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David Culver was a devoted CEO who fought to preserve history

By on March 2, 2017 in Articles with 0 Comments

David Culver took a great interest in architecture, in both his work to maintain old buildings and the construction of a modern-style home overlooking a lake in the Laurentian mountains.

David Culver was an athletic man who liked to keep trim by walking to work from his house in Montreal’s Westmount neighbourhood to his office at what was then the headquarters of Alcan Aluminium Limited, downtown in Place Ville Marie. When he became the chief executive officer of Alcan in 1979, one of the perks was a chauffeur to drive him to work. Instead, Mr. Culver, who died on Feb. 6 at 92, would walk his two black labs over the mountain and have the chauffeur meet him on Pine Avenue – to pick up the dogs and take them home. Then he would continue down the hill on foot.

“It was the best 30 to 40 minutes I spent every day, giving me time to contemplate big issues and small and do it on my own,” he wrote in his autobiography, Expect Miracles: Recollections of a Lucky Life. He added that once in the office, life was taken over by phone calls, meetings and office politics. It was before the age of e-mail.

It was on those walks that he became familiar with some of the historic mansions and other buildings along Sherbrooke Street. When McGill University pulled down the Prince of Wales Terrace, a row of Edwardian townhouses on Sherbrooke, he described it as “an act of vandalism unworthy of such a great institution.”

But it was another building’s demolition that moved him to action. When a developer tore down the Van Horne Mansion at the corner of Stanley and Sherbrooke, Mr. Culver was shocked.

“He also heard about it at home as his children were outraged that the Van Horne Mansion was gone and we were protesting it at McGill,” said his daughter, Diane Culver, who was a student at the university at the time.

That set in motion a major preservation of buildings along Sherbrooke Street. Once Mr. Culver became the CEO of Alcan, he came up with a plan to buy three old houses and a newer hotel and convert them into the company’s world headquarters.

One of the reasons he wanted a new building was to make a statement: Alcan was staying in Montreal. The Parti Québécois had won the 1976 election, and companies such as Sun Life and Royal Trust moved to Toronto.

“Skittish employees were constantly coming into my office and asking, ‘Are we going or are we staying?’” Mr. Culver wrote. He told them the company, with its huge smelters in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, was a Quebec firm and was staying put. He knew many of them thought he was just saying that because he had to say it. “I felt the only way I could convince them that Alcan was staying in Quebec was to build our own head office in Quebec.”

There were two jewels in the row of buildings on Sherbrooke Street. One was Atholstan House, built in 1895 for Sir Hugh Graham, the founder of the Montreal Star newspaper who later became Lord Atholstan. “It wouldn’t have been out of place on New York’s Fifth Avenue,” Mr. Culver said. The other was Maison Béique, built for a prominent French-Canadian family in 1894.

He hired a Montreal architect, Ray Affleck, and acquired the four buildings – some of them by stealth, so the owners wouldn’t push up the prices when they found out the buyer was a rich Canadian multinational. The older buildings were restored, and a modern office building was built behind them. Maison Alcan opened in 1983, with Mr. Culver’s office on the second floor of what was the Atholstan mansion. His window overlooked Sherbrooke Street and the site of the old Van Horne Mansion.

The Culver family first arrived in New England in the 1600s (then spelling the name “Colver”), and one of them moved north after the American Revolution. Mr. Culver’s father, Ab Culver, was a decorated hero of the First World War, and through him, David was a first cousin once removed of Conrad Black. His mother, the former Fern Smith, was a remarkable woman who kept a daily diary from 1926 to 1986. It runs to 48,000 pages and is now with Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

David Michael Culver was born on Dec. 5, 1924, in Winnipeg. His family moved to Montreal, and he grew up in the Golden Square Mile, at the foot of Mount Royal. He remembered horses grazing in the fields across from the family’s 12-room rented house in Elgin Terrace, at the top of Peel Street.

David went to private schools in Montreal and Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ont., then graduated from McGill University. He went on to Harvard University for an MBA, graduating in 1949.

That year, he joined Alcan and married the boss’s daughter, Mary Powell. Her father, Ray Edwin Powell, had come north from the United States as one of the founders of Alcan.

Fortune magazine called the Harvard Business School class of 1949 “the most successful MBA class in the history of business.” Its graduates ran and built companies from Xerox to Johnson & Johnson. Though business school graduates are relatively common now, there were only 3,000 in the world of 1949.

One of Mr. Culver’s first jobs was selling aluminum from the company’s sales office in New York. It was the Mad Men era, and he was warned about the three-martini lunch. His solution: order a gin on the rocks – just an ounce and a quarter of gin – while his customer downed six times as much alcohol in three martinis.

Mr. Culver was one of the business elites who helped build the postwar success story of Canada and the United States. By the time he became CEO, Alcan operated on six continents. Bauxite, the raw material for aluminum, came from tropical countries such as Jamaica and Guyana and was turned into aluminum in an energy-intensive process using electricity. The oil shocks of the 1970s gave Alcan a huge competitive advantage, as the company owned its own hydroelectric facilities in places such as Quebec and British Columbia.

Alcan was once the Canadian subsidiary of Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, the acronym for the Aluminum Corporation of America. Alcan was founded in 1902 and was spun off as an independent Canadian firm in 1928 and run by Mr. Powell. Although it was always called Alcan, its official name was Alcan Aluminium Limited – with aluminum spelled the British way, with the extra “i.”

Along with running one of the most important businesses in Canada, Mr. Culver was also president of the Business Council on National Issues, a kind of CEO lobby group. He was picked to represent Canadian business on important trips aboard. In the late 1980s, Japan boasted the second-largest economy in the world, and Mr. Culver led several trips there.

“At the time, he was the senior Canadian businessman on these trips. He was a gentleman, well-informed and when you were looking for a businessman to represent Canada in Japan, he was it,” said James Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador to Japan from 1989 to 1993.

After Mr. Culver’s retirement, Alcan was sold to the Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto in 2007 and renamed Rio Tinto Alcan. “He was disappointed to see Alcan sold but was relieved that the buyer was not Alcoa because he felt the cultures of those two companies were too different to be compatible,” said Janice Darrah, who was his executive assistant for 34 years at Alcan and at his private firm after his retirement.

Ms. Darrah said Mr. Culver encouraged her to be independent and think for herself. She said he shared everything with her, making it easier to do her job. He never lost his temper. Before he was CEO, however, she recalled one time when he got angry after his boss fired someone without telling him while he was away.

“He ordered a truckload of manure, had it dumped on his [own] lawn and went home and worked out his anger spreading it on his garden all weekend,” Ms. Darrah said.

Mr. Culver was a devoted family man and spent weekends with them on Lake Manitou in the Laurentians, north of Montreal. With an architect, he built a modern house there. He always had a fascination with architecture and found the original family house in Westmount boring. He sold it, bought a lot at the top of Clarke Avenue in Westmount and built a modern structure that some of his more traditional neighbours may not have liked.

“He listened to my brother, who said he wanted it to be so bright that the sun shined on his orange juice in the morning,” said Diane, his daughter. “He said when you spoke to an architect you had to tell him in the first five minutes what you wanted in a building.”

A lifelong pianist, he was a patron of the McGill Chamber Orchestra and had a piano in his office at Maison Alcan. He was athletic all his life, playing tennis, rackets and golf. He played his last game of golf in April of 2016, shooting in the 40s for nine holes.

Mr. Culver leaves his four children – Michael, Diane, Andrew and Mark – and nine grandchildren.

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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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