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Remembering Alex

Alex Campbell built a grocery business in Thrifty Foods then built a reputation as a generous philanthropist. - File photo
Alex Campbell built a grocery business in Thrifty Foods then built a reputation as a generous philanthropist.
— image credit: File photo

He was a man who, in his retirement, gave more of himself and his accumulated wealth than anyone could have expected.

But Alex A. Campbell Sr.’s body gave out on him too soon. The Thrifty Foods co-founder, community booster and philanthropist died early Tuesday morning at age 70, after a lengthy illness.

His wife, Jo, remembered her husband of 49 years as an “amazing man who loved life.”

“He constantly gave of himself to improve the lives of others,” she stated in a release.

“He believed strongly in the importance of paying it forward – giving back in gratitude of what you have received. His dedication to outstanding community service stands as an example to us all, and he will be dearly missed.”

The Victoria-born Campbell worked to help various charities on the Island after retiring from the grocery business, both in a leadership role and as a face for fundraising efforts.

Campbell was a champion of the B.C. Cancer Foundation. He chaired its 2011 $10-million Inspire the World fundraising campaign and with his wife, Jo, donated $1 million to the 2009 campaign. That same year, the B.C. Cancer Agency’s Vancouver Island Centre’s new patient and family support centre was named in their honour.

Campbell also contributed more than $2 million in personal and corporate donations to the Victoria Hospitals Foundation, but gave much more in terms of his time and energy.

“He was one of those people that made you want to be your best whenever you were around him,” said Melanie McKenzie, the foundation’s executive director.

Campbell received numerous awards in the later stages of his career, as well as in retirement, including the Order of British Columbia in 1999 and a 2011 Leadership Victoria award.

“I used to kid him about his trophy room in his (North Saanich) home – that it’s just mind-boggling,” said a very emotional Ernie Skinner, who, together with Campbell, founded Thrifty Foods in 1977.

“I would kid him that he was going to have to expand it if he kept going at that rate.”

Only a few close friends and family members were privy to Campbell’s private side, Skinner said.

“He could take a joke even if it was directed at him, which I made sure, in a lot of cases, it was,” Skinner said chuckling. “That was my duty as his partner.”

Campbell was highly regarded for his people skills and business prowess.

“I think his business can be defined by his approach to people –  the good, the warm-hearted, engaged in community,” said Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin.

With Campbell as CEO, Thrifty Foods, which grew to 20 stores on Vancouver Island, Salt Spring Island and the Lower Mainland, was named one of Canada’s 50 best-managed companies four years running.

Among his many accolades, Campbell was presented an honourary doctorate of laws by the University of Victoria in 2009. And given his generosity, leadership, unique customer service approach and humble personality, it was an easy decision for the business faculty to recognize him as its 2010 Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year, said Ali Dastmalchian, dean of UVic’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business.

“He really represented what this business school, in many ways, stands for,” Dastmalchian said. “His thinking around service has always been ahead of his time.”

Campbell was soft-spoken and humble, but he was a very competitive businessman, said Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard.

“He had the huggable-bear image in the general community,” said Leonard, recalling times when he would receive a call from Campbell whenever he spotted fish being sold from a truck parked on the roadside.

Campbell would remind Leonard that the business didn’t have a licence and wasn’t paying taxes.

“He did everything by the book,” Leonard said fondly. “He was one of a kind.”

Details of a service are due to be announced in the coming days.

 emccracken@vicnews.com

 - with files from Don Descoteau

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