Billionaire Brandt Louie Continues the Family Legacy in Business and Philanthropy

Caifu Magazine | by Millie Lou

Though that name may not sound familiar, it is the parent company of the more well-known London Drugs Limited. 

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Dr. Brandt Louie, a 74-year-old third-generation Chinese-Canadian, is the head of his family’s business, H.Y. Louie Group. Though that name may not sound familiar, it is the parent company of the more well-known London Drugs Limited. In 1903, Brandt’s grandfather, Hok Yat Louie, founded a small general store in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Around 114 years later, that business has grown to encompass retail brands such as IGA supermarkets and London Drugs. H.Y. Louie Group is one of British Columbia’s largest private companies with 10,000 employees. According to BCBusiness, the company generated an estimated revenue of almost $5 billion CAD in 2014. Forbes estimates Brandt Louie’s net worth to be $2.4 billion CAD.

In July 2017, I interviewed Brandt, chairman and CEO of H.Y. Louie Group and London Drugs, at the London Drugs headquarters in Richmond, British Columbia. In his signature bowtie, he greeted me in the boardroom, which featured an entire wall adorned with his father’s accolades, including the Order of Canada certificate. Brandt joked that his own achievements are stashed away in his office. Despite his wealth, Brandt remains humble and stays true to the Louie family values in business and philanthropy, which are highlighted below.

Lessons from Hok Yat Louie: Work Hard, Be Fair to Customers and Be Charitable

Brandt’s management style and philosophy can be traced back to his grandfather. Like a historian, he recounted his family’s modest beginnings. In 1896, Hok Yat settled in Vancouver during a period of institutionalized discrimination. At the time, all landed Chinese had to pay a head tax of $50 CAD, purposely imposed by the federal government to deter immigration. The head tax regularly increased in value until it was removed in 1923 to make way for the Chinese Exclusion Act, which simply forbade all Chinese from immigrating to Canada.

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Originally a farmer in Guangdong province, upon moving to Canada Hok Yat naturally turned to farming to survive. He and a partner developed a small farm operation. His partner grew vegetables while Hok Yat sold the products in Vancouver. Hok Yat learned to read and write English by himself as he delivered his crops to market.

In 1903, Hok Yat opened a store in Chinatown to sell agricultural products like seeds and fertilizer. The store went on to become a successful wholesaler. Hok Yat’s success and accomplishments were particularly impressive given the discriminatory time period.

One can imagine how hard he must have toiled. “He didn’t have a lot of time for his family,” said Brandt. In 1934, when Hok Yat fell ill on his first trip back to China in more than 35 years, he wrote a series of letters to his children. He probably knew the letters were his final opportunity to impart wisdom to his descendants. He died a few weeks after writing his last letter. The letters included messages such as:
“Be earnest, fair and loyal in your dealings with customers. Discuss things with your fellow workers. Be amiable to them. ”(see image in the next page)

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"When pursuing prosperity you must follow the laws of Heaven. Don't be afraid to be kind and charitable."

Brandt explained: “My father told me that his father always told him, ‘We should support the communities in which we do business.’ For one, our employees come from these communities. Secondly, our customers live and work in these communities. Finally, if you have been successful in the community, you owe something back to make sure that the life and culture of these communities thrive as best as they can.”

Hok Yat did more than just teach charitable values. Years ago, Brandt discovered hundreds of head tax certificates among his family’s archives: “[My grandfather] paid the head tax for a lot of the Chinese immigrants coming to Canada, knowing that many would find it hard to repay. He kept the certificates until the debt could be repaid, then he would return the certificate. We found hundreds of those certificates that were never redeemed. In most cases, the taxes were never paid back. Those certificates represent the historical side of my grandfather’s role in philanthropy. He believed in helping others.”

Today, Brandt oversees two charitable foundations: the Tong and Geraldine Louie Family Foundation and the London Drugs Foundation. The breadth of charities the foundations help is impressive and include: funding the training of autism support dogs, supplying meals-on-wheels for 5,700 seniors, and supporting math programs for Indigenous youth. Following his grandfather’s advice, Brandt ensures his family’s foundations have a large presence in the communities where they do business.

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Lessons from Tong Louie: Overcoming Discrimination, Never Stand Still, and the Importance of Education

While Hok Yat started the family business 114 years ago, Tong Louie, Brandt’s father (and Hok Yat’s son), was the one who led the company toward unprecedented growth and expansion. Brandt asserted: “He was the impetus that grew the business to what it is today.”

After Hok Yat died in 1934, Tong and his older brother managed the family business while Tong attended the University of British Columbia (UBC). Brandt elaborated: “My father and his siblings all believed education was the key to success; however, my grandfather was not so convinced.” While Hok Yat did not support his children’s academic ambitions, neither did he stand in their way. Tong completed a four-year degree in eight years because every other year he worked to save for the following year’s tuition.

In 1938, Tong graduated with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science. Brandt was quick to point out that professions like doctors, accountants and lawyers were unavailable to non-citizens. Even though Tong was born in Canada, the prejudiced laws precluded him -- or any other Chinese born in Canada -- from becoming a citizen until 1947, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed.

Brandt emphasized: “My father used to say, ‘Never forget the discrimination you suffered but never hold it as a grudge.’ His belief was we never allow discrimination as the excuse for why you do not succeed because there is always a way to do what you want.”

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His father’s original goal was to pursue a Master’s degree. Brandt believes his father applied to Cornell University. However, World War II started and his application was too difficult to process since he was not a Canadian citizen. So Tong ended up returning to the family business.

When Brandt’s uncle chose to step down in the 1950s, Tong took over the company. “That’s when my father decided we have to be more than a wholesale grocer. We need retail stores,” recalled Brandt. “He joined the chain of IGA supermarkets in 1955. He was the one who decided in 1976 that we should get into the drug store business.” As the legend goes, Tong purchased London Drugs for $9 million USD and the deal was sealed with a handshake in less than 30 minutes.

“My father believed the company could not stand still,” Brandt added. London Drugs is a popular store in Western Canada because the brand evolved into a non-traditional drugstore under Tong’s leadership. London Drugs pioneered concepts such as providing photography services, selling name-brand cosmetics and electronics in a drugstore. Brandt said he believes that his father’s education enabled Tong to sustain and grow his businesses.

In 1990, Tong was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by UBC for his achievements in business and philanthropy. Brandt inherited his father’s appreciation for education. He reminisced that one of the most joyful periods of his life was serving 12 years at Simon Fraser University (SFU), including two years as a board member, four years as the chair of the Board of Governors, and six years as the chancellor of the university. For his contributions and achievements, SFU awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws in 2005.

Although he is retired from SFU, Brandt continues to support education through scholarships, bursaries and substantial endowment funds. “We have a philosophy here that no child should be denied an education for a few dollars,” said Brandt. “Everybody should have an equal opportunity to succeed, and equal access to opportunities.”

Lessons from Brandt Louie: Motivating, Grooming and Empowering the Next Generation

Brandt joined the family business in 1972, six years after graduating from UBC’s commerce department. In those six years, he articled and worked for the accounting firm Touche Ross (which later became Deloitte) in their Montreal office and became a chartered accountant. He deliberately chose to work away from home and outside of the family business, knowing that someday he would return to work alongside his father. He succeeded his father as the head of the family business in 1998 when Tong died.

“I believe that youngsters should not come into their family business as soon as they leave school. They really need to be mentored by somebody else who is not their family,” said Brandt. “If you have built a successful career without relying on your family name, you come back with a lot more confidence and the employees have greater respect for you.”

He gave his two sons, Gregory and Stuart, the same advice. Before joining the family business, they were both successful professionals working in fields unrelated to the family business. For about eight years in the United States, Gregory worked as a radiologist and Stuart as a lawyer. Brandt added: “They had to go out and find their own jobs and they had to support themselves.”

Brandt stressed the importance for people to experience setbacks and defeats on their own, and ultimately learn to never let those setbacks interfere with one’s final vision. He said: “My sons and the management team that I put together are making the major decisions today.” Brandt said he believes this is the best way to empower his sons and executives to take ownership of their decisions. He added: “The worst thing is for them to make a decision, then have all the staff look at me to see whether I am nodding in agreement or shaking my head. This is why I actually prefer that my sons do not work in the same building as I do.”

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Brandt is certainly still the patriarch and the guiding force of the H.Y. Louie Group. Under his leadership, in 1999 the company ventured into the charter airline business with London Air Services. Three years later, he bought the Sonora Resort on Sonora Island in B.C. More recently, H.Y. Louie Group launched a new brand of supermarkets, Fresh St. Market, in hopes of challenging Whole Foods Market. Echoing his father’s business development philosophy, Brandt proclaimed: “You always need to be flexible in trying new things. You have to be very open in your thinking and you cannot be afraid to take risks.”


H.Y. Louie Group Business Update: A Reflection of Today’s Retail Trends

Brandt Louie said he is amazed at the pace of change in the grocery and drugstore sector. Customers’ strong preference for organics is the major trend in retail grocery. In 2013, the company launched a new concept store in West Vancouver called Fresh St. Market.
“We are basically offering the same model that Whole Foods is offering but at a much lower price,” said Brandt. “Organics do cost a little more but we think that Whole Foods has just gone a little too far.”

In 2016, the company sold off its wholesale division to focus more on retail. As of July 2017, there are three Fresh St. Markets in the Metro Vancouver Area, with more slated to open in the coming years.

As cities become increasingly urbanized and prime real estate is harder to attain, store formats may need to shrink as well. London Drugs, a shopping destination that offers much more than pharmaceuticals, is experimenting with a new format. In June 2017, the first LDExpress opened in Calgary, housed in the mall of a large office building. The store is only 4,000 square feet, whereas the 17,000-square-foot London Drugs in Vancouver’s Olympic Village is considered one of the smallest of its 80 stores.

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Customers can also order any London Drug product online and then pick up their purchases at the LDExpress store within 24 hours, just as they can at any London Drugs store.

The family business has never been afraid to try new things. “If you are going to be the traditional model for the rest of your life, then your life is very short because the traditional model is dying,” said Brandt.