Galen Weston, businessman behind Brown Thomas, dies aged 80

A friend of Prince Charles and lover of polo and art, Mr Weston oversaw and expanded a high-end family retail empire that includes Brown Thomas in Ireland, Britain’s Selfridges, Canada’s Holt Renfrew, and de Bijenkorf of the Netherlands. 
Galen Weston, businessman behind Brown Thomas, dies aged 80

Galen Weston, director Brown Thomas outside their new Cork department store, formerly Cash's yesterday. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Galen Weston, the entrepreneur who built an Atlantic-spanning business network that made him one of the richest Canadians, has died. He was 80.

Mr Weston died Monday “peacefully at home after a long illness faced with courage and dignity,” the Weston family said in a statement last night.

“In our business and in his life he built a legacy of extraordinary accomplishment and joy,” his son, Galen G Weston, chief executive officer of George Weston Limited, said. 

His daughter, Alannah Weston, the chairman of Selfridges Group, added, “The luxury retail industry has lost a great visionary.” 

Retail Empire

A friend of Prince Charles and lover of polo and art, Mr Weston oversaw and expanded a high-end family retail empire that includes Brown Thomas in Ireland, Britain’s Selfridges, Canada’s Holt Renfrew, and de Bijenkorf of the Netherlands. 

Through George Weston Ltd, the company named for his grandfather, the family holds the biggest stake in Canada’s largest food retailer, Loblaw Cos.

Willard Gordon Galen Weston was born in Buckinghamshire, England, on October 29, 1940, the youngest of nine children in a prominent family.

Galen Weston and wife Hilary Weston attend the Gucci Hosted Private Screening And Cocktail Party With James Franco To Present "The Director" during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Picture: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Gucci
Galen Weston and wife Hilary Weston attend the Gucci Hosted Private Screening And Cocktail Party With James Franco To Present "The Director" during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Picture: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Gucci

His father, Willard Garfield Weston, had helped expand the family’s bakery company into a multinational food empire, and served as a member of the British Parliament during the Second World War. 

One brother, Garry H Weston, who died in 2002, was one of the richest people in Britain, and chairman of Associated British Foods Plc.

Starting out

In 1962, Mr Weston graduated from the University of Western Ontario and moved to Ireland where he met Hilary Frayne, a fashion model from Dun Laoghaire. They married in 1966. 

With financial help from his grandmother, he bought a grocery store, building it into the Power Supermarkets chain, and then began acquiring clothing stores.

He also reportedly gave luxury retailer Brown Thomas to his wife as a present, just as his father had bought Fortnum & Mason for his mother during their marriage. 

Ms Weston was put in charge of revamping the Brown Thomas fashion department, as well as that of Todd Burns, an Irish department-store chain that later became Primark.

Return to Canada

At his father’s request, Mr Weston returned to Canada in the early 1970s, taking the helm of Loblaw Cos., which he is credited with saving from near-bankruptcy and subsequently turning into the country’s largest grocer.

Mr Weston, who had two children, continued to make business a family affair. His son Galen G Weston became executive chairman of Loblaw in 2006, and chief executive of George Weston Ltd in 2017 — the fourth generation to lead the business. 

His daughter Alannah Weston has also served as a director on George Weston’s board, as well as deputy chairman of Selfridges Group Ltd, which Weston acquired in 2003 and under which the family’s other luxury department stores are held.

The family stable of retail assets includes a handful of other retail names in Canada as well as the Joe Fresh line of low-cost clothing. Loblaw agreed to buy Shoppers Drug Mart Corp., the leading Canadian drugstore chain, in 2013 for about $12 billion. 

Weston Foods, the commercial bakery business that gave the empire its start, was put up for sale last month.

Cost of Wealth

Mr Weston and his family had a net worth of €8.9bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His wealth sometimes came at a cost. In 1983, police tipped off Mr Weston and his family about a planned kidnapping attempt at their estate in Ireland. 

During a police ambush, several members of the Provisional IRA were shot and captured.

Despite his prominence in society circles on both sides of the Atlantic, the incident led Mr Weston to keep a low media profile throughout much of the rest of his life. 

He has continued to lease the historic Fort Belvedere in Windsor Great Park in southeast England, a 17th century “folly” where Edward VIII abdicated.

The Westons also maintained ties to Toronto, keeping a house in the Forest Hill neighbourhood where members of the British royal family sometimes stayed when they visited Canada. 

The couple worked in philanthropy, and Hilary Weston served as lieutenant-governor of Ontario, the Queen’s representative in the province, from 1997 to 2002, something Mr Weston was "particularly proud of".

  • -Bloomberg

More in this section

The Business Hub
Newsletter

News and analysis on business, money and jobs from Munster and beyond by our expert team of business writers.

Sign up
Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up
Execution Time: 0.232 s