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Flamboyant entrepreneur Robert Campeau dies at 93

Robert Campeau, seen here in 1989, died at his home in Ottawa on June 12, 2017.

Edward Regan/The Globe and Mail

He began his working life as a grade school drop-out from a northern Ontario mining town, built himself into a titan of the real estate and department store industries, amassed a large fortune – then pretty much lost it all.

Robert Campeau, a flamboyant and hard-driving Franco-Ontarian wheeler-dealer who once bestrode a corporate empire with holdings of more than $10-billion, has passed away at 93.

He died at his home in Ottawa on June 12; the news was confirmed by his ex-wife Ilsa Weiss, with whom he waged a bitter decade-long divorce battle.

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Mr. Campeau was born in Chelmsford, Ont., near Sudbury, on Aug. 3, 1923.

The family was chronically poor (his father Joseph was an intermittently employed blacksmith and mechanic), and Mr. Campeau left school in grade eight in order to hustle for work as a delivery boy and floor-sweeper at Inco, the mining giant.

He relocated to Ottawa in the early 1950s – he worked as a truck driver, millwright, construction labourer and, for a time, owned a corner store – and eventually hit upon the idea that affordable, no-frills housing for post-baby boom families was his ticket to riches.

History would prove him right.

The origin myth of Mr. Campeau's construction company remains a question of some debate. In some accounts, he started by renovating houses and then selling them for profit; in others, his first project was a house built from scratch with a cousin's help.

The first residential development to bear the Campeau imprimatur rose from the ground in Ottawa's south end in the late 1950s – it was called Elmvale Acres – was merely a sign of things to come.

In the following decade, Campeau Corp. would expand into commercial real estate in downtown Ottawa and neighbouring Hull, Que.; much of the office space that houses government departments on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River was built by Campeau Corp.

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He became famous for his public battles with late Ottawa Mayor Charlotte Whitton, and involved himself in both philanthropic and political activities (he counted several federal Liberal heavyweights among his friends, including Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Jean Chrétien, and André Ouellet).

As his construction empire grew, Mr. Campeau expanded into Toronto, San Francisco and several cities in Florida and Texas.

By 1981, Mr. Campeau had relocated to Toronto with Ms. Campeau and three children (two of them from his first marriage), famously buying a mansion in the tony Bridle Path neighbourhood and promptly bulldozing it.

In its place, he built a 25,000-square-foot French chateau.

Mr. Campeau was the sort of businessman whose reach often exceeded his grasp, and in 1986 he made the biggest splash of his career, a $3.6-billion (U.S.) leveraged buyout of Allied Stores, a conglomerate that included Brooks Brothers.

Two years later, he gained control of Federated Department Stores – the parent company of globally-famous retail brands Macy's and Bloomingdale's – for an additional $6.6-billion.

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Stock market analysts and the business press ridiculed the deal and, in 1990, the merged company was swimming in red ink and feuding with its lenders and suppliers.

Mr. Campeau was forced to seek bankruptcy protection; his eponymous company would collapse as a result.

The debacle would be chronicled in exhaustive detail by author John Rothchild in the hyperbolically titled book, Going for Broke: How Robert Campeau Bankrupted the Retail Industry, Jolted the Junk Bond Market and Brought the Booming 80s to a Crashing Halt.

Mr. Rothchild describes Mr. Campeau as having "a comic intensity about him that suggested Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. He walked in brisk, purposeful strides. He spoke in a commanding, gravelly basso. He was a millionaire several times over."

In 1990, Mr. Campeau decamped to Europe, and a comfortable life in Austria (all of his personal assets and bank accounts had been placed in his wife's name).

There was talk of a business comeback with a real estate development in Germany, but it fizzled amid conflicts with a bank that was backing the project.

A decade later he would return to Ottawa, where his long-time personal lawyer, Gerald Langlois, said he suffered a mental breakdown.

He would spent several months in an in-patient treatment centre. In 2001, he had recovered and formally separated from Ms. Campeau (they were wed in 1970 and, in court documents, she had said the pair became estranged in 1986).

It was a difficult period for Mr. Campeau, with his lawyers involved in both a complicated divorce and defending lawsuits brought by business associates, and at least one of his children.

A second corporate comeback attempt followed in 2003, in the form a 45-home, 120-acre development in Ottawa's far western suburbs, but Mr. Campeau's days as a high-flying, internationally famous businessman were over.

"He's a shadow of what he used to be," Mr. Langlois, who passed away earlier this year, told The Globe in 2003. "When you come from an empire that he used to have, down to renting a house in Cumberland, it's a bit different."

Court documents show Mr. Campeau spent the twilight of his life in a rental townhouse, a fitting coda for a man who built thousands of similar units.

"I will remember the man I met and knew for the first 25 years very fondly," said Ms. Weiss, Mr. Campeau's ex-wife. "I will try and erase the man he evolved into from my memory."

He is survived by his wife Christel, his children Rachelle, Jacques, Daniel, Robert Jr., Giselle and Jan-Paul, as well as eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

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Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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