Joe Segal: Business happens over lunch, but a lifetime happens over dinner

You want to have lunch with Joe.

On Tuesday, June 4, 1,500 of the city's very VIP had dinner with him instead.

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The West Ballroom of the Vancouver Convention Centre was full to bursting with friends, family and admirers of Joseph Segal.

Strand Corporation's John Mackay, Craig Kielburger of Free the Children, Josh Blair of Telus, finance minister Mike De Jong, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson and Chief Constable Jim Chu were just the some of the guests seated at the first head table.

The 88-year-old philanthropist, with Rosalie, his wife of 65 years, by his side, could occasionally be seen on the giant screen blotting a tear from his eye as the Vancouver Board of Trade gala (which raised $2.1 million for Coast Mental Health) paid tribute to his extraordinary life.

Segal was a retail visionary, turning pennies into dollars at the end of the Second World War with his first Vancouver business a war surplus store. But he probably couldn't have envisioned the spectacle now unfolding before him on stage.

The evening began with a live musical number, and pre-taped interviews with Segal and his extended family.

Born in Vegreville, Alberta, in 1925, his father passed away suddenly when he was 14, prompting Segal to quit school and set out into the world.

When the war began, he went to work for the US Engineers Department in Alaska, getting paid $112.50 a week. "That was a lot of money," his gravelly voice explained with a wink.

He saved $3,000 from that stint, and, at age 17, headed to Calgary to meet a girl.

"I don't think it was my mother," joked Segal's son Gary as the video rolled on. Segal never made it to the hotel, losing his entire savings in an all-night poker game with his cab driver.

"I still remember his name; I think he's dead now. I outlived the bastard."

Segal then tried to join the Navy, but the 30-day wait seemed too long, so he enlisted in the Army instead and served overseas with the Calgary Highlanders.

He saved $1,500 during the war, and in 1946, headed to Vancouver to try his "luck" here, opening the surplus store.

"I had no money, so I could only buy things that nobody else wanted," Segal explained. "My first deal was 2,000 gallons of camouflage paint in five gallon drums. I sold it to the farmers and I had all the barns from Vancouver to Ladner painted camouflage, because they hadn't painted their barns for years."

Soon he moved into garments, picking up 20,000 dresses, skirts, blouses, and renting a store on Hastings Street. With a couple of sales girls and a good price tag ($9.95 vs $19.95 in the catalog), they sold like wildfire. "And that's how I started in the legitimate clothing business."

His Fields Stores were hugely profitable and by 1971 they polka-dotted the BC retail landscape. In 1976, Fields acquired Zellers, whose parent company had gone bankrupt in the US, and Segal became chairman and controlling shareholder.

"It was like a minnow swallowing a whale," Segal said of the deal. With the sale of Zellers to the Hudson's Bay Company in 1979, he would move on to found Kingswood Capital.

But, most importantly, around the same time as his first business was taking off, he met the love of his life, Rosalie. They got married when she was 17 and he was 23. "My parents were dead against it," she smiled. "I wanted to get married immediately. I wanted to have children one after another." They would have four: Lorne, Gary, Sandra and Tracey.

In a perfect tribute to how large of a role their love has played in Segal's success, the climax of the gala saw Paul Anka emerging to sing the couple their favourite song. And then Anka delighted the audience with two versions of 'My Way'  – one straight up and the other with a Joe-inspired lyrical twist.

Joe and Rosalie Segal supported each other through the lean years on his adventurous journey from penniless teen to billionaire titan. And they have supported others.

From the unheralded (interest-free micro loans) to the dramatic (donating the Bank of Montreal heritage building at Granville and Pender to the city), the Segals have acted as humble stewards.

They focus their most recent efforts on mental health. "Too many times in life we see a need, but hesitate to act on it," he is known to say.

In 2010, the couple gave $12-million to the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation, creating the Joseph and Rosalie Segal Family Health centre – a proposed 10-room acute-care centre for people with mental health needs.

And Joe Segal doesn't give; he is giving, be it in the form of money or advice.

"I don't offer advice," he clarified. "If they ask for it, they get it, but it's in the form of opinion. Because when you provide an opinion, it's acceptable. When you provide advice, nine times out of 10 it's unacceptable. It's the way you present it."

Over the years, he has shared his 'opinion' with Jim Pattison (Save-On-Foods, Jim Pattison Broadcast Group), Chip Wilson (Lululemon) and Peter Legge (CEO of Canada Wide Media), to name a few, often meeting them at his longtime lunch spot, YEW on Georgia. In fact, these lunch meetings are so pivotal that Legge has just published a book, Lunch with Joe, that shares his 30-year experience being mentored by the magnate 336 pages of lessons imparted by Segal via Legge and other close businesses associates.

"If you really want to be in the know," sang a cheeky chorus line on stage, "you gotta get yourself a lunch with Joe!"

During the breaks in the five-hour event, the overwhelming sentiment being murmured amongst guests was that they were sharing in a once-in-a-lifetime moment, amazed at the impact of what they were witnessing.

As Segal's life story returned again to his war service, there wasn't a dry eye in the house as dozens of bagpipers crossed the floor, sending their harmonious refrain to the rafters of the silenced ballroom. The screen came to life again as Consul General Johannes Vervloed, on behalf of the King of the Netherlands, presented a visibly moved Sergeant Joseph Segal with the Medal of Remembrance in thanks for his role as a Second World War liberator. Later in the evening, Iain Black, president and CEO of the Vancouver Board of Trade, read a message from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Coast Mental Health gave their thanks. And when Joe's son Lorne took the stage, the tears flowed freely again.

The Board of Trade confirms that the huge turnout for the beloved hometown hero trumps any event in their 126-year history, topping even Sir Richard Branson's 1,400 attendees last year.

The $2.1 million raised on Tuesday night will go directly to increasing operations hours at the Coast Mental Health Resource Centre, expanding outreach as well as youth-based programs. So it was fitting that, as 'Joe Segal: An Extraordinary Life' neared close, Mayor Robertson declared June 4 'Joe Segal Day' in Vancouver.

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