Sobey brothers retirement milestone

Posted on July 24, 2015
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David and Donald Sobey, the brothers who have led the Sobey’s supermarket chain and Empire, the investment and holding company to national prominence, have both announced their retirements as they reach 80 years of age.
I moved to Pictou County, Nova Scotia, from Montreal in 1966. By chance I wound up living a few doors down the street from the Sobeys grocery chain head office in Stellarton. Sobeys was also the biggest customer for the little printing plant I was running.
Bill Sobey, the eldest of founder Frank Sobey’s sons was president of the company and mayor of the Town of Stellarton.
Donald Sobey, with one assistant, ran Empire Company from a cubby hole in the Sobey’s head office. I leased a car from the Chrysler Dodge dealership that was part of Empire.
Frank Sobey was no longer actively involved in the operations of the growing grocery chain. He had been recruited by then Nova Scotia premier, Robert Stanfield, to head up Industrial Estates, the province’s industrial development and recruitment Crown Corporation.
Some of Industrial Estates’s prizes located in Pictou County. Scott Maritimes Pulp Ltd., the cool Clairtone stereo systems with their trademark globe speakers, Michelin Tire and various other smaller corporations came to the county in the next few years.
The firm was already displaying steady growth and impressive modern marketing techniques. Having worked with Southam Business Publications Ltd. in Toronto and Montreal, I still had contacts with the company. I wrote to the editor of “Executive,” the company’s flagship business magazine suggesting that he might be interested in articles on Sobey’s and two other Maritime firms that were also growing and establishing market dominance. One was Irving Oil. The other was McCain’s.
The editor rejected the idea saying that the companies might have some regional significance but didn’t have any national import.
From that time to this, of course, all three companies have been stars on the regional and national scene. Irving and McCain’s both have large international presence.
In Pictou County, in the mid 1960s, the Sobeys were all very active and visible locally.
One of the first stories I heard about Frank Sobey was that he did his own banking and stood in line with other customers. That said quite a lot about the kind of man he was.
Bill was the family star at the time. He led the company while also serving as mayor of Stellarton. He was also active in the Prince William Yacht Club in Pictou Landing. For one thing, Sobey’s had donated two Flying Junior sail boats. They were used for teaching juniors to sail but were available to any other member when not be used for classes. Another young man and myself took advantage of that by becoming associate members of the club. That, in turn, meant we were included in the club social events. Imagine my surprise when I stepped up to the bar at happy hour and sound Bill Sobey cheerfully taking his turn as bar tender. Not only that but he gave me a suggestion for which I am grateful to this day. Like many young Maritimers then and now, my drink was dark rum and cola. He suggested that I try using half cola and half soda water for mix. Over the years that gradually led to abandoning sweetened mixes altogether.
To local grief and dismay, Bill died of a heart attack at 62 with the company’s most spectacular growth still ahead.
David and Donald and next generation family presided over putting in place the management that has made the chain the second largest in Canada.
The family has also been generous corporate citizens with Donald especially being a huge supporter of the arts and education at the regional and national level.
David was a regular visitor to the Miramichi as much or more, I think, for Salmon fishing as for business.
The retirement of David and Donald marks a significant milestone for the company. The family influence on the business is now quite diffused among succeeding generations and into the hands of the non-family executive management.
It has been a pleasure to observe the family’s success over the past 50 years and to have had the opportunity for a few years to see them close up to get an idea of what they are like as people as well as corporate leaders. DAC

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