Live and learn: Fredrik Eaton

"Eaton's stayed in the family for four generations. We probably should have sold the company sooner."

“Santa Claus always went to Eaton's. I remember going down to the store–the Queen Street Eaton's in Toronto–with my father after the annual parade. My father greeted Santa. It was really quite impressive to have your father on a first name basis with Santa. You think, “Gee, he's an important guy.”

The genius of Timothy Eaton was to put all the little stores into one big store. And, of course, the one-price policy. He made it possible for a mother to send her child to the store to buy thread, because the mother knew what the thread would cost.

I didn't know my grandfather, Sir John Eaton. I did know my grandmother. She was a feminist long before her time, but she would never have called herself such a thing. When she wanted to do something, she just did it.

My father told me not to go to business school because “we'll just have to teach you how to really run a business–your head will be so filled with notions.” That suited me to a T.

I was the first person in my immediate family directly descended from Timothy to get a university degree. My father went to Cambridge, but he didn't finish. My brother went to Harvard, but didn't finish. I got my degree from the University of New Brunswick, but at least I got it.

My first ambition was not necessarily to work at Eaton's. I like to think I had ambitions to write. But I remember having dinner with my parents and Mr. John Bassett on the porch outside our house. And Mr. Basset said I could come work at the Telegram, which he owned. My father said, “Well you know, he's the second son of the second son of a second son.” That's a very Irish thing to say. My father meant I could work at Eaton's and do well. I thought, “My father thinks I can do it, so I'll give it a try.”

I was chief executive at Eaton's for over 10 years. I loved the fact that we were all over Canada. We had businesses in all the provinces. Also, people had very high expectations from Eaton's. You were very conscious of the reputation that had been built up.

Growing up in Toronto, I didn't know much about Hudson's Bay Co., which was big out West. Later, I went out West with my father, and he would say: “HBC–you know what that that stands for? Here Before Christ.”

More than 10 years [as CEO] was enough. I knew that my mother would have been very happy to see another one of her sons running the business. I also had an offer in 1991 from Brian Mulroney–a great Canadian prime minister–to be the high commissioner to the Court of St. James in England. I served there for three years.

As retailing globalized, it became harder for a Canadian retailer to compete with an American retailer. If Sears placed an order, for example, it placed an order for the American business and another 10%, or less, for Canada. We were just ordering the less than 10%.

When Sears started up the “new Eatons” with the “aubergine” campaign, I remember thinking, “Well, that's the wrong way to open a store.” I had always been advised by buyers to be careful when someone offered anything in aubergine.

A friend once took me to a presentation by Sam Walton, who was making tours to tout Wal-Mart stock. I thought: “I have met the embodiment of Timothy Eaton.” Today, Hudson's Bay Co. is facing off against Wal-Mart. Now they are the biggest buyers in China. If the Bay is trying to import something, they're up against the biggest retailer in the world.

I consider myself semi-retired. I'm away three months of the year, living in Florida. Mostly what I like doing is boating on Georgian Bay. I'm strictly an investor now–I take flyers on little things. What I don't understand, I don't like to invest in.

When Eaton's celebrated its centennial, in 1969, just two years after Canada, I believed it would go on forever. But it didn't.”

Timeline: Fredrik Stefan Eaton
Toronto, ON
Born June 26, 1938, in Toronto, ON
Former CEO of T. Eaton Co. Ltd.

1962: Graduates from University of New Brunswick with arts degree; starts working as salesman at Eaton's in British Columbia.

1977: After holding several management jobs, named chairman, president and CEO eight years after his father, John David, retires.

1988: Steps down as president and CEO so that brother George, could take over; plays smaller role in running family business.

1991: Accepts post as high commissioner for Canada in London, England, a position he holds for three years.

1999: Along with brothers Thor, John Craig and George, sells bankrupt Eaton's to Sears Canada; today says he's “semi-retired.”