John Volken, Founder, John Volken Foundation

John Volken, founder of the John Volken Foundation, discusses his passion for helping recovering drug addicts and how he hasn't given himself a paycheque since 2004.

John Volken, founder, Volken Foundation | BCBusiness
John Volken has taken all the profits from his foundation and pushed them back into funding his drug recovery centre since 2004.

John Volken, founder of the John Volken Foundation, discusses his passion for helping recovering drug addicts and how he hasn’t given himself a paycheque since 2004.

At first glance, the headquarters of the John Volken Foundation in Surrey’s sprawling Newton neighbourhood looks more like a big-box store than an addiction recovery centre. Several young women rifle through a pile of blue jeans in the middle of the massive warehouse. I snake around skids of rice and flour and watch a worker stack wedges of cheap cheese into a cooler. One corner of the store is filled with furniture and mattresses, traces of the 150-location home-furnishing empire Volken started with a single shop on Vancouver’s East Hastings Street decades ago, then sold off when he traded business for philanthropy.

Volken, who’s 70 years old, shakes my hand before he leaps up two flights of stairs, two steps at a time, and runs into a well-furnished boardroom on the second floor. “What the hell do you eat,” I mutter, giving chase. More importantly, what does a furniture salesman know about addiction recovery?

“I never even smoked,” admits the grey-haired philanthropist in a thick German accent. “But I think everybody who is a good parent and is sensitive can do this. It’s about discipline and, most of all, accountability.”

Volken sports a close-cropped grey beard, coral shirt and black slacks. “When I won Entrepreneur of the Year in 1995, I thought, now what? I have all the money I need, I have recognition. I thought there was more to life than that.”

He saw addicts as some of the most needy people in society, and Canada as a country lacking the services needed to help them kick their habits. In 2004 he sold United Furniture Warehouse for an undisclosed amount. He says his former wife got most of the cash in an ensuing divorce settlement, but he managed to hang on to most of the real estate assets, which he funnelled into the foundation and its flagship project, Surrey’s Welcome Home Addiction Recovery Academy, a rehab facility he built to mimic acclaimed European centres he visited in his travels. Today, it’s home to 30 recovering addicts – students, as he calls them – each at a different point in a two-year program meant to balance addiction recovery with personal development and career preparation. Between room and board, treatment sessions, group activities and salaries for 30 full-time staff (including on-site therapists and lawyers), Volken says it costs about $105,000 to graduate each student. Participants are only on the hook for a one-time payment of $2,117.

So who are the donors that top up the rest? “We don’t have any,” he says. The rest of the foundation’s budget, an impressive $15 million a year, comes from sales at the PricePro store downstairs ($8 million), as well as rental income from his real estate holdings ($7 million), which stretch as far east as Ontario. Volken hasn’t paid himself a salary since leaving United, and pushes all profits from the store, which is run by the students, back into the foundation. He has since opened a second academy in Seattle, moved into a house at the back of the Surrey property, broken ground on an adjacent $25-million dormitory and amenities complex and founded two charities in Africa that support 13,000 orphans in Kenya and Uganda.

But 16-hour workdays at 70? Shouldn’t you be driving a motorhome to Florida or leveraging your capital into fat returns at that age?

“Money can make jackasses out of otherwise good people,” he says, tearing up at the thought of the lives he has helped turn around, which total 200 graduates and counting. “The purpose in life is not to make money. The purpose is to develop your talents and to become the best you can be, whatever the best is.”