Galen G. Weston talks about the power of failure to inspire success

Galen G. Weston, the chairman and CEO of George Weston Limited, and Loblaw Companies Limited, received an honorary doctor of laws degree from York University on June 22 during Spring Convocation ceremonies for the Schulich School of Business.

Weston is the fourth generation to lead the family business. Founded in 1882, George Weston Limited has grown to include manufacturing of fresh and frozen food products through its Weston Foods division, as well as supermarket and pharmacy retailing, fashion, financial services and real estate through its holdings in Loblaw Companies Limited.

Galen G. Weston addresses convocation

As a proponent of a sustainable and values-based approach to business, Weston regularly advocates for long-term thinking, most recently in authoring the chapter “Family Firms and ‘Patient Capital’: Thinking in Decades, not Quarters,” which was published in Re-imagining Capitalism (Oxford University Press).

After thanking the University for the honour, Weston spoke from the heart, sharing his nervousness about what he should put in his convocation address, so that it would be meaningful for graduands.

“When I was asked recently if this speech had a title, I said ‘no it does not have a title.’”

He settled on an unofficial title of “Trials and Tribulations” and began by recounting some of his family’s little-known history, including a story about his great, great uncle Charles Weston, who ran away to join the circus and became a sharp shooter in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show (and then died an untimely death). About how his great grandfather, George Weston, founder of George Weston Limited, who nearly lost the family business in the 1920s following a failed expansion into the United States, only to recover and become one of the wealthiest men in the world. And then, when his father Galen Weston Sr. took over the business, which had once again fallen on tough times, he was forced to close nearly half of the family’s stores to save the business.

Weston then spoke about his own trials and tribulations.

“When I took over 12 years ago, we had to spend billions fixing the corners of the business that our customers would never see, our IT systems, our supply chain, they were broken. Other struggles followed, some big, some small. For example, I was on a CBC reality television cooking show, it got cancelled. I was responsible for something called ‘No Name Red’ and ‘No Name White’ – those were wines by the way, and they were also cancelled,” said Weston.

From left: Chancellor Greg Sorbara, honorary degree recipient Galen G. Weston and York President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton

He talked with candor about his company’s role in an industry-wide bread price-fixing scheme.

“As most of you know, we recently admitted our role in an industry-wide bread price-fixing scheme. Ours was the company that uncovered the details and reported it immediately to authorities. Then we stood up and acknowledged our part in that industry behaviour. This issue has been foundational and cut to the core of who we are and what we stand for. It challenged our sense of self. It challenged my personal sense of self. Even more so since the companies involved bear my family’s name,” he said.

“Uncovering that behaviour was a very dark moment. Determining what to do about it was easy. In life and business, when things go wrong, I believe that you have to accept responsibility and take the next step. When you falter, you need to face forward,” said Weston.

More and more businesses are preaching the importance of failure, the power of failure, the success of failure, said Weston, noting that failure is hard to stomach, and criticism hurts.

“Neither of them feels particularly natural and they can exact a profound emotional toll, especially in areas that matter most to us, personally, our values, our reputation, our name,” he told graduands.

“So, on your big successful day, how is this valuable? It is likely that you have never learned to fail and that is a risk as you enter an era of business characterized by upheaval and by change. With that caution comes encouragement because I think your generation is actually different to mine, in fact the willingness to take risks in uncertain conditions is a trait that we are seeing more and more from young people in our business,” he said. “Recently, we invited young minds from across our company to join our senior most executive team for our annual planning exercise. They added fresh thinking, new approaches and budding expertise. But best of all, they brought a consistent, unanimous willingness to question, to guess, to innovate, to fail fast and to reassess. To them this was success, a very modern cycle of success. It became clear that your generation is a win or learn generation.

“Like my grandfather a century ago, understand that your success will be best judged not in the moment, but over time. We live in a world facing unprecedented challenges and moving at a pace never seen before, to meet those challenges we must be more ambitious, more creative, and more willing to fail than ever before,” he said in closing. “Success is actually moving from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm. As you head out into your life, take what you have learned from this great university, be brave and never lose your enthusiasm.”