In the 1950s and 60s, Loeb transformed the small family wholesale tobacco and confectionary business into a retail giant by buying Canada’s first IGA franchise and becoming the second largest food retailer in Eastern Ontario. He later became a major philanthropist, making large donations in the fields of health and education.
Bertram Loeb was the son of a Russian immigrant who moved to Ottawa after first settling in Cincinnati because he preferred the cooler climate. Bertram grew up as one of six boys and lived at several addresses in Sandy Hill including 340 Chapel St. (the house no longer exists) between 1942 and 1957 or 1958 and 386 Wilbrod St. until 1965. Earlier, he had lived with his parents at 289 Wilbrod St.
Loeb had a late start as a businessman. He had studied literature and philosophy at university and, at his father’s instigation, attended the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. After his father died, he changed his vocation and decided to go into business instead. He was 35 years old and entering a very competitive market at a time when growing supermarket chains were driving independent grocery stores out of business all over North America. He brought the first IGA franchise to Ottawa in 1952. Two years later, 70 stores were affiliated to the group. By 1962, IGA had a 30% market share in Eastern Ontario. Eventually, the Loeb business grew to be a billion dollar enterprise. During that time, he also opened Israel’s first supermarket (Supersol).
He attributed his remarkable success to his very inexperience: “we had nothing to unlearn. We had no excess fat, no accumulated administrative burdens, no voices of experience to shout us down. There was no one to discourage inexperienced youthful enthusiasm – in this was our success.” (McCallum, 1960)
Alas, this fairytale had no happy ending. The company’s ambitious growth overstretched its resources, an accountant embezzled money and Loeb eventually lost control of the firm to Montreal’s Provigo chain. Already an important philanthropist, Loeb continued his charitable work, giving money to universities and hospitals and raising important sums for organizations such as the United Appeal and the National Arts Centre. In the 1960s, the City of Ottawa controversially turned down his intended donation to the Civic Hospital to fund medical research. It is unclear whether the reason was concern about future financial liabilities or as, Loeb and many others believed, latent anti-semitism. Although Loeb re-directed that money to Carleton University, he made an important donation to the Civic twenty years later that was accepted.
Loeb would say that “ where people find their avocation in golfing and so on, I have found that I derive a lot of satisfaction in being of some service … in trying to be involved in community fund-raising, philanthropic activities, educational work and so on.” (Supermarket methods, May 1962). On his deathbed, he told his daughter: “You’ve got to do three things: Try to keep the family together, try to keep the Loeb name alive and be sure to return a little of your good fortune to the community that helped you earn it.” (Tam, 2003) Loeb may have had difficulty fulfilling his first wish but he succeeded in his other two.