Tough Love: The Bentalls and Philanthropy

The Bentalls have taken the Cedar Foundation's philanthropy from Canada to Mexico, and are now getting hands-on in South Africa. But giving away $100 million, it seems, is harder than making it.

Vancouver’s Bentalls on philanthropy
The Bentalls, Vancouver’s philanthropic odd couple, have had more trouble giving away their money than making it.

The Bentalls have taken the Cedar Foundation’s philanthropy from Canada to Mexico, and are now getting hands-on in South Africa. But giving away $100 million, it seems, is harder than making it.

Bob and Lynda Bentall spent 14 years and about $35 million on the Ailanthus Achievement Centre, a private educational centre for disadvantaged children in Vancouver’s east end before closing it down in 2004; it was, Lynda Bentall says, “pretty much a failure.”  They spent millions more over three years in Mexico through their philanthropic fund, the Cedar Foundation – including for construction of a $500,000 education centre in Queretaro – only to lose control of the centre and depart the country last August with their lives under threat. Another education project they launched in Kenya in 2005 was suspended earlier this year because of that country’s civil unrest.

The learning curve of a philanthropist, the Bentalls are discovering, is expensive. “It’s so much easier to make money than it is to give it away,” Bob Bentall tells me. Bentall, a multimillionaire and former CEO and chairman of the Bentall Corp., is 85. Through his investment group at Bentree Investments Inc., he has been trying for over 20 years to give away his income but often gathers more than the $3 million the Cedar Foundation can shovel out annually. The foundation, run out of a stylish 12th-floor office in (where else?) Bentall Centre’s fourth tower, will spend a planned total of $100 million over 35 years. Surprisingly, Bentall knew nothing about the stock market before he retired; he didn’t even have an RRSP, let alone a broker. Now he discusses “long calls” and “married puts” and sends me articles on net overweight stock positions. (For the record: I have known Bob and Lynda Bentall since the late ’80s, when I worked as an independent consultant for his company.)

Bob Bentall has always been considered, in his own words, something of a “nutbar.” He expects – like Abraham and the other patriarchs of Genesis – to live 100 years or more, and for the past 60 years has dedicated his life physically to achieving that goal with a personal trainer, his own fitness gym and regular exercise four times a week. (He was already jogging in the 1950s – the first person he knew in West Vancouver to do that.) He was one of those gawky kids in elementary school who didn’t have many friends but always had the best grades – it was expected of him. Even when he didn’t require the lessons, his protective mother sent him to tutors to be sure he met the expectations of his larger-than-life father, Charles, the entrepreneurial engineer who controlled Dominion Construction, once advertised as “the company that built Vancouver.”

I became aware in our formal interviews how important it was that I understood that he earned his fortune, that it wasn’t just handed to him. He did, after all, wrest the company from his family’s control and took two other former partners along with him: Paul Worster and Howard, the oldest Bentall brother (now a retired Baptist minister in Alberta). In the settlement, his brother Clark got the construction business; Bob got four million square feet of prime office, shopping-centre and industrial real estate (including the towers) and virtually everything else – which he re-established as the Bentall Group. He guided the company’s expansion in California and Canada and took it public in 1997. (It is now Bentall Capital, which manages and leases about 55 million square feet of commercial real estate, with assets of $15 billion.)

Bentall and Worster, his former partner in the Bentall Group, now manage Bentree’s portfolio (along with four asset managers) – with 70 per cent of the portfolio split evenly between stock and bond holdings and 30 per cent invested in startups (chiefly housing in Western Canada and Washington, and oil and gas in Saskatchewan). Bentree is a private company and, while Bentall declines to discuss the value of the company’s holdings, he did say it has plans to conclude the partnership – essentially because Bentall’s portion of the profit goes directly to Cedar Foundation and Canada’s financial regulations regarding the philanthropic use of pre-tax dollars prevent the company from the kinds of speculative investments that can lead to much more spectacular returns. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but if I understand the complicated tax issues, Worster wants out so he can make more money.)

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Bentall says about giving away his fortune, adding that it brings meaning to his life. Yet it’s a strangely isolated life. “Say the Bentall name and the price triples,” he notes – and, yes, I’ve seen suppliers’ eyes light up. I’ve seen head waiters all but lick his hand and witnessed trusted executives mock him behind his back about his inherited wealth. “It’s all phony,” Bentall says of the attention. He probably thinks that about most all of us, including writers looking for a story. His wife tells me he has little in common with his aging multimillionaire peers either.

When over drinks they talk about South Africa, they mean a luxury cruise or maybe the long back nine on the Zimbali Sun Golf Course. They cannot understand why old Bentall would want to build schools there – that nutbar.

In a March article called For Good, Measure, the New York Times Magazine reported on the phenomenon of the new $100-million philanthropists – among whom the Bentalls would be included – calling it “a growth industry” in “its golden age.” The author of the article, Jon Gertner, went on to explain that, “if you really want to change the world, first you need to start measuring how (and how much) you’re changing it – because only a clear understanding of your results will enable you to expand the programs that work and jettison the ones that don’t.” Today, foundations are investing millions to measure the effectiveness of the hundreds of billions of dollars they are already bequeathing annually.

In their own way, the Bentalls are working on that same question. However, they would not trust some organization or university to devise the answer any more than they would trust a public relations company to handle their image. Wealthy, eccentric and iconoclastic, the only judgement the Bentalls trust is their own.

In 1988 when Bob became CEO of the Bentall Group, he decided that his personal wealth would be directed into philanthropy and that Lynda would run the foundation. Lynda had become a business confidant almost from the first moment the two met in 1985 at a local conference arranged by CAFE, the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise, where she spoke as a national authority on family and business. (Her general view is that “blending family and business is a contradiction.”) Bentall hired her as a consultant to help him navigate the company from a family business to a public corporation – which, in part, meant ousting family members and establishing outside control through an independent board of directors. The transition created a family crisis and much of the drama played out publicly in the local media.

It didn’t get any less complicated when – a little more than two years into the process – Bob and Lynda realized they were in love and their strictly professional relationship evolved (they married on Oct. 5, 1990). The family stockholders walked away from the process with their rightful millions, but, not unsurprisingly, many harboured suspicions about the new Mrs. Bentall’s motives. “Some members of the family still don’t talk to us,” Lynda says. As for the foundation, Lynda was initially reluctant to become involved. She still had a lucrative consulting practice and wanted to write a book on the subject. But she relented, beginning with the simple question: “A foundation for what?”

Her life was the polar opposite of his. Born Lynda Styler in 1944, she was the second child of a mill worker in Espanola, a town in northern Ontario. Her father was a depressive complainer (“a weak, stupid man,” she judged as a child), and as an outraged preteen she would argue with him until he chased her from the kitchen table. If he caught her before she ran upstairs and locked herself in her bedroom, he would beat her “in a rage, out of control.” She remembers her mother striking her when she reported a doctor had touched her inappropriately, and also how the girls at school would bully her.

Her first boyfriend beat her regularly, splitting her lip and closing her eye; alcohol would spur his violence, but so would just about any disagreement. “You’re lucky to have a relationship,” he would tell her, and she believed him. Then he bought a handgun.

She fled from Toronto, where she was living at the time, to Vancouver. The boyfriend would telephone her, threatening to kill her and leaving his flight number and time of arrival. At the Main Street police station, afraid and embarrassed, she whispered her story to the young cop at the desk. The officer took her aside and explained this was called “spousal abuse.” She was 23 and thought she was the only one. “There are thousands of women in Canada like you,” he told her. It was an epiphany. “For the first time in my life, I thought all these terrible problems weren’t my fault. For 23 years, I had been protecting myself from death. I know it sounds silly, but it was on that day I began thinking about my life,” she says. “I realized I could do anything.”

Twenty-two years later, Lynda – now married to Bob – decided that the Cedar Foundation would fund education for disadvantaged children. Conducting her due diligence, she investigated about 150 children’s agencies and services for children in the Lower Mainland hoping to find an existing program, “something we could write a big cheque for,” and get on with her life. When she found nothing she liked, she suspended her personal ambitions and created the Ailanthus Achievement Centre.

The concept was to lure disadvantaged high-school children to Ailanthus (located in the 3000 block of Commercial Drive, now home to the Stratford Hall School) with a glamorous summer theatre program. Kids learned to sing, dance, act, juggle, do magic and fly like trapeze artists. Lavishly costumed and professionally staged, the Ailanthus performances for families and friends were standing-room-only events at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre and later the Michael J. Fox Theatre in Burnaby. Performing also promoted self-esteem, a quality most of the kids selected for the program had little of, but the real purpose was to attract the right children to nourish and educate.

She conducted all the initial interviews personally (she has a master of applied science in industrial psychology from the University of Waterloo) to find exactly the children she wanted – the ones with the right psychological fusion of untapped intelligence and frustrated ambition. Then she imposed strict rules (no drugs, weapons, piercings, fighting, prejudice or absenteeism) and applied ever increasing expectations – along with tutors, mentors, computer technology and, often, direct financial support – to help lift the children from their impoverished, often drug-infested, mostly welfare-driven environments, where family support and parental stability were frequently absent. Ailanthus’s ultimate aim was to channel the chosen few into higher education – to provide, using a term the Bentalls often employ, “their ticket out.”

The Ailanthus Centre contained not only classrooms, offices, computer study areas, a kitchen and dining room, but also two sprung dance floors, a full-size auditorium gym, a martial arts training facility and circus-style aerial training rooms. The program included a lot of encouragement and reward. It expanded from summer theatre to a year-round educational centre, with Disneyland and Club Med trips for children who excelled, and ultimately even included a full-time Ailanthus residence – a dormitory – for the 18 or so most promising students, complete with a swimming pool, cook, housekeeper and various counsellor-like minders.

Philosophically, Ailanthus was like fingernails on a chalkboard to most school administrators. It was elitist, corporate, and not accountable to the Vancouver School Board, and it intruded on the board’s turf. It demonstrated – albeit with millions of dollars – that misfit and poor kids, on whom high schools had given up, could learn. Opposition to the Ailanthus program finally grew so strong that the program had to bus students in from far-off Whalley because east-end schools simply would not co-operate.

The Bentalls also challenged the basic tenet of the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family – and the government-funded agencies that orbit it – which, bottom line, preserves the family unit. The Ailanthus focus was entirely on the child; stoned-out Mom and Dad (if they were still around) could look after themselves. The stick ​in the eye was the Ailanthus residence, where parents had to virtually sign over their kids to the Bentalls’ care and weren’t allowed to see their children without an appointment.

Then suddenly in 2004, the Bentalls announced to the board they were pulling the plug. They’d had enough. “We believed our brilliant intervention could change their world,” Lynda Bentall now says sarcastically of the board, “but we couldn’t fight the family influence.” She says her Ailanthus proteges increasingly lied, broke the rules and failed. She blames the failure primarily on B.C.’s “permissive culture” – a social service system that explains “how to use needles effectively” and social workers who told her that “kids have a right to do drugs.”

Like other philanthropic organizations trying to measure the effectiveness of their grants and programs, the Bentalls evaluated Ailanthus and came to a chillingly corporate decision: when a business isn’t successful, you shut it down. They sold the Ailanthus building and the student residence and did what the ministry and high schools can’t do: they walked away.

When I asked for some names of former Ailanthus students to interview for this story, Lynda Bentall could not give me a single name, address or phone number. When I pressed, she found one email from a former student, a dropout, who wrote, “. . . really wish you hadn’t closed down.” When I asked Bentall how she felt about abandoning the program and the children, she says, “I wasn’t sad. They’re not going to die.” Relative to the rest of the world and considering the social services available here, she says, the children who once depended on her care “will do just fine.”  She adds: “You come to a logical, dispassionate decision that Canada just isn’t the right country for this program.”

Like a corporation relocating a call centre, the Bentalls decided it would be more effective and cost-efficient to outsource their sympathy to a developing nation. If Bombardier can outsource aeronautic manufacturing to Queretaro, Mexico, why couldn’t Cedar Foundation?

What the Bentalls initially discovered in Queretaro surprised them. Mexico has the 15th-largest economy in the world and cities such as Queretaro (population 1.2 million) in central Mexico are modern and industrialized, with manufacturing accounting for one third of that city’s GDP. There’s lots of money; the city exceeds Kerrisdale for beautiful homes and estates, and there’s a significant and affluent middle class. Everyone has servants.
Trouble is, between 40 and 60 per cent of Mexicans are classified as living below the poverty line and, as the Bentalls observed, the education system may be keeping them there. Although school is mandatory for children aged 6 to 15, enrollment is noticeably lower in poorer regions, and low scores on international tests indicate a troubled system. No wonder an estimated 6.3 million Mexicans have fled and are now living illegally in the U.S., seeking opportunities that elude them at home.

For the Bentalls, however, the environment felt perfect: where better to introduce a modified version of their Ailanthus program than in a country with disadvantaged children hungry to learn, no permissive welfare system, no interfering social workers, no drugs (although some glue-sniffing) and an economy where the Canadian dollar buys three times more?

Not only that, but unlike in Canada, the Bentalls were welcomed by the privileged upper class as saviours who had come to Queretaro to perform miracles. Respected businesspeople and their wives quickly volunteered to serve on their boards. “They told us what we wanted to hear,” Bob Bentall says.

The Bentalls began in Mexico in the spring of 2004. Cedar built a small residence for girls and established the Promesa Achievement Centre, where, over the course of three years, hundreds of children took the theatre program of aerial acrobatics, gymnastics and theatrical ­performances, building their malnourished bodies and underfed self-esteem. The brightest among them were tutored for the transition to the only private school in Queretaro that would take them, Colegio Diego Olvera Estrada; from there they could qualify for university entrance. The foundation arranged for school teachers, many of whom had to overcome their own prejudice against street children (“little animals who cannot learn,” one teacher said); they also found dentists for kids with abscessed teeth and optometrists for children who could barely see. Cedar’s in-house newsletter, written by Lynda Bentall, was ecstatic and, one might say, naive: “their. . . personal growth and change signals an exciting and successful future for each of them and for their country!”

Meanwhile, the cracks in the Bentalls’ Mexican adventure were starting to show. Looking for places to invest, the Bentalls made surprise visits to various private and missionary schools – schools funded mostly by donations from people who rely on mailings and websites for their information. The Bentalls seldom discovered anything that resembled the lovely images posted on the website. Advertised literacy programs did not exist, the eight teachers on staff would turn out to be two, payments to volunteers’ wives would show up on the accounts, directors would drive school-provided Mercedes and inevitably the best-paid employee would be the one who maintained the website and earned 60 per cent of the money the site brought in.

Seeking new students for Promesa, the Bentalls visited city orphanages and were equally discouraged. At one in particular – where some of the directors also happened to be known to the Bentalls – the couple found bathrooms with broken toilets and fetid water pooled across the recessed floor like a lake, rats and lice in the kitchen, mould across walls and a dangerously unfenced and empty swimming pool with children chasing about near its rim, playing soccer. When the Bentalls reported this, the directors were unmoved. They had never visited the facilities. For them, being a director brought prestige and social position, not responsibility. They asked, “Why do you care?”

Similarly, when Lynda Bentall asked a Mexican businessman at a social gathering how he felt about the children who beg at car windows at intersections, his answer was to point out that she was driving on the wrong streets: “there are roads where begging is not permitted,” he explained, and generously marked the routes on a city map. “Mention human rights in Mexico,” Lynda Bentall says, “and bodies grow tight.”

The corruption hit home after Cedar Foundation invested about $500,000 to construct a new education centre to support and educate about 100 poor kids in downtown Queretaro, placing it under the direction of a local board of directors. The centre offered modern schoolrooms, ­offices, kitchens, meeting rooms and landscaped playgrounds.

What the Bentalls envisioned was, to quote their newsletter, “an opportunity for growth and development never before available,” mostly to the children of street-vendors – the very kids who beg at car windows at intersections. “Perhaps now other communities in Mexico will follow this model,” the newsletter continued glowingly, “in order to begin a positive impact on their nation’s future.”

It was not to be. On return visits, the Bentalls discovered the centre was not providing the curriculum agreed upon nor the care promised. It had become more a social club for volunteers than a refuge for disadvantaged street children. When the Bentalls threatened to take court action, they were advised by Mexican lawyers that their case would never pass through the three levels of justice necessary to reach the Mexican supreme court. They were further advised that if they wished to return to the country their lives would be in jeopardy, despite their use of a bodyguard.

Cedar Foundation suspended funding and left Mexico in August 2007. The one legacy is that Cedar continues to fund the tuition, transport, lunches, books, uniforms and tutoring for the 42 children from Promesa still attending Colegio Diego Olvera Estrada.

Two years earlier, in 2005, the Bentalls had begun work with the New Westminster-based Canadian Harambee Education Society (Harambee, in Swahili means “to pull together”). CHES is run for the most part by retired Canadian teachers, whom the oft-bitten Bentalls felt they could trust, and has no government or religious affiliations. Its goal is simple: to help provide a high school education for girls, mostly living in rural western Kenya, by paying $500 a year for tuition, books and uniforms. (The average annual income for rural Kenyan families is about $300.) All in all, it looked like the right fit for Cedar: an organization the foundation could “write a big cheque for, go hug-hug and walk away,” as Lynda Bentall likes to say.

As it turned out, though, CHES simply wasn’t ambitious enough. The Bentalls didn’t want to stop at high school. Why not university, where the CHES-funded students would be among the first black women ever to go to college in Kenya? If you’re going to invest in these kids, why not provide an extra $1.50 for typhoid shots? Or another dollar for a malaria net? They have to walk a long way to school, so why not buy them an extra pair of shoes? And why not bring another 100 girls into the program while you’re at it? Costs per student quickly escalated to between $600 and $700 a year. CHES had concerns with the additional staff, volunteers and logistics required – not to mention that sending girls to college would interfere with Kenyan customs, something that Canadian NGOs are not supposed to do.

The Bentalls were not concerned with what NGOs are not supposed to do, and soon Cedar Foundation was directly involved in Kenya – working inside the country from a converted farmhouse in rural Kakamega, complete with avocado trees and the prerequisite electronic gadgetry, including satellite dish. There was also Canadian staff – some formerly with CHES but now headed by two people the Bentalls could trust intimately: Cedar’s new co-vice-presidents of International Relations, Lynda Bentall’s daughter, Leigh-Ann Wager-Kazolas, and her husband, Gregory.

Then came the Dec. 27, 2007, presidential elections, after which the country – particularly the western provinces – exploded into violence. I was sitting in the Cedar offices in Vancouver in early 2008 as Lynda Bentall relayed news from Kenya and urged her reluctant Canadian volunteers to leave the country immediately. As it turned out, everyone arrived home safely, but Cedar’s involvement with the school program was suspended. (The existing students attending high schools and colleges will continue to be financially supported.) Still, despite the immediate turmoil, figures from the  Kenya project suggest it has so far been a success: after three years, 100 girls are in Grade 11, about 150 are in university and 85 have graduated from college.

Next the Bentalls plan to tackle South Africa, where generations of black children have been denied access to meaningful education – and this time the Bentalls feel prepared. They have conducted their due diligence and reviewed a number of proposals for refugee-burdened Cape Town, a city where more than one million people live in shanty towns and the government cannot afford to build new schools. Cedar has chosen to partner with LEAP, the only private school teaching maths, technology and science (MTS) to South Africa’s disadvantaged children. The foundation is negotiating to build LEAP’s new administration building and two new schools, as well as to provide $1 million a year (for three years) in educational grants and provide university scholarships for LEAP graduates. As part of the plan, LEAP students will spend their Saturdays tutoring younger children, helping them overcome their lack of MTS training.

According to the plan, emphasis will be placed on strengthening the LEAP brand globally (to attract additional donor corporations and foundations) and helping to relieve the funding fatigue LEAP faces in its own country. On board are 10 new schools for the LEAP network over the next eight years. But after Cedar’s Mexican misadventure, the foundation is insisting on its own representatives on the private school’s board and is negotiating specific approvals regarding budgets, program changes and operational procedures. (Negotiations continued as this article went to press.) The Bentalls plan to begin living part of the year in South Africa and will be, as they prefer, hands-on.

The question arises as to whether this is the best way to provide for disadvantaged children – whether at Ailanthus or in Africa. It’s their money, but Bob and Lynda Bentall have clearly discovered over the course of 20 years the “error” in “trial and error.” Does anyone believe the government or a church could have spent the millions more effectively? Would a “big cheque and a hug-hug” with, say, Hope International Development Agency – the $21-million annual Canadian fund that supports literacy and education programs in Asia and Africa – have been wiser? Or is hands-on retail philanthropy, the way the Bentalls practice it, the answer?

It’s a question that we, as a society, face. Canadians gave $8.3 billion to charity in 2006, which was eight per cent more than the year before. Who, ultimately, is best able to handle the money? About the Bentalls’ $100 million, all I can speak to is character and intention – which, in spite of their elitism and eccentricity, the Bentalls display.

We’ve had lots of conversations about money and values, but the insight I most remember was at the Terminal City Club one night when Bob Bentall and I stood side by side at the urinals – about as intimate as two heterosexuals get – and I thanked him for dinner. At the sinks, I mentioned that I enjoyed his company and his wife’s. He cracked a big loopy smile just like a kid with a secret, and he confided how lucky he was to have convinced her to marry him, that nutbar millionaire. It was obviously a decision that had changed everything for him. I could not help but see his joyful innocence at that moment, the gawky kid with the best marks in school, nor help but think that he was living exactly the life he wanted.