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Anthony Griffin: From navy officer to finance star

By on February 26, 2016 in Articles with 0 Comments

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Tony Griffin played many parts in his long life: civil servant, naval commander, diplomat, banker, philanthropist, nature lover and sailor. He needed a long life to pack in all those things. Tony Griffin died last month at the age of 104.

Anthony George Scott Griffin was born on Aug. 15, 1911, in Buckinghamshire, England, to Canadian parents. His father, Edward Scott Griffin, was manager of the Canadian Northern Steamships company in London. When the First World War broke out, three-year-old Tony and his mother, Mabel (née Mackenzie), and all but one of his siblings returned to Toronto. On the voyage home they wore life jackets at all times because of the danger of submarines.

The family lived in some opulence, both in London and Toronto, as Mabel Griffin’s father, Sir William Mackenzie, was one of founders of what would become the Canadian National Railway. The family lost most of its fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. That year, Tony Griffin finished his studies at Appleby College in Oakville, Ont., and began studying arts at the University of Toronto. He attended the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., for a year before starting work at Standard Life, the Scottish insurance firm.

In 1937, Mr. Griffin married Kathleen Lockhart Gordon, the daughter of decorated First World War veteran Colonel H.D. Lockhart Gordon. The following year, the couple’s son Scott, the first of five children, was born.

Mr. Griffin made a rapid transition from mid-level insurance executive to Commander of HMCS Pictou, a corvette on North Atlantic convoy duty, in 1939, to engage in what he called “the ferocity of the U-boat war,” but most of the time “an extreme exercise in tedium and discomfort.”

Of his time in the service, Mr. Griffin later told Historica Canada’s The Memory Project, “I love the navy. And those years of dedication and fraternity and constant humour are etched forever in my memory.”

The Memory Project has a photo on its website of a smiling Commander Griffin (the naval equivalent of a lieutenant-colonel) beside a young sailor clad in the commanding officer’s full regalia. It was a tradition aboard the HMCS Pictou for the captain to trade uniforms with the youngest sailor on the ship on Christmas Day each year.

Mutiny on the Pictou, or a least a near mutiny, was one of the more unusual incidents on the ship under his watch. The Pictou had a new second-in-command, a young Canadian officer who was a strict disciplinarian. The sailors resented it and went on strike. “The men refuse to turn out, Sir. Shall I call the shore patrol?” the young martinet asked.

According to his memoirs, Cdr. Griffin decided to settle the issue without calling the naval police, who would have imprisoned the leaders of the uprising. He called the ringleader to his cabin and read him the naval rules on mutiny and the long jail sentence it carried. The sailor complained of bullying by the new officer. Cdr. Griffin settled the dispute, order was restored and the young officer went easier on the men.

After shore duty as a staff officer in St. John’s, he was made Commander of HMCS Toronto, a frigate and a larger warship than the corvette. He was in Halifax for the surrender of at least one U-boat, remarking that the German submariners were relieved their war was over.

Three of his brothers fought in the war; his brother Billy was in the RCAF and was killed on a bombing raid. Mr. Griffin’s war experience left him a bit of pacifist. In his memoirs he was particularly critical of the American decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan. “I have always held the opinion that this was one of the war crimes of history.”

After the war, Mr. Griffin joined the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, which was dismantling the total government control of the economy during the war, when Ottawa set everything from food prices to rents. He then joined External Affairs in the economic division, at first trying to re-establish the cotton trade between Canada and Britain. During the war, trade patterns had altered; Canada was forced to trade more with the United States than with Britain, something that has continued to the present.

After six years of government service, during which he met many international business types, Mr. Griffin started to receive offers to leave External. One of them was from Siegmund Warburg, the German banker who had fled Nazi Germany for the city of London, where he founded his bank, S.G. Warburg. Mr. Griffin met with Mr. Warburg in Toronto.

“He asked me if an opening salary of $16,000 would be acceptable and I agreed (trying not to appear too impressed with an exact doubling of my civil service pay!),” Mr. Griffin recalled in his autobiography.

Mr. Griffin was soon in London with his wife, Kitty, as Mr. Warburg introduced him to his contacts across Europe since he was to run Mr. Warburg’s operations in Canada. In his memoirs he said Mr. Warburg was concerned about what he perceived as anti-Semitism in postwar Canada.

“I was asked more than once what possessed me to throw in my lot with an ‘upstart Jewish group.’” Mr. Griffin, a Roman Catholic, noted that Jews were not allowed in Toronto’s elite clubs at the time and there wasn’t a Jewish director of a chartered bank until 1954.

Back in Toronto Mr. Griffin started a subsidiary of S.G. Warburg called Triarch Corporation in 1953. It worked on deals, including the acquisition of The Globe and Mail by Montreal financier Howard Webster.

The Warburg connection flourished and Tony Griffin rose to the pinnacle of Canadian finance. He was much in demand as a corporate director and at one time or another was a director of 24 companies, from Consumer’s Gas to Scurry-Rainbow Oil and numerous financial firms in between.

He was also heavily involved with St. Michael’s Hospital, as a donor and as chairman for 10 years; was president of the National Ballet of Canada; and was a board member of the National Theatre School and the National Film Board. He was named a director of the NFB in 1973 and became fast friends with its chairman, Sydney Newman, a fellow anglophile. Mr. Griffin recalled that he had to arrange a meeting in Toronto of several NFB filmmakers and directors. He chose the stuffy, establishment Toronto Club, to see what effect it might have on the members. He was not disappointed.

“Several guests arrived in the austere precincts of the club dressed in strikingly outrageous costumes. There was an NFB photographer present and I had him take a photograph of one of the filmmakers alongside the club portrait of J.A. (Bud) McDougald, who represented the ultimate antithesis of the creative artistic style!” Mr. Griffin wrote.

There is a streak of arts philanthropy in the family. Mr. Griffin’s son Scott Griffin, also a successful businessman, established the Griffin Poetry Prize.

Tony Griffin inherited a long piece of shoreline from his mother’s family on Balsam Lake, in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes region. It was the place he considered home. The Griffins would strip down to swim in the nude there, sometimes shocking guests, who generally kept their bathing suits on.

Mr. Griffin remained active until the end, going to the office until his late 80s and skiing until he was 90. He was still mentally alert and spent most of the past summer at his cottage.

Anthony Griffin died on Sept. 4 in Lindsay, Ont., from complications following a hip fracture. He was predeceased by Kitty, his wife of 74 years, in 2011. He leaves his children, Scott, Ian, Ann, Peter and Tim; 15 grandchildren; and 25 great-grandchildren. His grandchildren carried the coffin at his funeral.

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About the Author

About the Author: Fred has had a full career as a CBC TV host and reporter. He has written countless articles for many renowned publications such as The Economist, The Globe and Mail, BusinessWeek and many more, as well as more than 2000 obituaries. He is also a successfully published author and ghostwriter. His current projects include writing and co-authoring books, as well as lending his talents as a speaker and interviewer for webcasts. .

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