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Montreal mogul wrestled in ’68 Olympics

Alexis Nihon, left, took up wrestling as a youth, a sport his father had enjoyed in his native Belgium.

Alexis Nihon II's accomplishments can be seen as the perfect sequel to his original namesake's legacy. The first Alexis Nihon purchased land, while the second generation Alexis Nihon developed it.

Working with his brother Robert, Mr. Nihon II turned large parcels of land on the island of Montreal into industrial parks surrounding Trudeau International Airport. He also founded the company Anco Lands and substantially developed Bahamian property his father had purchased years earlier.

As longtime chairman of the Alexis Nihon Corp., Mr. Nihon, who died in Montreal on Feb. 24 of liver cancer, at 67, would eventually oversee the acquisition of 10-million square feet of commercial, office and residential real estate in Quebec.

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Alexis Joseph Nihon was born Jan. 10, 1946, in Montreal, the eldest of three children. His mother, Alice (née Robert), before becoming a stay-at-home mother, had worked for Mr. Nihon Sr. as a secretary.

By the time Alexis Jr. arrived, his father's Industrial Glass Works Co. Ltd. had made quite a lot of money, thanks to Mr. Nihon Sr.'s discovery of a synthetic alternative to soda ash, a raw material used for making glass, and one in short supply during the Second World War.

Mr. Nihon Sr. recognized the importance of the international airport and bought up 100 million square feet of neighbouring property. He also leased land to a downtown developer, who, in a negotiation concession, named the shopping, office and residential property the Alexis Nihon Plaza.

Alexis Jr.'s infancy was marked by tragedy, when his two older sisters, who were 5 and 7 at the time, died in a tragic accident just off the shores of Montreal, drowning after a boat's engine caught fire.

The family lived more than half the year in the Bahamas from the time Alexis Jr. was one year old. While in Montreal, they lived on the city's West Island, which was still quite rural in the early 1950s, with lots of woods, milk and bread delivery by horse, and a chicken coop on the Nihon property.

Mr. Nihon Sr. had an ongoing feud with the local yacht club, which sounded a cannon for its races. Rebuffed in his efforts to get them to stop the tradition, he bought his own cannon and fired it during their races, confusing the participants.

Despite his riches, he remained anti-elitist and insisted that his children attend public school.

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Young Alexis would be the only white person in an all-black school in Nassau. In Dorval, he attended the local Catholic public school.

As he got older, he took summer jobs, one of them in a modest golf club his father owned. "His father said, 'I'm not going to be raising spoiled brats,' " recalls Mr. Nihon II's wife, Cornelia, who said her late father-in-law was a stern European father. He did, however, shower on his children many travel experiences.

Alexis and brother Robert both took up wrestling as youths; it was a sport their father had enjoyed in his native Belgium. The two would end up representing the Bahamas in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Alexis, who was 22 years old, 6 foot 4, and 212 pounds, fought as a light heavyweight, taking on one wrestler from Poland and another from Mongolia.

He could tell from the initial parade of athletes at the opening ceremonies that the Mongolian he would be fighting, and who was that country's flag bearer, would prove to be a formidable opponent, he told his friend and former colleague, Senator Paul Massicotte. While all the other flag bearers held their country's large flags with two arms, the Mongolian wrestler used just one to hold up the large flag. "He held it out straight for an hour and a half," said Mr. Massicotte.

Robert, who fought in the middleweight category, and Alexis both lost their matches.

The Nihon brothers were both working for their father at this point, having gone directly from high school into the family business.

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In 1976, Mr. Nihon II met his future wife, Cornelia. While she credits his dancing for the initial romantic spark, she said he had not always been a good dancer. In his early 20s, during a visit to France, a girl coaxed him onto a stage with her. The result was not pretty. "When he got back home he went to the first dance school he could find so that he would never be in that position again," she said.

Their courtship also had him asking his father, who was to receive the Order of the British Empire in Nassau from the Queen, for a rare favour: Could his girlfriend meet the Queen? She could. And she did.

On April 8, 1980, Mr. Nihon Sr. died. The next day, the couple's second child was born (becoming Alexis III) and, soon after, a new chapter for the Alexis Nihon Corp. would be written.

"They could have sold all that land," said Mr. Massicotte, who would eventually serve as president. "Instead, they began to develop it."

In 1983, the brothers purchased Alexis Nihon Plaza. The building with the family name was in need of some redevelopment.

Three years later, on a weekend afternoon in late October, Mr. Nihon got word that the plaza's 15-storey office tower was on fire. "That's not a very funny joke," he told his mother-in-law from the Bahamas. She had called him from her home in Westmount, which overlooked the complex. Reality quickly set in; the 13-hour blaze would become the largest office-tower fire in Canadian history.

For days after, parts of downtown Montreal had to be closed for fear of the tower collapsing. Tenants who were locked out over safety concerns were frustrated, including Air Canada, which had a reservation system housed in the office tower.

No casualties occured, but a subsequent civil trial to recoup damages resulted in Alexis Nihon Corp. having to pay $43-million in damages. The reconstruction took six months but, ever the developers, the Nihon brothers used that time to build a second tower.

Described as safety-conscious and always looking at contingencies, Mr. Nihon had, luckily, taken out substantial insurance on the plaza. His need to over-insure would also be the source of some ribbing, according to Mrs. Nihon. She laughs about how she finally convinced him last year to cancel the earthquake insurance for their home in Westmount, situated on land nowhere near any traditional fault line.

He was a meticulous planner, an amateur architect and a trained pilot, who flew twin-props mostly over the Carribbean islands. He loved playing poker, got in a game of tennis almost every day and enjoyed taking his kids skiing.

He learned German late in life and spoke it with his elder daughter, Sophia. He believed strongly in his children's education and instituted regular after-dinner speeches, his youngest daughter Julia giving several on how much she missed the old babysitter.

He knew how to schmooze and had a very public name, but he was an inherently private man. "This is an island," he liked to say of the Nassau area.

By 1996, Mr. Nihon resigned from the corporation bearing his name so that he could focus more on managing and developing the family's Bahamian holdings. His brother took over as chairman. In 2002, the corporation went public and, by 2007, the family sold off its remaining holdings.

Playing piano was another hobby Mr. Nihon loved, and he could always be counted on to offer up his version of Edith Piaf's La Vie en Rose. The song would end up being sung at his funeral.

Mr. Nihon leaves his wife, Cornelia, their four children, Sophia, Alexis, Philip and Julia, and sister Claudette. He was predeceased by his brother, Robert, and youngest son, George, who died at 13 months.

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