MILTON HARRIS, CEO AND PHILANTRHOPIST: 1927 – 2005
“Son of a scrap metal dealer, he used his genius for business to build a $600-million company. A family man who resolved to keep his children out of the family business for the sake of the family, he supported such varied causes as primate research and the hunt for war criminals.”
BY SANDRA MARTIN
SATURDAY APRIL 2, 2005
UPDATED AT 11:23 AM EDT.
Milt Harris’s business acumen was legendary, but it was only a small part of the man. A self-made entrepreneur who took his family’s scrap-metal business and turned it into a hugely successful reinforced-steel business, he was also a crusader, a civil libertarian, and a quiet but generous philanthropist to a range of causes, including the YMCA, opera, First Nations, and especially primate research and human cognitive evolution.
Short, wiry, and athletic, Mr. Harris hated formality and was rarely seen in a shirt and tie. As a young man, he learned to box and to fly a single-engine plane – until good sense and his wife persuaded him to ground his aircraft. In recent years, he was a committed cyclist, often riding close to 30 kilometers a day through the ravines of Toronto. Although he couldn’t read music, he took up the organ a dozen years ago and learned to play toccatas, fugues, and sonatas.
Milton Harris was born in Detroit in 1927, one of the two sons of Sam and Jenny Harris. The family moved to London when Milt was a few months old. His childhood was troubled because his mother was sickly and his father tended to favor Milt’s brother, Liebert. Fortunately, the young boy had affectionate and supportive aunts and uncles and, instead of being embittered by his upbringing, he developed empathy and compassion for others.
In a eulogy for Mr. Harris, his son, David, attributed his father’s affinity for the oppressed and dispossessed to those early struggles. “I think that Milt build his life in opposition and reaction to the parenting he received and… this explains… his most prominent character trait: He was a fighter, a go-getter, a man of action.”
Mr. Harris grew up in the scrap-metal business, which had been in the family since before the turn of the century. At 13, he was driving a truck, and working part-time for his father, his grandfather and his uncle. The business went through good times and bad – his father lost a fortune during the Depression and made most of it back early in the Second World War.
There was certainly enough money to send Milt to St. George’s School and Central Collegiate Institute in London and to Camp Winnebago in Ontario’s Muskoka region for at least one summer. That’s where Milt met Max Milstone in 1943, the year he turned 16. The two boys became lifelong friends, a connection that was strengthened at the University of Toronto because they both belonged to the Beta Sigma Rho fraternity. “He was the sharpest man I ever knew. He had a mind like a steel trap and he could remember everything,” Mr. Milstone said this week.
“He was the best friend I ever had,” he said. “A friend is somebody who can be truly happy when something good happens to you, and not with any jealousy or competition, but he also felt my pain.”
It was also at the U of T that Mr. Harris met his wife, Ethel. They knew each other socially, but they really connected one rainy evening in 1948 when they were both studying for exams in the reference library (now the U of T Bookstore on College Street). “Milt walked me home and he told me later that he knew then that he was in love with me,” Mrs. Harris said this week. They were engaged that September and married a year later, a partnership that lasted more that 55 years. She is credited with expanding his interests in the arts and encouraging his fascination with primates and human evolution.
Milt Harris wanted to become a lawyer after graduating with a commerce degree in 1949, but his father suffered a heart attack, and so the young couple moved to London and Mr. Harris took over the day-to-day running of the family business. In 1954, he bought out his grandfather or, more accurately, assumed the company’s liabilities. By then, he had a new vision for the business. He had bought a load of reinforcing steel, detritus from the construction of the Welland Canal, and realized that he could cut, bend and resell it, rather than throwing it onto the scrap heap. “That was the beginning of the rebar business,” said nephew John Harris, who has succeeded Milt Harris as CEO and chairman of Harris Steel.
Focused and imaginative, Milt Harris was able to envisage the future of the steel industry and to take advantage of it to manufacture a product that could be used to reinforce concrete in construction projects. In the mid-1960s, he began branching out into other businesses, including Laurel Steel, and took his company public in 1967. Today, Harris Steel Group is a leading North American steel fabricator and processor with 34 facilities in Canada and the U.S., and annual sales in excess of $600-million.
Harris Steel is not a family business in the usual sense. Unlike many self-made entrepreneurs, Mr. Harris discouraged his children (Judith, Naomi and David) from joining the company. There was a lot of business-related conflict within his family over the generations, according to John Harris, and he didn’t want to inflict that on his own children.
The same stricture seemed to hold for John Harris. “He was more than an uncle to me, he was an idol,” he said, explaining that his parents had divorced when he was very young and Uncle Milt and Aunt Ethel had stepped into the emotional gap. After John graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1974 from Trent University, he was thinking of taking a year off before going to law school. At a party, his aunt “dragged me over by the ear” to his uncle and said, “Why don’t you give Johnny a job for a year.”
At the end of his stint, John wanted to stay with the company. “I was working as an ironworker out in the field. The hours were great, I had all the overtime I wanted and huge money.” His uncle listened, wrote the name of his biggest competitor on a piece of paper, gave it to his nephew and said: “Phone him. Maybe he’ll give you a job, because if you don’t go back to school, I’m firing you.”
John got the message. He went to U of T for an MBA, continued to work for his uncle part-time for two years and went back to the firm in the spring of 1977. He's been there ever since.
When asked why his uncle was so successful at founding and growing a business, John Harris said: "It was really a matter of culture." Long before "empowering people" became business buzz words, his uncle always saw beyond the exterior and saw the heart and intelligence workers brought to their jobs. "He treated them like real people, whether they were labourers or truck drivers or rocket scientists and let them try to do their best."
Milt Harris had a genius for business. "He just wanted to bring his mind and energy to the game every day," said his nephew, adding that he "had a tremendous mental toughness." He brought that toughness not only to his own business, but also as a director of other companies, including Air Canada and Canadair.
In the early 1980s, he became involved in the Canadian Jewish Congress, serving on its war-crimes committee and as president from 1983 to 1986. After reading None Is Too Many, by Irving Abella and Harold Troper, their landmark expose of anti-Semitism in Canada, he invited Mr. Abella to speak to the CJC- "He was a dynamo -- single-minded, generous, energetic and gutsy," said Mr. Abella. "He knew what he wanted to do and how to do it."
What he wanted was to find war criminals who had found refuge in Canada. "Although he had no relatives that he knew of who had died in the Holocaust and he'd had a pretty comfortable life in Canada, he was angry that Canada had allowed people who have committed such horrific crimes into this country, allowed them to stay and made no pretense at prosecution," said Mr. Abella. "His sense of justice and his sense of the values this country represents were assaulted."
At the time, Jim Peterson, now Minister of International Trade in Paul Martin's cabinet, was parliamentary secretary to then justice minister Jean Chretien. Mr. Peterson worked closely with Mr. Harris, arranging for him to meet senior Justice Department officials. "He did as much, or more, as anybody in Canada to advance the cause of bringing war criminals to justice."
In her eulogy, Mrs. Harris described her husband as someone who was "never afraid to stand alone for what he believed, never afraid to fight for the underprivileged and the scapegoated or against any violation of human rights." As CJC president, for example, he supported the right of Palestinians to a homeland. Later, he campaigned on behalf of Japanese Canadians seeking redress for being interned and having their homes and assets confiscated during the Second World War. "He took on causes that were his and not necessarily the community's," said Mr. Abella, "so he was often fighting solitary battles, but the right ones."
A big supporter of the Liberal Party, he was the campaign manager when Clarence Peterson (father of former Ontario premier David Peterson) ran against John Robarts in the 1963 Ontario election. In that pre-cellphone era, Mr. Harris invented a concept called home centres for election days. The idea was to place election workers away from headquarters in houses close to the polls, recalled Jim Peterson, Clarence's son. This practice was later adopted by the party on a much wider scale.
Mr. Harris never ran for office himself, but he publicly denounced the Liberal Party for its anti-free-trade stand against the U.S. in the 1988 federal election. "He phoned me and said he could not, in principle, support a party that had always supported free trade and wouldn't in these circumstances," said Jim Peterson. "When we later endorsed free trade, he came back to us," adding: "He was right." About five years ago, Mr. Harris phoned York University president Lorna Marsden, an acquaintance from the Liberal Party and their days sitting on the board of Air Canada, and invited her to talk to him about the university's research projects. One of the qualities Dr. Marsden always appreciated about Mr. Harris was his low-key style. "He had conversations, he didn't lecture you," she said.
Since that telephone conversation, he quietly financed scholarships for francophone students to study at the university's bilingual Glendon campus. He also became heavily involved in funding research into brain development in humans, an outgrowth of his long-time interest in and support of anthropologist Jane Goodall's work with primates.
"His gifts were such involved philanthropy. He wanted to be there and talk to the people," said Ms. Marsden. "That's an incredible gift to a faculty member to have somebody who is interested in their research, understands their research and supports it."
The energetic and fit Mr. Harris was complaining of a stomach ache before he and his wife headed to their Florida home a month ago. He became progressively sicker and was diagnosed three weeks ago with a rare and aggressive form of abdominal cancer. His family gathered around him, making the last week of his life a very emotional time. “He loved his family and he made sure each of them knew it”, said Mrs. Harris.
Milton Harris was born in Detroit on July 26,1927. He died on March 26 of cancer. He was 77. He is survived by his wife, Ethel, his children Judith, Naomi and David, his nephew John, his cousin Marcia and their families.
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