, which turned him into a real estate mogul.

Segal received the Order of B.C. in 1992 and then the Order of Canada in 1993. He was a board member of Simon Fraser University and served as chancellor for six years.

In 2005, SFU’s Segal Graduate School of Business was named after him due to his contributions to the university.

In 2010, he donated $12 million to the construction of an $82-million addictions and mental health centre at the Vancouver General Hospital, which was named after him and his wife Rosalie when it opened in 2017.

“Money is only worth something if you do something good with it,” Gary Segal remembered his father saying. “Spend some on yourself, do some good for others while you’re alive. If you put it under your mattress, your mattress gets lumpy.”

Peter Legge, chairman and CEO of independent publishing company Canada Wide Media, also eulogized Joe Segal.

Legge was a close friend of Segal’s for nearly half a century, who wrote a book about Segal’s business career and the advice he imparted: Lunch with Joe.

“Throughout all of that time, Joe has never bought any advertising from me whatsoever,” Legge said to laughter from the mourners, “but he has given me millions of dollars worth of advice, a wonderful friendship and became my role model and one of a kind mentor.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Wineberg, the director of Chabad Lubavitch of British Columbia, also spoke fondly of his deceased friend.

“He didn’t harp on the negative, he emphasized the positive,” remembered Rabbi Wineberg.

Segal is survived by his wife of 74 years, Rosalie, four children, 11 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.