Obituary: Tom Harris, owner of car dealerships and cellphone stores

Vancouver Island businessman and philanthropist Tom Harris, has died after falling off a friend’s boat on San Juan Island.

Harris slipped into the water in the early morning hours of Thursday while his friend’s 70-foot yacht was moored in Roche Harbor, said San Juan County Undersheriff Brent Johnson. Harris and his son had travelled to San Juan Island by smaller boat and were staying on the friend’s yacht.

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“They had dinner the night before, they had gone to bed. They woke up the next morning and they couldn’t find him,” Johnson said.

Harris’s body was found Thursday morning by someone walking by the dock, who alerted Roche Harbor management. Police arrived and recovered the body from the water.

The body was transported to the medical examiner in Snohomish County for an autopsy. Foul play is not suspected, said Johnson.

Johnson said Harris’s next of kin have been notified and his son has returned to B.C. to be with family.

Harris, who lived in Lantzville, headed a chain of car dealerships and cellphone outlets in B.C. and Alberta. He was in his late 60s.

“He was a wonderful man, a wonderful family man, and a wonderful gentleman who gave back to the community in so many different way,” his long-time friend Victoria lawyer Michael O’Connor said Thursday.

“He was immensely successful in business but he also helped many, many people in business.”

Harris had gone to Roche Harbor to offer business advice to a friend, something that was typical of his nature, O’Connor said.

He “really gave back to everyone and everybody. He could not do enough for friends and family.”

Examples include working on the board of the Nanaimo and District Hospital Foundation, the Nanaimo United Way, the campaign to build new quarters for St. John Ambulance in Nanaimo, and the Nanaimo Community Foundation board.

Harris was vice-chairman of the board of B.C. Ferries, and was chairman of the B.C. Automobile Dealers Association and the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association.

He was Nanaimo’s citizen of the year in 2004.

O’Connor and Harris met in Nanaimo at Dot’s Cafe at ages 19 or 20, outgoing strangers who started chatting and eventually became as close as brothers.

“That was the start of a life-long friendship,” said O’Connor, who acted as Harris’s lawyer for more than 40 years.

They even performed marriages for each other’s daughters, with marriage commissioners on hand.

Born in Duncan, Harris was raised in Victoria and Nanaimo. At age eight he sorted flower bulbs in the summer, and the next year he delivered the Star Weekly in Gordon Head. The draw of a paycheque pulled him from university; he left after a year to sell cars.

At age 33 in the early 1980s, Harris committed himself to saving his father’s Nanaimo dealership at a time when interest rates were 20 to 22 per cent. Banks had closed 15 dealerships in B.C., including his father Jack Harris’s Chevrolet-Oldsmobile dealership, where Tom Harris was sales manager. The bank wanted to sell the assets, but Harris fought to keep the business going.

“I believed in myself and I believed that properly structured, I could put this thing back together,” he said in a 2006 interview with the Times Colonist.

To get the General Motors franchise, Harris needed $600,000 and an operating line of credit.

He had neither — but he had friends and real estate at Mount Washington and Mudge Island. He risked everything he had, leveraged and borrowed.

Harris had nine mortgages, personal loans, and a partner when he opened the dealership in 1983.

“In order to be a success financially, you have to be willing to take risks and be so confident in what you are doing that you’re prepared to put it all on the line,” he said.

Harris and wife Christine have five children: Michael, Antony, Elizabeth, Stephanie and Cynthia.

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