Honorary degree recipient Steven Campbell speaks about the transformative power of kindness

Chancellor Greg Sorbara, Steven Campbell and President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton

In a convocation address that reflected the enormous impact of his experience as an undergraduate student at York University in the 1970s, Steven Campbell, president of Lifford Wine & Spirits, paid tribute to Professor Emeritus Eric Winter, a past master of Calumet College. Now 95 years old, Winter was sitting in the front row as Campbell accepted an honorary doctor of laws degree during Fall Convocation ceremonies on Wednesday, Oct. 16.

Chancellor Greg Sorbara, Steven Campbell and President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton

It was Winter’s kindness and understanding of Campbell that helped propel the entrepreneur to follow his dreams. Campbell, an environmentalist and industry leader, has received international recognition for his company’s portfolio as well as for his integrity, professionalism, philanthropy, and social and environmental responsibility. He has also coped with unique learning needs for all his life.

“As the master of Calumet College, Eric Winter fostered a community of caring individuals devoted to enhancing the lives of their students,” Campbell said. “In my particular situation, my thirst for knowledge and my path to graduation was hampered by what today would be simply called a learning disability – the ability to spell. In the days of manual typewriters with no spell check – if you can imagine – and three-inch-thick dictionaries, for me to write an essay was an impossibility.

“But Eric, bless him, looked at me as a person … not as a failed student. When it became obvious to me that I would have to leave York University without a degree, he was there to assist me,” said Campbell. “I wanted to start a restaurant and he said, ‘Yes!’ He enabled me to receive mentorship from business students so I could approach a bank with a business plan. When I successfully opened La Maison in July of 1978, it was because of Eric’s support.”

Winter’s kindness and positive influence led Campbell to a 40-year career path that saw him live his dream of becoming a restaurateur, entrepreneur and climate activist. Eventually, Campbell purchased the Lifford Wine Agency. Under his leadership, Lifford grew from a small, Ontario-based company to one of the largest independent national wine and spirits distributorships in Canada. Campbell and Lifford have championed environmental causes with sustained corporate citizenship and a zero-carbon footprint. Lifford Wine & Spirits was honoured in 2007 with Tree Canada’s Eterne Award for environmental stewardship and has received several Elsie Awards from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario for creativity, innovation and social responsibility. Partnering with Tree Canada since 2005, Lifford has planted more than 90,000 trees and raised over $3 million to support the environment, disaster relief efforts, children’s mental health, health research and the arts.

“Today, I own a national wine distribution company that has been carbon neutral since 2005,” he said, noting that he strives to pay the lessons forward that he learned at York University. “I am often approached by individuals seeking help and advice on their career paths. I always take the time to say yes when asked to meet with these individuals and listen to their stories. I give them my best advice and encourage them in their pursuit of their dreams.”

Recently, Campbell pursued another dream. He travelled the four corners of the world seeking out and helping artisanal wine families to bring their wines to Canada. “I now want to tell you about my latest big dream to distribute carbon-neutral wines from classic wine-growing regions of the world, made by artisanal wine families, of excellent quality and price, but most important to me was to import them in a carbon-neutral way,” he said. “I approached 10 wineries from seven countries, and they all said yes!”

On Oct. 26, Campbell launches his next big dream, with three Steven Campbell Kind wines, all of which are carbon neutral and created by iconic wine producers from New Zealand, South Africa and Spain.

Coupled with his honorary degree from York University, Campbell used his success as a teaching moment to graduands of the Schulich School of Business, Glendon College and Osgoode Hall Law School. “Say yes whenever you can,” he said. “You can achieve a lot if you do not care who takes the credit. Have and live your dreams, be persistent, grateful for your opportunities, have hope, ask for help and help others, and make the world a better place.”