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Benefactor and Friend

Beyond the broad ribbons of glass which stretch from the floor to the very ceiling of the main swimming pool at the University of Alberta, an icy wind teases the blanket of white covering the winter campus. Inside the protection of concrete and glass, knots of youngsters ring the pool awaiting instruction. Soon the shimmering blue water, which, in other times has felt the powerful strokes of some of the world's best swimmers, comes alive with their slashing.

In the stands which climb away from the pool level, parents watch, some wrapping themselves in a Saturday morning lethargy, others squeezing what utility they can out of this time spent waiting. Behind them, visible from the walkway which gives access to the viewing area, is a plaque hung 35 years ago to declare this pool to be a memorial to Winslow and Christian Hamilton, who died together in the North Star airplane crash at Mount Slesse, B.C. in December 1956.

This memorial to their lives was made possible by the generosity of their friends and by one person in particular: Francis Winspear, a man who values friendship and has indelibly marked the University of Alberta in that spirit.

Such a friend has Francis Winspear been to the University, and to the Faculty of Business in particular, that when the business school recently celebrated the 75th Anniversary of the first business class at the University, it did so by conferring upon Winspear the title ‘Distinguished Benefactor.’ And he responded in a totally characteristic way: with the largest single gift ever made to the University by an individual living donor. The $2 million gift, announced at the 75th anniversary ceremonies held in Convocation Hall on campus on 25 November, will create an endowment to help the Business Faculty retain and recruit topflight faculty members.

Interest from the endowment will fund four senior business fellowships. The first fellowship has been named after Winspear's long-time business partner and friend, Alexander Hamilton (no relation to Winslow Hamilton). The second fellowship bears the name of another of Winspear's friends, Eric Geddes, who was Price Waterhouse's managing partner in Edmonton prior to his retirement and is a former chair of the University's Board of Governors. The third and fourth fellowships are to be named at a later date to honor others who have contributed to the business school's success; in the interim they are simply being referred to as the Winspear Fellowships.

Francis Winspear and the University of Alberta go back a long way together. To 1930, in fact. That was the same year that Winspear opened his Edmonton accounting office which would eventually grow into a firm of national and international importance. For the two years prior to 1930, Winspear had been the accountant in charge of the Edmonton sub-office of Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co.'s Calgary operation. When he told his seniors in the city to the south that he was leaving the security of their established firm to open a private practice — this in the midst of a depression — they responded that he was crazy. ‘Winspear, you're out of your mind,’ are the words that the distinguished benefactor recalls. He would prove them wrong.

Thanks to Winspear's vision, hard work, and creativity, his firm grew quickly. He soon took in partners — Winslow Hamilton was the first — and, at a time when students of accounting were having a difficult time obtaining articling positions, he took in as many as he could.

Before a decade had passed, the office that Winspear had opened in a corner of the Institute of Applied Art, which occupied the Magee Building in downtown Edmonton, was the largest accounting office in the Alberta capital. In 1943, he and his partners opened an office in Vancouver. Other branch offices in smaller centres in Western Canada soon followed, and when Winspear retired in 1965 he was the senior partner in a firm national in scope with more than two dozen international affiliations. At the time Winspear Higgins Stevenson and Co. merged with Deloitte Haskins & Sells in 1980, it controlled 26 offices in Canada and the merger made the combined entity the third largest accounting firm in Canada. (Although the Winspear and Deloitte firms were about equal in size at the time of the merger the name Deloitte Haskins and Sell was retained because of that firm's extensive international connections under the name Deloitte Haskins and Sells International.)

All of this was still in the future, however, when in January of 1930 Winspear answered the telephone and for the first time heard the kindly Scottish burr belonging to Dr Robert Wallace, then president of the University of Alberta. Wallace, it turned out, had a problem. It was an ‘alcoholic problem,’ remembers Winspear: it seemed that the accountant responsible for lecturing in the School of Commerce (at that time within the Faculty of Arts and Science) was finding the bottom of a glass more attractive than the classroom. ‘Wallace offered me $700 to take over until the end of the term,’ recalls Winspear, who welcomed the opportunity and faced his first class on 6 February 1930. One of the students was Winslow Hamilton.

The terms of Winspear's appointment had been set at a meeting involving Dean of Arts and Sciences William A.R. Kerr and the University's bursar, Archie West, as well as Winspear and Wallace. At that meeting, the sessional nature of the appointment, which was to terminate that April, was emphasized. Winspear, however, had different ideas about the duration of his teaching career.

In his autobiography, to which he drolly gave the title Out of My Mind, Winspear admits that he hoped to ‘so capture the interest of the students and the confidence of the administration that a permanent appointment would be earned.’ This he did, quickly becoming a full professor and continuously holding a faculty appointment in the business school until the demands of his widespread business and community involvements led to his resignation in 1948.

Four years later, University President Andrew Stewart persuaded Winspear to come back to the University as director of a reorganized School of Commerce, the accountant agreeing to a one-year term as an unpaid officer. ‘I am not at all sure that it was a fruitful year either for me or for the University,’ writes Winspear in Out of My Mind. It did, however, further Winspearòs belief that a business school should never lose contact with the world of affairs and that its students must be constantly exposed to people active in business. Winspear genuinely enjoyed teaching. ‘I enjoyed the students, the type of questions they would ask, and their interest in the subject. Many of them became friends,’ says Winspear. One of those friends is Eric Geddes, who graduated with a BCom degree from the University in 1947 and was later the last student to serve his articles with Winspear. In spite of the passing of the years, Geddes has vivid memories of Winspear's strong classroom presence, his striking way of speaking and his fine command of the English language. The former Board of Governors chair recalls that Winspear used a teaching method then in its infancy, the case study method. ‘All of his former students remember being drilled so well in the hallmark cases in the evolution of auditing,’ says Geddes.

He also recalls that Winspear took it upon himself to arrange special lectures on ethics. ‘He was keenly aware of the need to impart to youngsters an understanding of the necessity for professional ethics — he was very much alone in this at the time, but he was such a strong individual that he carried the rest along.’

Winspear was attracted to the intellectual vitality of the campus, but the balance sheet was his first love. His was a vision of accounting that put it at the very heart of a business — probing each transaction to see where profit was adequate and where it was not, comparing the usefulness of equipment and techniques, helping to formulate plans. Winspear refers to himself as having been driven. He wanted to make money, certainly, but in Out of My Mind he describes a broader motivation:

...the urge to play a part in developing a great western country, defeating agricultural problems of climate and terrain, harnessing the power which even then seethed in gas wells in Redcliffe and Medicine Hat and leaped down the rapids of mighty rivers, or to hear the shriek of the saw in the forests of western spruce. Business in the West needed leadership, I thought. Finance was all in the East; commerce flowed from the East to the West. What a challenge, to reverse the flow and build from the West to the East! Surely all living things have the urge to live and acquire. ‘The territorial imperative,’ Ardrey calls it; and finance is part of the joy of life. It gives the sheer exhilaration of hitting a ball hard and true in golf or tennis; or the feeling of a rod when a coho strikes and the reel sings; or galloping across the prairie with vitality beneath you, and the breeze singing in your ears.

By the 1940s Winspear and his partners were getting involved in the operation of companies. ‘We had a knack for reorganizing companies and making them pay,’ recalls Winspear, who at one time was the CEO of no less than eight separate companies. During his career, Winspear was president of 19 distinct commercial concerns. This involved ownership and active management in industries such as oil, steel, goods, lumber, mining, aircraft and airlines, wholesale distribution of dry goods, finance, and real estate development.

Among the companies which Winspear and his partners took under their wing were Swanson Lumber Ltd., Gold Standard Oils, Premier Steels, Bruce Robinson Electric Co. Ltd. and Northwest Industries, which was at one time Edmonton's largest private sector employer. During his involvement with a business, Winspear liked to drop by to have lunch and chat informally with the staff. His abiding concerns were that there be long-term thinking, that his businesses employ as few people as possible, and that they have the best machinery and ingenuity in using it for efficient production. In his companies there was no hesitation about discarding a piece of equipment if a new one on the market was more efficient.

‘I never liked my businesses to get too big. I deliberately kept them small,’ says Winspear, who made sure that his concerns employed no more people than absolutely necessary. ‘I wanted to employ as few people as possible,’ he explains. ‘My emphasis has always been on technological improvement — now that doesn't mean that the entire number of people I employed became reduced, because I was always expanding and, in effect, employing more and more and more.’

The energetic and visionary Edmontonian also served on the boards of another dozen or more companies, including the Toronto Dominion Bank. His ties with this financial institution began early in his career when he developed a working relationship with the Bank of Toronto, which later merged with the Dominion Bank. He served on the board of the Toronto Bank for 27 years and held a vice-presidential appointment with it for a time.

Despite his extensive corporate involvements, Winspear somehow found it possible to give generously of his time to community concerns. Among the many and diverse organizations which have benefited from his participation on their governing boards or councils are the Canadian Association for Retarded Children, Brentwood College, the Overseas Institute of Canada, the Air Cadet League of Canada, the YMCA, the Boy Scouts of Canada, and the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews. He also served a term on the Economic Council of Canada and was active in the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, serving terms as president of both the national and Edmonton chambers.

Winspear's generous gift to the Edmonton Concert Hall Foundation follows his many years of support for Edmonton's cultural organizations. He is a former honorary vice-president of the Edmonton Art Gallery and served on the boards of the Edmonton Opera Association and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. In the early 1960s, he helped launch the Symphony when he and his friend Ray Milner underwrote the first concert to the amount of $10,000.

From his seventh-floor apartment overlooking the beautiful valley of the North Saskatchewan River, Francis Winspear has a clear view of the University of Alberta, which sits on the heights of the river bank opposite. It's a view he enjoys any number of times during a day, and when evening falls or the visibility is poor, he can shift his gaze a few inches to a large oil of essentially the same scene that he painted nearly 30 years ago.

Now 88 years old, Winspear no longer paints, but he reads, swims and walks a lot. He and Alex Hamilton, his partner in Winham Investments, maintain a small suite of offices in a building off Edmonton's 124 Street, and when Winspear is in Edmonton (he has long had a winter residence on Vancouver Island), he is into the office most weekdays — which belies his comment that ‘I am going on for 90 and I'm getting lazy.’ He also devotes a good deal of time to the foundation he established to provide funding for worthwhile community and cultural projects. It was through that foundation that he recently contributed $6 million towards the building of a concert hall for downtown Edmonton.

‘One of the things that I admire most about Francis Winspear is that after following a very acquisitive bent — building up a large firm from what was very much a standing start — he is now devoting his later years to helping the wider community,’ says Eric Geddes. ‘He has expressed to me very many times that, now that his wife and children are provided for, he plans to return the remaining fortune to the community from which it came. He has shown a great deal of nobility, I think, in recognizing that people do not succeed altogether on their own.’

Speaking at the University ceremony honoring him as ‘Distinguished Benefactor,’ Winspear gave a somewhat different perspective to his philanthropy. Declaring that ‘It is fun to give money;’ the man who heard himself described as one of the finest accountants Canada has produced asked, ‘Why should my executors get all the fun?’

In an interview the following day he returned to the subject of his altruistic interests. ‘Over the years I got into a number of businesses. When I retired from them one by one, I found it was interesting to use the same judgements you would use in business to spend your money wisely in philanthropy.’ Just as he emphasized long-term thinking in the corporate context, he takes the long view in his philanthropy: ‘It is fairly easy for a man or woman to come along and say 'Give me a couple month's salary as I'm unemployed at present.' I would very much prefer to give money to the University because I haven't known any of my students to be on relief, and most of them have been good citizens successful executives, and they not only fill jobs for themselves, but they also employ other people. So when you give money — as I did yesterday — to the Faculty of Business, you are curing unemployment in two respects.’

In announcing his $2 million endowment to the business school, the Faculty's friend and benefactor characterized it as an investment in human resources. Pointing to the prosperity of nations such as Switzerland and Japan, which boast little in the way of natural resources, and contrasting their situation with that of Russia, a country of bountiful natural riches, he identified the effective employment of human resources as the major difference.

Human resources, Winspear maintains, transcend natural resources. The challenge for Canada now, he says, is research in technology which will lead to production that's more efficient and competitive. ‘Our competitors are spending more per capita on technology than we are, but there's an awakening in Canada that's encouraging.’

The University, its people and their accomplishments, and the promise of things to come are a sustaining force for the Faculty of Business's distinguished benefactor.

‘This University, in my opinion, has been unique in the quality of its staff right from the beginning,’ he declares, blue eyes aglow. ‘One can't love this University because of its buildings, which are a conglomerate mess, and I don't suppose you can love it for its football team or hockey team. What you can love it for, and what I do love it for, are the people who have served it, and in serving it, they have done more for this province than has any other institution.’

Touching on advances in agriculture, such as the development of crops that prospered in the province's grey wooded soil, medicine, and the method of extracting oil from the Athabasca Tar Sands, he punctuates his recollections by stating, ‘Everywhere you looked there was progress.’

While he has, of later years, turned more of his attention to funding projects of benefit to the community, philanthropy is nothing new to Winspear. And no institution has benefited more from his friendship than has the University of Alberta.

His philanthropy has literally helped shape the campus. There was, of course, the $50,000 gift that made possible the Winslow and Christian Hamilton Pool. Even before the pool was built, he led a committee to raise money from Edmonton business to support the erection of a Students' Union Building at the University (this is the building which became University Hall when the present SU Building was built in the 1960s). His committee was able to raise $30,000 and he was rewarded by being made an honorary member of the Students' Union.

His was the leading gift (another $50,000) that made possible the building of the Faculty Club on the University campus, and he came to the rescue when getting a mortgage for the Club proved a problem (the difficulty arising because the Club was being built on land owned by the University). He also made a visit to then premier of the day, E.C. Manning, to enlist his support in gaining approval for a liquor licence for the Club.

In the late 1960s the three provincial universities — the Universities of Lethbridge, Calgary and Alberta — collaborated in the 3AU Capital Fund Campaign to raise money for capital projects and, characteristically, Francis Winspear was on hand to help out, serving as the chair of the Campaign's national gifts division. Twenty years later Winspear was present to help launch the Faculty of Business's Competitive Edge fundraising campaign, talking to the business community about the debt it owes to the University which makes such a great economic and cultural contribution to the community and telling them ‘you're pikers if you don't pay up.’

Part of his own ‘paying up’ has been the Winspear Distinguished Chair of Professional Accounting Education, which has been occupied by a number of distinguished accountants and was recently described by the Journal of the Institute of Chartered Accountants as ‘the most prestigious in Canada.’ The Chair, financed jointly by the Winspear Foundation (which pays two-thirds of the annual funding costs) and the provincial government, was established in 1979. At that time U of A graduates, as a group, were achieving disappointing results on the national chartered accountancy exams.

The Winspear Chair, which has been occupied for the past seven years by Dr Michael Gibbins, has contributed to a dramatic turnaround: the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Alberta recently reported national statistics showing average institutional pass performances on the National Uniform Final Examination for accounting students over the past five years and at the top was the U of A, the only institution in the country to boast a pass percentage of more than 70 per cent.

Winspear has also maintained an association with the business school on a more personal level, based on friendship with the deans and students. He has been a guest lecturer a number of times and attended Rocky Mountain Business Seminars, always filling the demand for recollections of his business career and insights into contemporary business. In return, he takes great pride in each graduating class and in the business school itself, which he rates as one of the top three in the country. Asked if he still visits the school often, his laconic reply is: ‘Faculty members will tell you that I tend to haunt the place a bit.’

It was appropriate that Winspear should find himself at the Centre of the Business Faculty's 75th Anniversary celebration, for his presence permeates the history of the business school since 1930. When the Faculty of Business presented its first Canadian Business Leader Award in 1982 he was the recipient, and found himself described as ‘an outstanding individual who is a model to business students through uncommon vision and sound common sense.’

The Business Leader Award wasn't the University's first public recognition of Winspear's contributions. In 1951, the English-born accountant who had graduated from Calgary public and high schools and then studied accounting through a Queen's University correspondence program was conferred the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, by the University of Alberta.

The University of Alberta isn't alone in recognizing Winspear's contributions. His many awards include the Service Medal of the Order of Canada, which he received in 1967, and this past November he received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Victoria.

On the day following his most recent honor from the U of A, Francis Winspear spoke to New Trail about the importance of universities to society and, from the perspective of more than 60 years as a friend and distinguished benefactor to the University of Alberta, provided a question for the University and universities in general to address.

‘I think,’ he said, speaking carefully, ‘it is the function of a university not only to train the mind but the emotions as well.’ Pointing, on the one hand, to the ‘tremendous developments in inventiveness, in cosmology, in atomic theory, in genetics, in medicine’ which have taken place in the 20th century, he contrasted them with, on the other hand, the ‘holocausts and other emotional excesses based on bigotry and hate’ which this century has witnessed. ‘Are we,’ he asked, ‘training the mind skillfully and well and overlooking the importance of training the emotions?’

It was a question which he was prepared to leave hanging as a challenge, and the ensuing silence resonated with echoes of the belief that he had stated earlier: ‘We all find ourselves together on this medium-sized planet and the main ambition should be to contribute, if we possibly can, something to civilization.’ Those are words that the University's friend and benefactor has chosen to live by.

Published Spring 1992.

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