Friday, February 2, 2007

Winnipeg's Richardson Family

Winnipeg's Richardson Family

"The family that has kept its roots and faith in Manitoba"

By George Siamandas

The founder was James Richardson who was a tailor in Kingston Ontario. He had come to Kingston from Ireland in 1823 with his father, after his mother's death. The story goes that many of Richardson's customers were farmers who had more produce than cash, and Richardson would often take grains and other commodities as payment for the work he did. And he found he could resell these commodities for more than their original cash value by waiting for the right time to sell.

In 1857 he decided to devote all his time to the business of buying and selling grain, and with his two sons, James and Henry, he set up the firm James Richardson and Sons. They built their first elevator in Kingston in 1882. In 1883 they shipped the west's first grain to Liverpool and later in 1890 they set up the first prairie elevator in Neepawa, home of their first Winnipeg grain representative Edward O'Reilly.

The company's founder never visited Winnipeg. Son George visited Winnipeg in the 1890s. It was James A Richardson, the founder's grandson that made Winnipeg his home since 1912. He is described as having had a true western heart by writer John Anderson. They formed Pioneer Grain and had 250 elevators across western Canada by the 1930s. As the fortunes of the prairies boomed so did the Richardson's grain interests.

Alan Artibise writes in his history of Winnipeg that James A Richardson more than anyone contributed to the recovery of Winnipeg after WW1. "He saw the Prairie West as a complex place, not just a breadbasket. And he saw the businessman's role as a creative one that involved not only making money but also promoting a balanced development of the wealth of the country."

It was in the 1920s and 1930s that the firm saw most of its expansion and diversification into other industries. In the 1920 they also got into investment securities joining Montreal Stock Exchange in 1926 and buying a Wall Street firm's Winnipeg office in 1927. In 1982 they bought Greenshields a Montreal company that had been established in 1910.

By 1923 Canada had become the world's largest wheat exporting nation and James Richardson and Sons was canada's leading exporter. The firm's executive office was transferred from Kingston to Winnipeg in 1923 and head office in 1939.

Starting in the 1920s they set up Canada's largest air transportation companies like Western Canada Airways and Canadian Airways. The later was sold to CP in 1941. They started with a small radio station in Moose Jaw which they used to broadcast grain and stock prices. In 1940 they got out of radio.

Muriel Richardson ran the company for 27 years after her husband died suddenly in 1939. She introduced a pension plan. The investment area was expanded in the 1940s. She promoted talented employees to executive levels. After Muriel retired in 1966 James took over for two years till he was elected to Parliament, at which time George T Richardson took over and remains president today.

Grain related fields like feeds, fertilizer, stock farms. But they are also into business forms, commercial and domestic heating fuels and pipelines. And of course they are into real estate with the Lombard Place project which they built starting in 1966.

It is said that the Richardson building which was Winnipeg's first modern skyscraper was more than forty years in coming to fruition. It had been planed as an 8 storey art deco building complete with clock, but the 1929 crash and depression prevented its construction. It took another 35 years to be built and by then it had become at 32 stories the tallest building west of Toronto. Its construction signalled Winnipeg's emergence from almost 50 years of modest growth since the hey day that had ended during WW1.

The Richardsons are well known for their philanthropy. But they are so modest many people do not know the great extent to which they support Winnipeg cultural and artistic life.

They have always been known for innovation. And for success. And for hiring high performing people. Bill Rait is credited with the company's grain success during the 1930s. Today they employ 3,000 people and have combined assets of about $4.7 billion.

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