Obituary: Saul Feldberg, 87, built an international furniture business, creating jobs in Canada and Israel

Saul Feldberg, a Holocaust survivor who built Canada’s largest furniture manufacturing business, died Jan. 13 in Toronto. He was 87.

The founder of the Global Furniture Group and Teknion Corp. started sweeping floors in a small furniture business when he arrived in Canada as a teenager with his parents in 1953.

Finding a way to use less fabric for upholstery, saving the business money, he was promoted and eventually ended up becoming the plant manager, his son Joel, who is now CEO of Global Furniture, said in an interview with The CJN.

When the business was about to be sold, Feldberg and two trusted colleagues struck out on their own, starting Global.

“If you asked him, he would say he never dreamed it would get as big as it did, and his mantra was just keep your head down and work day to day,” Joel said.

“He didn’t look for accolades, he wasn’t drawn to material items, that just wasn’t him. It was more about building a business, being close with his family and more than anything, employing as many people as possible so that they could provide a life to their family.”

The early days of building the business took creativity—and some chutzpah. In a book published by the company on Global’s 40th anniversary, Saul recalled how he landed a big contract.

 “In 1968, after I attempted to secure the business of Simpson-Sears, their buyers said they would visit us at Finch Avenue and make a decision. At that time, we had only 10 or 12 employees in our small plant and I knew there would be a negative reaction to our size, so I asked our neighbour, who made manufactured doors, to lend me 20 people to ensure we made a positive impression. I briefed them on their new roles and when the buyers saw all of those people drilling and putting screws in frames, they said ‘You have 35 staff? Okay, you’re in.’

“I told that story to them 25 years later and they laughed.”

The company began to make a name for itself as a manufacturer of office furniture that “the average person can afford.”  It didn’t take long for modestly-priced adjustable chairs, made in Canada, to take off.

“Overnight, car and real-estate salesmen, even people in gas stations felt like executives with these chairs. They had been sitting on old, rusted kitchen chairs and now they were tilting,” Saul recalled.

The company also prided itself on its quick turnaround time. Just before a North American visit from Pope John Paul II, an order for furniture fell through and Global was asked to provide 1,000 chairs in white leather.

“We received an urgent call and filled the order within 48 hours. This became an industry legend,” Saul recounted.

Saul’s work ethic set the tone for the company, Joel said.

“People worked until it was done, because they saw him (Saul) here… He was generally the first here and always among the last to leave, so people believed in him. He worked shoulder to shoulder with a lot of his staff and they respected him for it.”

His father’s positive attitude to overcoming obstacles was shaped by his childhood, surviving the war, Joel believes.

“He had a never say die attitude, which I believe was ingrained in him from his wartime experience. His mentality was always to move forward and never to look back.“

Saul Feldberg was born in 1935 in Skarzysko, Poland, to Abraham and Eva Feldberg. His father was a tailor and they lived a modest, but comfortable life.

When the war started, his mother saved his life, by arranging for false documents and making the dangerous journey to reunite with his father in Russian-occupied Lvov, as described in an autobiography Saul wrote for his family and friends, Walking With Giants.

The war years were spent with the family in constant motion. “We were always running from something. We ran from the bombs, from hunger, from the German army. We ran to survive,” Saul wrote.

After the war, the family moved to Israel, where Saul lived for a time away from his family on a kibbutz. But his father could not make a living in the newly created state, and the family immigrated to Canada in 1953.

 Saul, however, was deeply torn by his family’s decision to leave Israel.

“I made a vow that if God would help me to attain wealth, then one day I would help Israel and the Jewish people in any way I could… There would be no room for failure in my life,” he wrote.

In the 1980s, he established a furniture factory in Israel. For many years the factory wasn’t profitable and lost money, but that didn’t stop Saul, his son Joel said.

“It wasn’t about how much money we could make, it was about how many people we could employ and how we could help people in Israel and their families.”

Today, it is a successful business, employing about 400 people.

In 2018, Saul was awarded the Order of Canada. The award noted his entrepreneurial success, and his commitment to “maintaining facilities and expertise in Canada,” as well as his philanthropy.

The honour meant a lot to a man who had arrived as a poor immigrant, Joel said.

“He was proud to be a Canadian and he was proud to contribute to Canadian society. He did it in such a quiet way, receiving this was almost like a validation of the efforts that he put forth toward the country and the economy and the culture of the country.”

He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Toby (Elsner); children David, Bernie, Janice and Joel; ten grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.