Earl Orser - life lived to the fullest

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Jim Etherington
Thursday, January 27, 2005


London, Western and - indeed - Canada lost an outstanding business and community leader when Earl Orser died December 26, 2004. He was 76.

At Western Earl is fondly remembered as an outstanding member of the Board of Governors 1982 to 1989, where he was Chair for the final two years of his term. He subsequently was Chair of the Richard Ivey School of Business Advisory Committee and in 1991 he had conferred an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree by Western.

Earl was an unusual businessman both because his career took him across several distinct sectors at a time when business leaders tended to build their reputation with a single company, and also because with great deliberation he shared his time and energy with a very wide range of community, national and international organizations.

Born in Toronto, he attended Danforth Technical School and was proud of his modest roots. A small scholarship allowed him to take a degree in Commerce from the University of Toronto and he then completed his Chartered Accountant designation in 1953, having done his articles with Clarkson Gordon where he became a partner in 1958.

Three years later he was named the treasurer of the former Anthes Imperial company, which had been one of clients, and was named vice-president and treasurer in 1963. When Molson Industries Limited acquired Anthes he was made senior vice president and a director of Molson in 1968. After two years he began his journey across business sectors when he was appointed vice president of finance with Air Canada. He delighted in telling stories about the purchase of the huge 747 Boeings and the upper deck party on the inaugural trans Atlantic flight.

In 1973 Earl joined the T. Eaton Company first as vice president administration and in 1975 as the first non-Eaton president and CEO for two years. He was rapidly gaining a reputation as a change manager for companies not fulfilling their potential and he was the executive who decreed the closing of the historic but money-losing Eaton's catalogue, to the great shock of many Canadians. The Eaton family moved back in charge and Earl left Eaton in 1977 to open a consulting business.

One of his first clients was Brascan Limited who assigned him to review the potential of London Life Insurance Company in which it had acquired a substantial holding. London Life had been owned and operated since its founding in London by the Jeffery family and was the largest life insurer in Canada. His report called for a number of changes if the company was to continue to grow and after its presentation to Brascan in 1978 he was asked to become executive vice president & chief operating officer for the insurer and implement his own plan.

This was the niche that Earl had been seeking for 20 years and it launched the apex of his business career. For the next 19 years he wielded enormous influence for change at London Life, earning him the media title of having "awakened the sleeping giant". He served nine years as president and CEO and during his tenure assets of London Life increased from $2.9 billion to $10.4 billion and total life insurance in force from $24.5 billion to $91.4 billion. During the same period he was instrumental in nurturing the establishment of two public financial services companies - Trilon Corporation and London Insurance Group - built on the assets of London Life.

But while he was building and expanding London Life, running offices in both London and Toronto, he continued his life-long dedication to business and community service. He served as a director with a number of large Canadian companies including SPAR Aerospace, the developer of the Canada Arm space device, where he was a director for 20 years and chairman 1993-1998. He chaired the life insurance industry association of companies, and was a member a number of business organizations including the C.D. Howe Institute, the Corporate Higher Education Forum, the British-North American Committee, The International Trade Advisory Committee and the Geneva Association.

In London Earl was prominent in his volunteerism with London United Way, the YMCA, Robarts Research Institute, Orchestra London and the Fanshawe College fundraising campaign. He was strict in his volunteerism, never just lending his name but also his energy and business skills.

One of his lasting legacies was with the London Economic Development Corporation, a private sector partnership with the city of London to energize our city's industry attraction potential. He served as its first chair and assembled its board of directors from among city council and London business leaders.

In 1997 his life-long efforts were recognized with membership in the Order of Canada and he was inducted into the London Business Hall of Fame the same year.

With such a prestigious business and community service career one might wonder how Earl, the man, viewed his life. He many times made it clear that each of us has to set and adhere to personal priorities. "Understand what needs to be done and find ways of doing it, always remembering that people are your key resource" was an oft repeated comment.

For him his family came first. His wife of 43 years, Marion, and their four daughters Darlene, Barbara, Beverley, Nancy and their families were the centre of his attention. He took special pride that Marion, a registered nurse, returned to studies earning an undergraduate degree in theology and a masters in divinity from Huron University College.

On January 8th more than 500 attended a memorial service in London for Earl where his life was celebrated and his illustrious contributions recognized.

The writer is a member of Western Senate. Recollections is a Western News feature that celebrates the life of a member of the Western community

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