The shy baroness of brokerage
The fabulous Richardsons have brushed the lives of most Canadians by backing everything from bush pilots to Technicolor. Meet the present boss—a lady broker with an abiding passion for anonymity
For a hundred years four generations of the James Richardson dynasty from Kingston to Winnipeg have wrestled with their eager Irish curiosity and their sober United Empire Loyalist dignity. Pushed by one and pulled by the other they’ve silently built Canada's oldest but leastknown wholly owned family empire.
Today it’s ruled by a remarkable woman named Muriel Sprague Richardson, who is the fifth president of the corporation. To most of us, “James Richardson and Sons Limited,” is a faceless name on the financial page of a newspaper or brokerage office window. But few of us go a day without feeling the Richardson touch.
We see color movies partly because a Richardson forty-five years ago helped finance the experiments of Herbert Thomas Kalmus, then a Queen’s University professor and member of a three-man firm of consulting engineers. Kalmus and his associates improved upon earlier faltering attempts at color movies. In 1915 their findings resulted in the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation, which put a new word into the language.
Most of the airlines we ride, including Canadian Pacific and Trans-Canada Airlines, owe something to the Richardsons. The family’s 1926 Western Canada Airways and its successor, Canadian Airways, pioneered commercial night flying in Canada, operated the earliest cross-country air mail and opened our northwestern mining frontier. Richardson pilots and
Barons of the grain trade, the Richardsons rubbed shoulders with the great
experience helped launch TCA in 1937. And in 1942 Canadian Airways itself became a major part of the new CPA.
At least a million Canadians eat bread made with flour milled from wheat bought and sold by James Richardson and Sons Limited, one of Canada’s biggest private grain merchants since 1857. Prairie farmers sell grain to four hundred and thirty-six brown-and-gold Pioneer Grain Co. elevators (a Richardson subsidiary) or buy coal and fertilizer from Pioneer sheds. In Port Arthur, Ont., the gleaming five-and-a-half-million-bushel terminal of Eastern Terminal Elevator Co., another Richardson subsidiary, hunches over the waterfront.
Twenty-six offices of James Richardson and Sons, the family investment firm, handle stocks and bonds for investors from Montreal to Victoria, and supply free market information to fourteen daily newspapers.
Torontonians, Winnipeggers, Montrealers and Vancouverites buy every kind of insurance except life through offices of the Richardsons’ Commercial Insurance Agency.
Ontario and prairie cattlemen are improving their herds with purebred Herefords and Shorthorns bought from the fifteen-thousand-acre Richardson Stock Farms Ltd., in Manitoba. Richardson cattle have won forty-eight championships at Canadian and Chicago fairs since 1947.
The Richardsons also own a chemical company, a machinery-parts manufacturing firm, a livestock-feed business and Patricia Transportation, Canada’s biggest tractor-train company which last spring hauled twenty-eight thousand tons of supplies from Thicket Portage on the Hudson Bay Railway into International Nickel’s new Moak Lake site in northern Manitoba.
Since 1857 the family’s investments have ranged from schooners to oil wells, while their wholly owned enterprises have included such diverse items as a cannery in Picton, Ont., a tile factory in Kingston, continued on page 76
Sir John A. wanted the first Richardson to run for parliament. But Irish James stuck to wheat
and radio stations in Regina, Kenora and Winnipeg.
Where there’s a Richardson company there is generally a “first.” Foresight is a predominant family trait. Richardsons were the first to ship grain from a Lakehead terminal in 1883, under the grain brokerage’s founder, James. They were first, too, to ship it over the Hudson Bay Railway (in 1929) under the fourth president, James Armstrong Richardson. Theirs was the first Canadian grain or investment house to use teletypes; the speed of seventy-five words per minute made this the fastest overland private wire system in North America. Last year, under the current president, Muriel Sprague Richardson, theirs was one of two Canadian firms to launch the overseas teleprinter, an improvement on cable communication.
Where there’s a Richardson company there is also Richardson dignity.
“The thing that most worries the family about the size of its organization,” says an employee, “is not how much money it’s making but whether everybody in every out-of-the-way office is upholding the Richardson good name.”
Their advertising is ultra-conservative and they’d be happier if they didn’t have to advertise at all. This distaste for publicity dates back to the first James Richardson, a tall wiry bewhiskered Irishman who rarely advertised or even talked to the press. In 1857 Kingston’s first major grain exporter got his name in the papers once: in a list of guests attending a champagne breakfast for a native son, John A. Macdonald. Later John A. often urged him to run for parliament but he wouldn’t hear of it.
Today one employee handles all Richardson advertising and public relations. He issues perhaps six terse press releases a year. Each word of advertising is double checked for overstatement. The grain company’s rare advertisements are mostly confined to the slogan: “Active in all phases of the Canadian grain trade.” The investment firm never “pushes” a stock; it simply says, “We shall be glad to be of service ...”
“We did very little advertising before World War lí,” says president Muriel Richardson. “The investment firm now advertises as much as its competitors, but the times have forced us into it.”
Nowhere are the family traits more evident than in Mrs. Richardson, a tall handsome white-haired woman of sixtyseven. Although a member of the family only by marriage (to the late James Armstrong Richardson), she has the Richardson dignity. Empire Loyalist background, business instinct and desire for anonymity.
She has never granted a newspaper interview. She last released a photograph for publication in 1948. Winnipeg newspapers have given up asking for her biography for their files. This year for the first time she is letting her name go into Who’s Who in Canada—but she still feels “there’s altogether too much invasion of privacy nowadays.”
Yet she is completely unpretentious. As head of the mighty house of Richardson she might be expected to indulge in chauffeur-driven limousines, Dior gowns or diamond chokers. Instead she wears smart but unspectacular dresses in dark shades, generally with a single strand of pearls, and often drives her own 1955 Cadillac or 1953 DeSoto.
“She's a good driver,” says a friend. “Very calm, obeys all the traffic laws, but she doesn't dally.”
Her calm rarely wavers under any circumstances. During the 1950 flood, when the Assiniboine River surrounded her Winnipeg home, Mrs. Richardson matter-of-factly donned rubber boots for a daily boat trip across Wellington Crescent to her car. Finally, reluctantly, she moved out during the Hood peak.
All of these qualities tend to awe her junior employees and other Winnipeggers who don’t know her well. Many of the former see her only at the company Christmas party, where she shakes hands all round at the door, stays for dinner, then withdraws. Since her sons, James, thirty - five, and George, thirty-two, assumed vice-presidencies a few years ago, she appears infrequently at her tenth - floor office in the Winnipeg Grain Exchange building. But when she’s there she observes every detail, down to misspellings of the grain company name (it’s “James,” not “Jas."; and “Limited,” not “Ltd.”). She listens to business discussions with enormous patience, then often sums up everything in a few words.
“She never forces an opinion on you,” says a former member of the advisory
board of the Winnipeg Foundation, a charitable organization of which Mrs. Richardson is chairman. “But you know that she knows when you’re talking through your hat!”
“She’s not easy to work for,” adds an employee, “but she’s good to work for.”
Most of her senior employees have served her eighteen years, and her husband before that, and keep photographs of both on their office walls. Some staffers send flowers on her birthday.
“She's been like a mother to me,” says a girl employee. William Rait. the blunt greying president of the Richardsons’ Pioneer Grain subsidiary, says, "Mrs. Richardson is as good an administrator as any man in Winnipeg.”
She is also a thoughtful hostess. Early this year the Canadian Players group had a two-night stand in Winnipeg. Mrs. Richardson scheduled an after-the-show party in their honor for Friday, changed it to Thursday on a few hours’ notice for their convenience, and hand-picked guests that would interest them: a newspaper editor, a college professor, drama enthusiasts.
Well after midnight but urbane as ever, she presided over cocktails (which she doesn't drink) and hot food in her big blue-and-grey drawing room.
"She didn’t have to do it," points out one of the guests. “She simply felt some Winnipegger ought to.”
Her thoughtfulness extends beyond the social set. In New York last February where she and her youngest daughter, Kathleen, attended My Fair Lady, a garrulous taxi driver told Mrs. Richardson he collected stamps but was short of Canadian issues.
“If we knew where to send them we might find some for you,” said Mrs. Richardson.
The cabbie gave her a crumpled paper bearing his name, address and the notation “Stamps.” A few weeks later he received a packet of stamps from Winnipeg. It came anonymously. “We don't tell everyone what we are doing but we get things done,” says Mrs. Richardson.
The first James Richardson would have applauded that statement. Though orphaned soon after his father brought him to Kingston, he was a self-made man at thirty-seven with a modest clothing business. He was married to Susannah Wartman, a descendant of Captain Michael Grass, founder of Kingston.
The Richardsons might still be clothiers if Kingston hadn’t needed a new customs house. To get it built, Richardson and two others stood as guarantors. When the contractor ran out of money. Richardson was stuck with a half-finished customs house. It cost him seventeen hundred pounds sterling to finish it, and he did it single-handed.
Like most merchants at that time he’d often accepted farm produce in lieu of cash. Now. to recoup his loss, he bought and sold grain full time. The American Civil War helped his market. Soon he had farmer-agents throughout the Bay of Quinte, wooden storehouses spotted along Lake Ontario, and grain (mostly barley) hustling to New York harbors in tiny schooners known as “Richardson's Mosquito Fleet.”
He was too restless to settle for one business. He owned a flour store, base metal mines and was shareholder in woolen, cotton, oilcloth and locomotive factories. But grain was his first love. By 1880 he had a grain agent in Manitoba. Then he built a Kingston elevator with steam-engine loading and unloading facilities. By 1883 he was shipping prairie grain from Fort William; in 1890 he turned to prairie wheat full time.
The founder died in 1892 but his wiry,
hard-driving son George was a match for him. George Richardson opened a Winnipeg office, started a small prairie elevator chain, bought a cannery. He died of a heart attack at fifty-four.
His brother Henry became president. With his white mane and flowing mustache Henry looked like a yacht club commodore, which he was. He was also president or director of seven non-Richardson ventures and co-founder of the Great Lakes Transportation Company.
In short, he was a true Richardson— except that he was talkative. He was
made a senator in 1916. but the Senate worked too slow for him. He was contemplating resignation when he died in 1918.
Long before then his nephews, James Armstrong Richardson and George Taylor Richardson, had joined the company. Both were Methodist Sunday school teachers and Queen's University athletes. George played in the 1906 Stanley Cup final, went to war in 1914 and two years later, an infantry captain, was mortally wounded while guiding a raiding party out of No Man's Land. He was post-
humously awarded the Legion of Honor.
When Senator Henry Richardson died, James, a blunt, friendly, impulsive sixfooter, became president and perhaps the greatest Richardson of them all. By that time he had met Muriel Sprague, daughter of a Belleville, Ont., exporter—and now president of the firm. Miss Sprague, an accomplished pianist, was one of several volunteers helping James Richardson’s sister. Agnes, nurse and entertain wounded soldiers at the Richardson summer-place-turned-rest-home in the Rideau Lakes district. They married in 1919
and settled permanently in Winnipeg.
From then until 1939 were the empirebuilding years. They were years when the west was all railways and grain elevators, and many of the elevators were “Pioneer.” In 1912 there had been twenty-nine Richardson elevators; by 1924 there were a hundred and forty-four.
These were the early years of radio, and most prairie farmers tuned in (as many still do) to Richardson noon-day market broadcasts. They were years when Richardson aircraft droned west and north as far as Aklavik, and Richardson investment houses in prairie cities catered to farmers and small businessmen, as they still do.
Richardson himself was a giant of his time. His company, one of the two or three biggest in the North American grain trade, shipped prairie wheat to Africa, Asia, Australia, South America and thirty-six countries in Europe.
Everything interested Richardson. A Fort Vermilion, Alta., hospital needed cash; Richardson sent five hundred dollars. Queen's University needed a stadium;
Richardson gave one in memory of his brother George. He grubstaked prospectors, bought a Winnipeg central heating company and helped finance Herbert Kalmus in the experiments with color film.
Beginning in 1927 he invested a quarter-million dollars in radio. He intended only to transmit inter-office market information. Then he began broadcasting music and news after the markets closed. Eventually he founded commercial stations in Moose Jaw (later transferred to Regina) and Winnipeg, had two shortwave transmitters, owned shares in CJGX Yorkton, Sask., and owned CJRL Kenora.
Richardson was one of the first to recognize aviation as the answer to faster northern mining development. In 1926 he founded Western Canada Airways. By 1929 he had thirty-seven aircraft photographing, surveying, timber cruising, crop dusting and prospecting out of seven northern bases. That year one trip alone justified his efforts: Gilbert LaBine. flying low near Great Bear Lake with Richardson pilot C. H. “Punch” Dickins,
Rare photos of the rich and wary Richardsons
sighted pitchblende showings and later staked what are now the Eldorado uranium mines.
The cream of Canada’s airmen flew for Richardson, including war heroes W. R. “Wop” May and Donald MacLaren. In the late Twenties, Western Canada Airways trained night fliers for the first cross-country air-mail service, and got a federal contract for the run from Winnipeg to Edmonton. In the east, other lines flew mail between Toronto and the Maritimes.
In 1930 the eastern lines, grouped into the Aviation Corporation, and Western Canada Airways merged as Canadian Airways, with Richardson as president and majority shareholder. The CNR and CPR also held stock but Richardson controlled the nearest thing to coast-to-coast air-mail service.
On the strength of four-year government mail contracts he invested heavily in radio-equipped mail planes, hangars, landing strips, and leased offices. But in 1931 and 1932 the Bennett government canceled all contracts as an economy measure.
Canadian Airways never fully recovered from the blow, although Richardson rounded out his air-to-ground bush exploration fleet by purchasing Patricia Transportation. He lost more than two million dollars from his own pocket on aviation. But Richardson men or data were used by most subsequent Canadian airlines.
During those years Muriel Richardson served on everything from the Children’s Hospital Board to the Girl Guides Association, raised four children through measles and whooping cough. and, although a director of the grain company, paid slight attention to business. The Richardsons lived in a three-story (now two-story) white mansion with a thickly treed estate, a heated swimming pool and, in the Thirties, a pet formally named Tim Buck but commonly known as Cat. Cat, an incurable ham, was one of the better-known Richardsons. He lived seventeen years, was written up in newspapers three times and smugly entertained the family’s guests by deftly dipping milk from saucer to mouth with his paw.
There were often guests at the big house. In August 1929, Mrs. Richardson hurried from the family’s summer place at Kenora to prepare for house guest Winston Churchill, then on a Canadian speaking tour.
“I was told he’d be difficult,” Mrs. Richardson recalls. “But he was charming.”
On the night of his lecture, Churchill came upon the Richardsons’ small daughter, Agnes (now wife of William Benedickson, MP for Kenora-Rainy River), in the hall.
“I’m going to hear your speech," she said.
"But how will you stay awake,” cried Churchill, in mock dismay. Then, in the now-famous Churchillian rumble, “Now, Agnes, here is what I shall do. I shall WATCH you as I speak. And if I see you NOD I shall stop my speech and shout ‘AGNES RICHARDSON, WAKE UP!’ ”
Deeply impressed, Agnes sat straight as a poker all evening.
In spite of her social chores Mrs. Richardson learned more of her husband's work than most wives do. She was his sounding board for new ideas.
“Everything I know about the business I learned from listening to him,” she says. “One would have had to be stupid not to learn.”
In June 1939, James Richardson died of a heart attack at fifty-three. George Ferguson of the Winnipeg Free Press
wrote, . . the absence of his leadership is now the problem that faces us all.”
No one was more aware of that problem than his widow. She assumed his duties, as he had wished. Her husband’s cousin, the late John B. Richardson, became vice-president. But for months her heart wasn’t in her job.
Then one September morning a Winnipeg grain trader, riding to the Grain Exchange building with Richardson archivist Alice MacKay, remarked, “Well, your place will be running down, now. The engine’s gone.”
“When I heard about that, I knew what I had to do,” Mrs. Richardson says.
She plunged into work, sometimes six days a week. She knew few details and little of the terminology of the grain or investment businesses. She reminded employees that she was only “the bridge between my husband and my sons.” “But we soon realized she had an extraordinary knowledge of the business and the men in it,” says an associate. “1 know of no woman who could have taken hold as she did.”
When possible, she maintained the status quo. Men like Rait of Pioneer Grain Co., secretary-treasurer Gordon Law-
son and investment manager Ralph Baker have been mainstays of the company for thirty or forty years. The family grain business still ranks with the top four private Canadian companies, although all private companies have given ground to the wheat pools. The president’s office, a great oblong room with conference table, fireplace and a compelling view down Portage Avenue, is as it was in 1939. The globe on which James Richardson often traced out a polar air route, years before it was flown, stands beside his small desk. His collection of early prairie paintings hangs on the walls.
But the Richardson foresight is still very evident. As postwar Canada boomed so did the family investment business. Eleven new offices have opened since 1939, the latest in Prince George, B.C.
“I would like Jim and George to be free to develop their own fields of interest as their father did,” Mrs. Richardson explains. “I still enjoy business when I’m at the office, but many other things interest me, too.”
If the sons need advice, they ask for it. But the fourth-generation Richardsons—Jim, pleasant but serious; George, big and enthusiastic like his father—
need little coaching. Both were class leaders at Ravenscourt boys’ school in Winnipeg. Each holds several directorates outside the family organization. Both sometimes work at the office until six p.m. when other employees have gone. Both are keenly aware of their duties.
Not long ago the Winnipeg Canadian Club gave vocational-school prizes to New Canadians. All club members were asked to attend, but few did.
“But Jim Richardson and his wife were there, sitting quietly at the back of the hall,” recalls a club member. “Afterward he stayed around for coffee and sandwiches in the cafeteria.”
And the Richardson vision is as strong as ever. Recently, from the Richardson offices, I looked down Portage Avenue with James Richardson over the family property on the northeast corner of Portage and Main. It’s perhaps the choicest business site in Canada. The Winnipeg investment office occupies part of it and in 1929 the family planned a modest skyscraper for the corner. The Wall Street crash ended their plans.
“That’s one of the big things the family hasn’t done,” I said.
“Not yet" corrected James Richardson. ★