Selfridges deal would add sparkle to Weston empire

The Westons may be low profile, but the clan controls businesses that span the globe
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The Independent Online

If the Weston family manages to take control of Selfridges it will add yet another bauble to one of the world's most powerful, yet low-profile business dynasties. The Canadian family, whose roots lie in the UK, owns a string of well-known assets, principally in food production and retailing.

If the Weston family manages to take control of Selfridges it will add yet another bauble to one of the world's most powerful, yet low-profile business dynasties. The Canadian family, whose roots lie in the UK, owns a string of well-known assets, principally in food production and retailing.

They include some of Britain's best known retail names such as the upmarket Fortnum & Mason department store in London's Piccadilly, the Heal's furnishings outlets and the Associated British Foods business which makes Ryvita, Ovaltine, Twinings Tea and Kingsmill bread.

In Canada the Westons' interests are even bigger, spanning the country's largest chain of supermarkets and one of its largest food production and distribution companies.

The fortune of Selfridges' bidder Galen Weston was estimated at $6.2bn (£3.9bn) in the most recent Forbes magazine rich list, ranking him as the 43rd richest person in the world. The family's stake in AB Foods is worth £2.5bn. So after you add on all the other interests the total net wealth is likely to be at least £7bn-£8bn, and that is before the £500m Selfridges deal.

But despite their great riches the family remains little known in this country. This may be partly because unlike other business dynasties such as the Sainsburys, the Schroders or the Rothschilds, the Weston name does not hang above the door of any of their enterprises. In that way the Westons are more similar to the Moores family, which used to own Littlewoods, or the Vesteys, whose fortune was based on the meat trade including the Dewhurst chain of butchers.

The dynasty traces its lineage back to George Weston, the son of a London emigrant who set up a door-to-door bakery delivery business in Toronto in 1882. George was fond of the fragrant expression: "People will eat horseshit if there's enough icing on it." He must have been on to something because he was a millionaire by the age of 46 when he sold the business in 1911. Not content with that, he made two more fortunes – one in biscuits, the second in the bakery business again.

His son Garfield was less fortunate. Almost wiped out by the stock market crash of 1929 he returned to England with his family in 1931. But he dusted himself down and proved the family's entrepreneurial streak again when he started up in the food industry.

He was known as a dynamic personality who ran his businesses by gut instinct rather than by constant reference to figures and balance sheets. It was Garfield Weston who introduced Ryvita to a willing public.

Garfield had nine sons, including Garry and Galen (all the Weston sons have Christian names beginning with "G" but no one can explain why) but they were very different. Garry, who died last year, was a low-key executive who ran the Associated British Foods group for more than 30 years. He is credited with giving the Wagon Wheel to a grateful nation and was famously conservative. He built up a cash pile of more than £1bn by the end despite being linked with a string of acquisitions.

The 62-year-old Galen Weston on the other hand is often dubbed a playboy. Some say this is unfair, adding that he is simply more visible on the Toronto social scene. "He might have been [a playboy] once, but that was about 40 years ago," says one person who knows him well. "But he's a top man – very smart, very tough and works very hard." Galen is also happily married to a former model, Hilary. The playboy image may also be partly due to his good looks, with his blue eyes and swept-back silver hair.

Keen on polo, he is a friend of Price Charles and rents a six-bedroom folly, the Belvedere, in Windsor Great Park. He is a member of six clubs, including White's in London.

One of Garry's six children, Guy, is now head of the main UK family business. Guy, 42, studied law at Oxford before entering banking with Morgan Grenfell. He has homes in Chelsea, Hampshire and Majorca and is keen on fishing.

Like his father Guy is not one to flash the cash. He'll make sure a tweed jacket lasts at least 10 years and has a look that is more "lived-in aristocrat" than ostentatious plutocrat.

The common denominator in all the Weston interests is Wittington Investments. This is split into two parts, each run by a different scion of the family. Wittington Investments UK is chaired by Guy Weston and owns 54 per cent of Associated British Foods, one of Britain's largest food manufacturing companies with a stock market value of £4.5bn, and 100 per cent of Fortnum & Mason and Heal's.

The Canadian arm owns the Brown Thomas department store chain in Ireland and the Holt Renfrew department store group in Canada. It also controls 60 per cent of George Weston, one of North America's largest food companies. In turn, George Weston owns 61 per cent of Loblaw, the largest supermarket retailer in Canada. Wittington also owns USA Real Estate Development-Tor West, a property company which owns two golf resort complexes in Florida.

It has been reported that the Westons have a pact that the Canadian branch of the family will stick to North America and Ireland and not compete with the UK branch. Galen's acquisition of Selfridges would surely break that agreement as it would compete, at least in part, with Fortnum & Mason.

But the story of a secret deal is denied. Tony Graham, one of Galen's right-hand men in Canada, says: "I never heard of it."

Indeed, though the two sides of Wittington Investments plot their own courses, the family members often sit on each other's boards. Galen Weston, for example, has been an ABF director for years and also sits on the Fortnum & Mason board.

There were reports of a dispute over money a few years back as some of the more distant members of the family clamoured to see more of their share of the money. But this was headed off when a £200m restructuring distributed cash to 40 or more members of the clan.

As the dynasty progresses there will be no shortage of family members to take over the reins.

The Westons have always been fond of large families and Garry Weston had six children including Guy and George, who is deputy chairman of AB Foods. Galen has two children, one called Galen who is an executive at Loblaws and Alannah who is on the board of Brown Thomas.

The family has always been a prodigious giver to charity – the Garfield Weston Foundation is thought to be worth about £2bn. In the UK it has been a major supporter of church restoration.

The arts have also been a major beneficiary, with one recent scheme being a £150,000 gift to the National Theatre.

If the Selfridges deal goes through, the Canadian Westons will have a new place to spend their money when they make their frequent trips to London.