George Taylor was a man who confounded expectations.
At first glance, he appeared to conform to the stereotype of his profession as a corporate accountant: He was bespectacled, mild-looking, conservative in his attire. If you spent some time talking to him, although, you would have quickly discovered a worldly, progressive, widely read and sharply intelligent individual.
If you had got to know him even better, you would have learned that he was a man of charming contradictions. This was the long-time executive and onetime chief executive officer of one of Canada’s iconic breweries, who largely preferred sipping coffee to chugging beer. The visionary who helped build a world-class stadium for the Toronto Blue Jays and launched TSN, Canada’s first 24-hour sports channel, but who’d rather spend his Sundays tending to his vegetable garden at the family farm than watching a game on television.
He was also the prudent fiscal manager who encouraged people to take risks and dive out of their comfort zones. One of his great delights last year was to see the Stratford Festival produce a wildly successful version of The Rocky Horror Show. A former member of the festival’s board of governors, Mr. Taylor had been urging artistic director Antoni Cimolino to stage the cult musical for years.
In an amusing reversal of roles, the accountant once told the artist not to be so cautious in his choices. As Mr. Cimolino put it, in his eulogy for Mr. Taylor: “He finally said, ‘You know, Antoni, no one will ever thank you for what you didn’t do.’ ”
Mr. Taylor, who died on Jan. 9 from cancer at the age of 78, did plenty in his time, for which many could be thankful. As a senior executive at the Labatt Brewing Company, he championed pay equity and extended maternity leave for its female employees. At Labatt, he was part of the private consortium that put up the money for Toronto’s SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre). As a tireless volunteer board member, he chaired the fundraising campaign to expand Victoria Hospital in London, Ont., was instrumental in opening Women’s Community House, that city’s first domestic-violence shelter, and guided the Stratford Festival out of financial troubles in the nineties.
Those were remarkable achievements for a man whose early life was far from promising.
He was born George Simpson Taylor on July 23, 1940, in Windsor, Ont. His father, George Sr., was a veteran of the First World War who’d been gassed in the trenches, leaving his health permanently impaired. He died when his son was only three years old. The boy’s mother, Elta, broke under the stress and was admitted to the St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital. Young George and his older sister, Shirley, were placed in foster care, with George eventually ending up on a farm in Comber, Ont. Although he was treated there as little more than a labourer, it left him with an abiding love of farming and country life.
George attended high school in nearby Tilbury, Ont., where he met his future wife, Nancy Tremblay. They married fresh out of school in 1959. While studying to be an accountant, he took any job he could find – often a few at a time – including in a bakery and at a men’s clothing store. He even worked as a gravedigger. He used to impress Nancy’s mother by bringing her fresh flowers whenever he visited. She didn’t know they were ones he’d recovered from recent funerals.
The couple settled in Chatham, Ont., where Mr. Taylor had been hired by a small accounting firm, and started a family. Their first child, George William, was followed in quick succession by daughters April, Barbara and Cindy. His son remembers the early years were a struggle. “Our first house had holes in the wall you could see through,” he recalled. “We didn’t have a refrigerator and in the winter my mom kept the perishables on a window ledge.”
Things began looking up after Mr. Taylor got in on the ground floor at the Labatt head offices in London, Ont. His first job was collecting the workers’ time cards at the brewery. Before long, he was climbing the corporate ladder. During the sixties and seventies, the family moved continuously as Mr. Taylor was posted first to Vancouver, then later to San Francisco and Toronto to help manage a rapidly diversifying Labatt empire that eventually included everything from Laura Secord Chocolates to the Blue Jays.
Along the way, he developed from bean-counter to chess player. “George was most brilliant at business strategy,” said his good friend and colleague Christine Legein, who first met Mr. Taylor when she joined Labatt in 1981 and worked under him until the purchase of the company by Belgium’s Interbrew in 1995. She points to Labatt’s investment in TSN in 1984 – a money-loser when it started as a premium service and then a money-spinner when it moved to basic cable. “It was a huge financial risk,” she said, “but he saw its potential.”
Robert J. Foster, the veteran investment banker who put together the SkyDome funding, concurs. “George was an accountant by training who became a superb entrepreneur by experience,” he said. “He saw that [the SkyDome] was an important asset for the city, but also for Labatt’s because they owned the Blue Jays and TSN at the time, and he played a real leadership role in supporting it.”
Those were heady days at the brewing company, culminating in the opening of the SkyDome in 1989 and the Jays’ back-to-back World Series wins of 1992 and 1993 – coinciding with Mr. Taylor’s time as CEO (1992-95). “It was hectic but fun,” Ms. Legein recalled. “It was just a great place to work.”
Mr. Taylor contributed to that with a leadership style that was both confident and ego-free. Ms. Legein said he governed by consensus and was loath to take personal credit for successes. “He also encouraged divergent opinions,” she said. “It was never ‘My way or the highway.’ ” As an employer, he was free of any biases, gender, racial or otherwise, she added. “He treated everybody equally and with a lot of respect.”
Away from Toronto, Mr. Taylor was leading the life of a gentleman farmer. Following a visit to a New Zealand sheep farm in the early eighties, he and Nancy decided to raise sheep themselves, on a plot of land outside of St. Marys, Ont. Their Transvaal Farm – now a bed-and-breakfast run by their daughter Cindy – was the place where Mr. Taylor, a self-described agrarian, found the most satisfaction.
It was also close to the Stratford Festival, where he both indulged a lifelong interest in theatre and, as a board director, helped it out of a bad patch in the early nineties. Robert Foster’s wife, Julia Foster, was board chair at the time and recalled how Mr. Taylor’s financial acumen and experience in human resources helped the festival recover from a string of deficits and deal with labour unrest in its ranks. “George was that unique person who had both Bay Street smarts and a deep sympathy for the Stratford community,” she said. “He provided invaluable advice.”
Later, as chair himself, Mr. Taylor pushed to have Stratford build its international reputation – notably with a 1998 New York tour of The Miser and Much Ado About Nothing – while also starting the drive to create an endowment, which today stands at $86-million. “George wanted to make sure we’d last in the long term,” Mr. Cimolino said. “It was his agrarian mindset: taking care of the farm.”
When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer a decade ago, Mr. Taylor swatted it away like a pesky fly. “He saw it as a nuisance more than anything else,” his son said. He continued to lead a full life, serving as a director of Brookfield Asset Management (where he’d gone post-Labatt), pursuing his passion for world travel and love of camping, and working on projects at the farm. When the cancer returned full-force this past year, he refused to stay in the hospital. He died on the farm, comforted by his wife and children.
Mr. Taylor leaves his wife, Nancy; sister, Shirley Mendler; children, George Taylor, April Rietdyk, Barbara Reid and Cindy Taylor; eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.