Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Donald Smith, founder of EllisDon had visible impact on lives of Canadians

Donald Smith of construction company EllisDon shown here with a collection of early carpenter tools in 1982.

John Wood/The Globe and Mail

When Geoff Smith was about 12, another boy told him something about his father that he simply couldn't believe. The friend, son of a property developer, claimed that Donald Smith, well on his way to becoming one of Canada's leading builders, had no qualms about showing up at a construction site and dismissing everyone on the spot.

His son was unconvinced. "I said, 'Well, that's just stupid. How would you ever get a job filled when you fire everybody?' " Mr. Smith recalls.

But to be certain, he went home and confronted the accused tyrant – and was shocked a second time. "Well," he was told, "sometimes you've just got to shake things up."

Story continues below advertisement

It was only later he learned there was method to this apparent parental madness: If a project wasn't going well, his father would clean house so he could send in a new superintendent with the power to hire back only the workers he knew could get the job done.

Because he knew how to get jobs done, and done well, EllisDon Corp. founder Don Smith had a visible impact on the day-to-day lives of many Canadians.

He died Tuesday morning, at 89, in a hospital in London, Ont., that is among the many public structures – including schools, office towers, shopping malls and the world's first stadium with a fully retractable roof – that his company has taken from blueprint to reality over the past six decades.

Not that all of his building involved bricks and mortar. Mr. Smith also will be remembered for reviving the fortunes of a political party that hadn't seen power since Canadians were fighting in Sicily, for charitable works, especially on behalf of children and the underprivileged, and for helping to ensure that London's establishment opened its private clubs to Jewish members.

It's an expansive footprint for a man whose mother, having suddenly lost her husband early in the Great Depression, moved the family from small-town Alberta to Toronto in search of work.

Mr. Smith was just 6 when his father "just kind of up and died," as his son Geoff puts it, in 1930. Two decades later – on April Fool's Day, 1951 – he and older brother David Ellis Smith joined forces (and their names) to launch EllisDon.

What began as a little construction shop that worked on additions to homes in London (where he had been relocated by a previous employer) now has revenues of more than $3-billion a year.

Story continues below advertisement

A pivotal moment came in the mid-1980s. "The company was still nowhere near the size it is today, and Don bet the whole company, at 61 years old, put everything on the line, so that they could do the SkyDome," says Geoff Smith, now EllisDon's chief executive officer.

Since renamed the Rogers Centre, the 54,000-seat taxpayer-supported stadium was costly and controversial but represented Mr. Smith at the height of his career. True to form, he ruffled feathers by boldly parachuting in a new chief manager when he became worried the project wouldn't be finished for the Blue Jays' 1989 home opener. But construction strikes derailed the bid to make up for lost time, and the Dome opened two months behind schedule.

Also a force in politics, Mr. Smith was president of the provincial Liberal party when fellow Londoner David Peterson became premier in 1985, ending 42 years of Tory rule in Ontario.

As well, he acted as chief fundraiser for Mr. Peterson, who describes him as "a legend" and "an absolutely unique cat. He built this great business, but also did it in such a unique way."

According to Paul Godfrey, the former chairman of Metro Toronto and a driving force behind the SkyDome, "when EllisDon took on a contract to do something, they did it with such excellence that they became the standard in the industry."

From Prairies to Yonge and Eg

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Smith was born in Provost, southeast of Edmonton, near the Saskatchewan border, on March 23, 1924. After the death of his father, who managed a bank, the family headed east in search of better prospects. His mother found work as a clerk at Eaton's then-flagship store on College Street, and Mr. Smith grew up in the north end, near Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue, along with his brother, sister and a young cousin.

He wanted to become an aeronautical engineer, but a persistent tremor in his hand proved a stumbling block to his studies at the University of Toronto, so he left school and went into construction. He and future wife Joan met through mutual friends, and married in January, 1949, moving to London soon thereafter. That November the first of their seven children arrived.

After its humble launch two years later, EllisDon quickly picked up a contract to work on a public school and began to grow, although the brothers eventually parted company, with David Ellis Smith relocating to Calgary.

As well as being a hard worker, Donald Smith could be a hard-driving boss. He peppered his instructions with profanity, but also knew the names of his employees' wives and children.

"He loved putting on his boots and getting out in the field," says Rick Maggiacomo, who started with EllisDon in 1972. "He would talk to an operator and say, 'What do you think of that guy? How do you think the job's going?' He would always try to find out information about the teams and how they were running jobs."

When he decided someone wasn't up to snuff, Mr. Maggiacomo adds, he'd simply gesture with his thumb, and say: "You're out."

Those supervising the work received no special treatment, especially if they appeared to be spending too much time relaxing.

When work was hectic, "I'd be happy to have some time in the trailer," Mr. Maggiacomo explains, "and then this call comes in and it's Don Smith, and I'd say, 'Hi, Don,' and he would say, 'What are you doing answering the phone?' "

Such a crack could mean one of two things: "If you were performing, those were words of endearment. If you weren't, you knew he was coming to fire you."

But the man on the receiving end says he is still with EllisDon in large measure because he was inspired from the outset by someone who, although demanding, clearly took an interest in his welfare.

"I was just trying to pump him with all this good stuff we're doing on the site, and he was talking about my personal life," Mr. Maggiacomo says. "From that day on, I felt like part of a family, not a company, and I've never looked back."

"Don could inspire loyalty in people and they would do anything for him," his son remarks. He was known for making sure to be home for dinner with his own family, even if he had to go back to work afterward. (Of his children, only his oldest daughter has not spent at least some time employed by EllisDon.)

And he was known not to tolerate injustice – a trait recognized in a lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews for a stand he took in the late 1960s, relentlessly pressing the establishment London Club to admit its first Jewish member.

As he explained to his son, the local newspaper had decided to call each private club in London and ask for the size of a Jewish membership it knew wouldn't exist.

"My dad said, 'We're going to do something about that,' " Geoff recalls.

Mr. Smith was president of the London Club at the time, and persuaded a young Jewish lawyer, Paul Siskind, to put his name up for membership.

When several business leaders resisted, "Don said, 'Well, I'll tell you what, gentlemen: I'm going to call a meeting tomorrow and, if we don't do it, I'm going to call a meeting the next day and, if I don't get this done, I'm going to the media and I'm going to talk very candidly about what's going on here.' "

The threat worked, Geoff Smith says, and "after that, the barriers in the other clubs in London fell down very quickly."

Mr. Smith applied a similar single-mindedness to politics. "He was instrumental in building the Ontario Liberal Party," Mr. Peterson says flatly.

The two first met at a cocktail party in 1972, after the future premier had returned to London after law school in Toronto. "I remember him saying to me, 'Are you Pete's boy?' And I said, 'Yeah,' and he said: 'I like your old man and you're probably all right yourself.' It was the beginning of a great friendship."

Having grown up without much money, Mr. Smith never forgot what it meant to be given a helping hand, Mr. Peterson says, an attitude that motivated his approach to politics as well as his philanthropic efforts for such organizations as the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada. "When he took over the leadership of the Liberal party, there was nobody that believed in us. He was always happy taking on a lost cause or an underdog."

His knack for fundraising turned around the Liberals' fortunes. "He wasn't afraid to walk into anybody's office and ask for financial support, and he always did it with humour," Mr. Peterson says. "There was a direct candour to him and a boyish charm that made him hard to turn down.

"And there wasn't a pretentious bone in his body, not one. He was never a big shot, he was always the little shot."

And he wasn't the only politically active member of his household. His wife, Joan, served as a city councillor in London for almost a decade before being elected provincially. After the Liberals came to power, she was the government whip in the legislature until 1987, when Mr. Peterson made her the first woman to act as Ontario solicitor-general.

At that time, Bob Rae was a thorn in the Liberals' side. His criticism as leader of the provincial New Democrats contributed to Joan Smith's decision to resign as solicitor-general in June, 1989, amid a controversy over her decision to call the police during an investigation of an accidental drowning in Mr. Peterson's swimming pool. The following year, the NDP defeated the Liberals, making Mr. Rae premier.

Later, of course, he famously joined the Liberal fold and says that, when he decided to throw his hat in the ring to become leader of the federal party, the Smiths were among his strongest supporters – a gesture he says taught him something about forgiveness.

"When the rumour mill started spreading about me running for leader," he recalls, Mr. Smith "phoned me up and said: 'You're the guy.' "

Turbulent times

After the thrill of SkyDome, EllisDon quickly embarked on an international expansion. But the Canadian real-estate industry was hit hard in the recession of the early 1990s, and many of the company's key clients went broke.

Geoff Smith had been appointed EllisDon's president, but wasn't getting along with his father. He had ideas about how to take the business to the next level, and was frustrated that a transfer of power seemed unlikely any time soon. So, after six years in the post, he quit in the summer of 1995 and bought a small equipment manufacturer.

His father then arranged a management-led buyout with the company's new president, James Boocher, that would have seen him retain one-third of the company. But the deal fell through on the last day of August, 1996, when Mr. Boocher couldn't come up with the money.

Mr. Smith flew back from the Caribbean, where he was negotiating a construction deal for EllisDon, and met on Labour Day with all seven children at the family cottage to discuss what to do next.

His children wound up buying the firm, while he retired with no further stake in it, although he remained on the board for some time.

Mr. Smith spent his later years going on adventurous vacations with his wife, playing the stock market, and working on his philanthropic ventures.

"He didn't travel anywhere, he would tell you, before he was 50, but after he was 50, he decided to see the world," his son says. "Even in his late 80s, they would take a six-week cruise down the Amazon."

As his journey came to an end in the hospital that he had built, his wife and children all had a chance to say goodbye to the "unique cat," whose legacy also includes 21 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

A celebration of his life is planned for the London Hunt Club on Tuesday, starting at 3 p.m.

Report an error Licensing Options
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.