Entrepreneur of the Year 2015: Family Business Award of Excellence

Tong’s brothers Ernie, Willis and John outside the family’s Chinatown warehouse in 1941

The Louie family—through its extensive chain of grocery stores and drugstores—has built a reputation as one of B.C.’s most customer-centric operations. This year, they’ve being honoured with the EY Family Business Award of Excellence

British Columbia doesn’t have the legacy of long-lived family businesses like Upper Canada does with its Westons, Bronfmans and Thomsons. It’s a young province, after all, with a correspondingly young business community. A notable exception to the rule is the Louie family—which, since Hok Yat (H.Y.) Louie opened his first grocery store in Vancouver’s Chinatown in 1903, has become a dominant presence in B.C.’s retail scene, with 32 IGA grocery stores and 78 London Drugs outlets (51 of them in B.C.).

The Louie family has expanded in recent years into aviation, with its London Air Services (bought in 1999, it’s now up for sale), and hospitality, through its luxury Sonora Resort. But as Brandt Louie, H.Y. Louie Company’s 72-year-old president and CEO—and H.Y.’s grandson—puts it, a focus on the customer is what unites the businesses.

“We believe that we are very good at understanding the needs of our customers and giving them what they expect—whether it’s the resort, or the airline, or the supermarkets or drugstores,” Louie tells me from London Drugs’ corporate boardroom in Richmond in late July, fresh from a fishing trip to Labrador. “At the end of day, we have built up a lot of trust with our customers. They trust us to always have their interests at heart.”

Getting to this pinnacle of trust—H.Y. Louie is now B.C.’s second-largest private company, after the Jim Pattison Group, with estimated 2014 revenues just shy of $5 billion—was never a sure thing. When H.Y. arrived in B.C. in 1896 from a small village near Guangzhou, B.C. was, to put it mildly, not the most hospitable place for Chinese entrepreneurs. He worked in a variety of manual labour jobs from vegetable farms to sawmills before opening that first store, and through his decades as a retailer and then wholesaler, H.Y. encountered racism at every turn, from competitors, customers and neighbours. It was in this challenging work environment that Tong Louie, H.Y.’s second-eldest son and ultimate successor, cut his teeth in the family business.

In the postwar years, the company’s fortunes improved alongside the economy’s. In 1955, the Louies were approached to become the B.C. franchiser for Independent Grocers Alliance, or IGA, supermarkets. Tong, then second in command (his elder brother, Tim, was president), was the driving force for a move that would prove pivotal in the transformation of the business. By the 1960s, Tong had bought out his brothers and was firmly in control—expanding the business yet again with the purchase of the Dominion grocery chain’s nine B.C. stores in 1969. Then, seven years later, came the blockbuster purchase of London Drugs that would allow the family to branch out of the grocery trade and into the more profitable drugstore business.

Brandt—Tong’s eldest son—has been with the company since 1972, after six years working as an accountant with what was then Touche Ross. He assumed full control of the family business upon the death of his father in 1998. Brandt sees himself in the driver’s seat for another three to five years, after which time he expects his two sons, Gregory and Stuart, to take over. Currently Gregory (a trained radiologist) oversees the company’s burgeoning health clinic business, Highroads, while Stuart (a lawyer) provides counsel to all of the firm’s divisional heads.

While in many crucial ways business conditions are easier now than they were for H.Y. Louie, the retail world is also undergoing profound change thanks to the power of the Internet and an increasingly global marketplace. In answer to the question, “Can H.Y. Louie’s company last another 112 years?” the grandson is philosophical.

“I think all businesses evolve,” says Brandt. “What made the business successful when my father ran it, when I’ve run it, and going forward when my two sons run it, may be quite different. They will have to learn and adapt to those changes in time. We’ve discovered that you don’t have to be the largest business to survive—but you have to be very good at what your mission is. And I think that, in our own way, we are very good at serving customers.”