Lunch with Joe Segal

Iconic builder and philanthropist Joe Segal on ambition, ?compassion, and what he’d give away to be 30 once again.

Joe Segal

Iconic builder and philanthropist Joe Segal on ambition, 
compassion, and what he’d give away to be 30 once again.

Joseph Segal’s conversation is freighted with the passing of time. Not that the 86-year-old business titan and Order of Canada recipient has any patience for reflection (“no point in regrets,” he states) – or thoughts of retiring from Kingswood Capital Corporation, his Vancouver-based real-estate and financing empire. “I’m not that old,” he says, beaming, while sitting at his Yew restaurant table in the Four Seasons, where he has eaten almost daily for three decades. “I like moving the chips around and being creative – and I’m still pretty good.”

Besides, quips Segal as he sips Chateau St Jean chardonnay (his water glass is removed long before he arrives), “I don’t play golf.”

But talk about his role as prolific mentor, and his real niggle over age is revealed. Counselling a 30-year-old facing bankruptcy, the man whose legendary deals involved Zellers and the Bay recalls cutting him off early. 


“I quickly told him that I would give him everything – the money, the houses – if he could make me 30 again,” laments Segal, a chancellor emeritus of SFU. “He may be broke, but he has more than I have: time is his asset. I’d rather be his age on welfare than me the way I am.”

Undoubtedly cognizant of his own mortality (and following a stroke last year from which he recovered), Segal recently donated $12 million – a million for each day he was in hospital – to VGH and UBC Hospital Foundation’s mental-health project. It tapped into a lifelong enthusiasm for philanthropy for Segal, whose previous donations include the old Bank of Montreal building for SFU’s Segal Graduate School of Business. 

The Kingswood president is modest about his gifts, however. Sinking back into the banquette, he shares the story – evocative of the Biblical parable – of a widow who raids her food-budget jar to contribute to charity. 

“Now that’s giving, that’s compassion,” he says, over an off-the-menu plate of prawns and greens (the great-grandfather says he would have joined me with the duck salad had Rosalie, his wife of 62 years, not mentioned that morning he needed to lose a pound or two). “The individual that gives something that he is not going to miss is not truly giving.”

For Segal, philanthropy is fuelled by his “take some, use some, give some” approach to money. He believes donating is about “an education,” derived either from people’s environment – familial examples, for instance – or from experience. When people have progressed from nothing to surplus, they “have experienced life from both sides and often want to give back,” explains Segal, before punctuating the point with his catchphrase. “‘There but for the grace of God go I.’”

Which is exactly how he feels about his own career trajectory. After being discharged from his regiment following the Second World War, the Alberta-born Segal arrived in B.C. with just $1,500 to his name and sold excess khaki paint to farmers to spruce up their barns before graduating to deals with Fields Stores, First National Properties and Block Brothers. 

“I grew up without a dream,” Segal announces, referring to his peers in his hometown of Vegreville who had eyes on becoming firefighters or some such. “My ambition was simply to be successful – wherever that would lead me.”

It’s clearly a mantra he likes to see within business: “I can’t abide negligence; if you’re capable of a higher lever and only achieving a lower one, well . . . ” he shrugs, before adding after a short pause, “but I guess, to each their own.” (The words prompt Segal to segue into his love of music: “My wife and I used to dance to ‘To Each His Own’ in the ’40s.”) Throughout lunch, business folk pay homage to Segal; his sons, Gary and Lorne, who both work at Kingswood, are also dining with clients at nearby tables. 

There are no phone interruptions, however. Showing another nod to the passing of time, the only social networking Segal knows is face to face. When he does finally pull out his “BlackBerry” from his pocket, it is a piece of cardboard – complete with his week’s meetings written in pen by his executive assistant.