John Chew's "charmed life" came to a close on Sunday after the well-known Victoria businessman and philanthropist suffered a heart attack. He was 87.
Chew, who built one of the Island's largest excavation companies from a single backhoe, was being remembered this week as a smart and serious entrepreneur, a staunch friend and a generous supporter of charities. In 2005, he celebrated a pair of 50-year anniversaries - his marriage to Shirley and the start of Chew Excavating.
"One of the biggest things in John's life was making sure that his employees were treated well. He was most proud of the fact that we had multiple-generation employees," said son-in-law Bruce Dyck, president of the Chew Companies, which employs more than 100 on the Island. The group consists of Chew Excavating Ltd., Beachcomber RV Park, Tran Sign (1999) Ltd., and Victoria Contracting and Municipal Maintenance Corp.
Staff have been shedding tears since the news of Chew's death, Dyck said Tuesday. In an earlier interview with the Times Colonist, Chew proudly introduced a father-son team, saying workers were like family. One employee recently retired after 55 years with the company.
After a lifetime of work, Chew fully retired at the end of 2008, Dyck said.
Chew reluctantly dropped out of school at 15 to work on a vegetable farm in Saanich, where he lived in a tiny house with his parents and siblings. The house had no plumbing and water was brought in by buckets.
Horses gave way to tractors and Chew Excavating was launched with a $5,000 investment in a digger. Brothers Max and John Chew started working for local municipalities and completed a range of projects.
A low point came in the 1970s when the company struggled and equipment was sent away to auction. Chew, who had stepped back from the firm's operations, threw himself into rebuilding the company, turning it back into a success.
"He had a personal drive to succeed in whatever he did," Dyck said.
In a 2005 interview, Chew said, "I have lived a charmed life ... Setbacks turned out to be opportunities." At that time, Chew described himself as a "working guy. I will not make anybody do anything that I would not do myself."
He said he was attracted to challenges and doing what others might see as impossible. Chew was open to new ideas and new ways of operating.
Chew kept a low profile but was the go-to person when it came to supporting non-profit causes. Favourite charities included the David Foster Foundation and more than two decades of support for what is now the Times Colonist Island Savings Open golf tournament.
Former Victoria mayor Alan Lowe said Chew was a "great man ... It's a great loss to the community."
Chew readily agreed to support charitable causes when asked, said Lowe, who was always pleased to see Chew at event auctions, knowing that he would help to increase the bids. In 2000, Chew spent $50,000 for a painting of Wayne Gretzky and a Number 99 jersey, both signed by the Great One, to support the Foster Foundation.
Lowe, whose own father died 20 years ago, called Chew a father figure. "He had lots of energy. He had lots of words of wisdom."
Chew mentored others and was an early participant in the Victoria Chinese Commerce Association, Lowe said.
Businessman and philanthropist Allen Vandekerkhove said he and Chew became friends when the excavating company worked on a Payless service station in the 1970s. The two were in business together in Victoria Highway Maintenance and in the Western Pacific Bank of Canada. With their wives, they often went on holidays together.
While Chew was quick to smile and tell jokes, he was "very serious" when it came to business, Vandekerkhove said.
"He didn't talk that much because he did a lot of thinking. We depended on his good judgment because in construction, he was the best."
Businessman Keith Dagg said, "John was an amazing man and a great friend. He touched so many people and was always there to help all of us whether it was a personal or business challenge. He will be missed."
Chew is survived by Shirley, four children - Desmond, Nona, Christopher and Luanne - and four grandchildren. A date for a service has not yet been set, Dyck said.
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