Bob Gaglardi: then and now
by Keri Vermeulen
Though he is recognized as one of the most successful businessmen in Canada, Vancouver’s Bob Gaglardi is most comfortable when the focus isn’t on himself. Instead, the quiet spoken but authoritative Gaglardi, comes alive while sharing warmly about family, history, parenting and values during a relaxed conversation from his Vancouver office.
When he was a young boy in the early 1950s, Gaglardi and his brother would sit in the front row of their church in Kamloops, and listen to their Dad preach from the pulpit messages that would set one’s heart on fire for God; at the same time, the sermons were laden with practicality and humour: “Don’t be too heavenly minded – it’ll do you no earthly good!” he would say. The Gaglardi patriarch was Phil Gaglardi, a Pentecostal pastor (along with his wife Jennie); a long time BC MLA for the Social Credit party (1952 to 1972); and a man of such a giving and generous nature, when he passed away in 1995, son Bob found over $200,000 in IOU notes tucked away in his Dad’s apartment.
Phil Gaglardi would tell his young sons they could do anything. “He would preach to us that anything is possible,” Gaglardi recalls. “He would say: ‘You can be the President of the United States if you want, but just remember, he puts his pants on one leg at a time.’”
Gaglardi would not become president, but he did alright for himself: today he is ranked No. 22 in Canadian Business magazine’s list of Canada’s richest people. Bob and his son Tom are at the helm of Northland Properties, which owns and operates 55 hotels (including Sandman, Signature, and Sutton Place), 170 restaurants (including Denny’s, Moxie’s, and the Shark Club), Revelstoke Mountain Resort, and NHL team the Dallas Stars, WHL’s Kamloops Blazers and AHL’s Texas Stars. Through Northland Properties, the Gaglardis have more than 15,000 employees.
With that kind of wealth and influence though, Gaglardi remains reachable, as he shared stories of growing up under two of the most enthusiastic and well-loved trailblazers for the church this province has ever seen.
Gaglardi, who today has a net worth of approximately $3.1 billion, knew from a young age he wanted to work for himself and he wanted to build things. His parents had moved the family to Kamloops in the 1940s to pastor a church there, which at the time had only about a dozen adults and 25 kids attending . “When we went to Kamloops, we were living in the basement of the church, in the furnace room,” Gaglardi shares. “It was a dirt floor, there was no bathroom and my mom cooked on a sawdust stove. All of our clothes, until I was 15 or 16, had been somebody else’s.”
Phil and Jennie focused so passionately on reaching children with the Gospel, they eventually had to hire buses upon buses to bring the kids in, building the largest Sunday School in Canada, with about 9,000 kids. “Their biggest joy was to help others and lead them to the Lord,” Gaglardi recalls. His mother, Jennie (nee Sandin), was also the co-founder of what today is Christian Life Assembly in Langley, when back in 1937, she and her friend would sing songs and hold a sidewalk Sunday school. While she was ministering in Langley, Phil fell head over heels in love with Jennie. She agreed to marry him on the condition that he became an ordained minister as well. “My mother was the drive behind my father,” Gaglardi remembers. “It’s hard to understand that considering how strong a personality my Dad was. She was the boss at the end of the day, but she allowed my father to be at the forefront.”
Gaglardi says being the preacher’s kid didn’t win him any popularity contests growing up, and unbeknownst to his parents, he began cutting school in Grade 9, showing up only to write the exams. He took over church janitorial and grounds, doing the work without pay, as his offering to the church.
Gaglardi was a pretty good baseball player, and when a scout for the Baltimore Orioles came to the far reaches of Kamloops to draft him at age 17, Phil took his son aside for a long talk. “I remember where both of us were sitting,” Gaglardi recalls. “He said ‘listen Bob, I want you to go to university – all my life I’ve felt somewhat inferior to other people because I didn’t have that opportunity.”
Gaglardi went to work, learning how to operate heavy machinery, and joining a crew on the Second Narrows Bridge. He bought himself a truck, and began hatching plans to become self-employed. When he finally decided to follow his Dad’s advice to attend university, it was 1959 and the name Phil Gaglardi was everywhere in BC: as the well-known highways minister who opened up roads all over the province; and as host of the radio show Chapel in the Sky. “My father was so prominent in British Columbia at that time, everything I did was relevant to ‘that’s Phil’s son.’ It wasn’t Bob. I had to get away and establish my own identity.” Gaglardi went to school in Texas, and he earned an engineering degree from LeTourneau University in only two and a half years. He worked and earned his own way through school. “I was bull-headed and wouldn’t let my Dad pay for anything.”
Then and Now
It seems logical that a man so dedicated to his family’s generations, and so successful in life, would have advice for today’s younger set of parents. But before dispensing any wisdom, Gaglardi is quick praise this generation for its ability to provide well for their children. But he does note the tendency of parents to do too much for their kids. “They’re afraid to go out the door – everywhere they go, you gotta drive them,” he says. “Today, they get ‘em from school and take ‘em to ball, here, there and everywhere.” He encourages parents to let their kids experience life and responsibility a little more. As for dangers in the world, he says: “There were just as many problems when I was a kid. But if something happened in some far stretch of the world, we didn’t hear about it 10 minutes later.”
Gaglardi says its important to help kids understand how to provide for themselves. His two sons and two daughters all went to work in their teens in one of the family businesses. “They were able to develop a good understanding of working with other people,” he says. “And they understood the prejudice people might have working with the owner’s kid.”
When pressed about how Christianity has impacted his role as a business leader, Gaglardi responds very down-to-earth and practically. “The more successful people are, you realize that’s because they are honest and have integrity and are straightforward,” he says. “I don’t get many people telling me about Christianity in business – most people have some kind of religious knowledge or background and they know what’s right and wrong.”
Gaglardi learned from his Dad that when we ask the Lord “to bless us and prosper us” this isn’t about monetary riches. “The Lord isn’t really interested in prospering us in that way – He’s interested in our soul and our heart. If we pray to the Lord to help us in making money, I don’t think those prayers are going to go very far.”
Something Gaglardi very much appreciates is people – those who spend their “hard earned” money in his businesses, and the thousands who work for him, each with their own lives and their own stories. “I get such joy from sitting in the lobby of one of my hotels and seeing people pay good money for what I’ve created. It’s actually quite humbling. Money doesn’t matter, it’s just how you keep score. It’s not my motive. I like to build things and have them accepted by the public.”
He also values his longtime friends, and shares with them a love for southern gospel music. “He hasn’t missed a single one of our concerts,” says Jim Thirsk, musician and founder of Singin’ Gospel Concerts, noting Gaglardi’s loyalty. Gaglardi keeps a commitment to Thirsk to support gospel music, and the talent coming through Metro Vancouver.
Gaglardi also treasures the legacy left by his parents and their values of giving, especially when it comes to reaching children. Northland Properties recently cut the ribbon on the Phil and Jennie Gaglardi Academy, a Christian school in Comox. With a new school building and gymnasium made possible by a $2.4 million donation from Northland, it’s one of many ways the Gaglardis keep giving back.
“A few years ago, we formed a society, and the motivation is to help children in spiritual ways,” Gaglardi says. “My mother used to say if one can touch a child, they’ll never forget. But as they get older, they get harder to reach.”