George Heller (born Jiří Heller), 1948
George Heller was born in Mariánské Lázně, western Bohemia, in 1948. His father Evžen, who was Jewish, left the country for Palestine in 1938 and there joined the Czechoslovak division of the British Army. Following WWII, he returned to Czechoslovakia and settled in Mariánské Lázně, where he met George’s mother Jiřina who was originally from Plzeň. They established a successful bakery, but when their business was threatened with nationalization following the Communist coup, they decided to leave once again. In 1949, the family moved to Israel. When George’s father learned that he was eligible to live in any Commonwealth country due to his service during the War, the Hellers left for Canada and settled in Montreal in 1952. George’s father began working in bakery and soon opened his own business. George recalls a close-knit, thriving Czech community in Montreal, and he and his parents forged lifelong connections with other Czechs in the city. He says that his mother kept a Czech household; she cooked traditional foods and maintained holiday traditions. When George was 14, his father put him to work in the family bakery and he spent much of his free time there.
After graduating from high school, George began working for Hudson’s Bay Company as a fur trader in northern Canada. He stayed with the company for 20 years and worked his way up through the firm holding numerous positions. He eventually returned to the Hudson’s Bay Company as CEO in 1999 after managing the North American and European arms of the shoe company Bat’a and heading the 1994 Commonwealth Games held in Vancouver. Following the Velvet Revolution in 1989, George’s relatives in Czechoslovakia turned to him for assistance in starting business enterprises of their own. Since then, he has also been contacted by both the Czech and Slovak governments for his business expertise and knowledge of Western markets. In 2005, to celebrate the entry of the Czech Republic into the European Union, George, in conjunction with the Czech Embassy in Canada, organized an exhibit of Czech glass in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s flagship store in Toronto.
George holds Czech and Canadian citizenship and says that there is ‘no downside’ to dual citizenship. He frequently travels to the Czech Republic, for business purposes and to visit family. He raised his two children speaking Czech and passed on to them Czech traditions. Now retired, George sits on several boards and serves as the Honorary Consul General of Thailand in Toronto. He and his wife Linda split their time between Toronto and California.
George talks about his family’s path to Canada
“My father, because he was with the British Army… He didn’t realize it at the time, but anybody who served in the British Army had a right to emigrate to any Commonwealth country. And he learned this after he paid a lot of money to somebody in Canada to sponsor him, and just before we got all the documents, the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] picked him up here in Canada and that was the end of that. But at that point we were already in Amsterdam, and while we were in Amsterdam and Paris, trying to get the papers, my father ran into somebody who said ‘I don’t know why you’re doing all this because you actually have a legal right to emigrate to any Commonwealth country.’ So the decision was between Canada and Australia, so we picked up bag and baggage and we flew – I still remember that – we flew from Amsterdam to Iceland, because in those days the jets didn’t go all the way; they had to refuel, and in Iceland, my father bought a polar bear rug. Go figure, right? So from Iceland, we went to Reykjavik, or Thule, I don’t remember which one it was, to Gander, and then Gander to Montreal. So when we landed in Montreal, we had just our suitcases, but a polar bear rug.”
There was a thriving Czech community in Montreal when George was growing up there
“Growing up in Montreal, there was an enormous Czech community and it was extremely vibrant. Interestingly enough, it was a homogenous group in the way that they interacted with one another, but they were anything but homogenous in terms of where they came from, because there were Czechs, there were Slovaks and there were people from every part of Czechoslovakia. I guess they had a common interest because they all left because it was after the War; there wasn’t much there; a lot of them were displaced. There was every possible type of Czech so there was every religion and whatnot. But when they came to Canada, I guess they found comfort in being together, and that’s not only the Czech community; there was a Polish community, there were a ton of communities, and Montreal was kind of the headquarters for it. It was fascinating that the group of people my parents met up with, not that they knew them in the old country, but that group stayed together for 40 years, and they formed lifetime friendships, to the point that all those people I grew up with are more like aunts and uncles. People who I have zero blood relationship to, but I grew up with their kids… I was telling the story where every Saturday night, they would all take turns hosting a gin rummy card game, and they did it religiously, every Saturday night, for maybe 30 years.”
For three summers, George’s parents sent him to a farm outside of Montreal
“My parents, for us to learn English, sent us to the Eastern Townships which is a farming area south of Montreal, and for the whole summer, for three summers, we basically boarded with a farm family. As crazy as that sounds, my parents were brilliant in their own ways. But we didn’t speak a word of English, in the summertime we went, and it was all Czech kids. So there were maybe six or eight of us, and they would take us by bus; it was about a two-hour ride to this farm. We lived in a farmhouse and it had horses and cows and pigs. The English family that had this farm were called the Swans. Their last name was Swan and we called them Auntie Grace and Uncle Frank, and that’s where I learned to speak English – on a farm, south of [Montreal], along with the children of the friends of the family. And that’s where we all learned to speak English.”
George’s career with Hudson’s Bay Company started when he was 18
“I was fascinated with Indians, couldn’t get enough of the north and whatnot. There was this little ad in the Montreal Gazette that said ‘Wanted: Young men for adventure in Canada’s north.’ It almost had my name on it. So I went and it turned out to be the Hudson’s Bay Company and they were looking for trainees to work in their fur trade. I couldn’t join up fast enough, so I joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1966. The first place I went to was in Hudson Bay, in a community on the shores of Hudson Bay, and basically the raison d’être for that post was to buy the furs from the Indians and they would buy their goods from us. And that was the foundation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and there were 250 stores across northern Canada and we bought furs from the Indians and we had fur auctions houses in the States, in Canada and London. I got to live like people would have lived in the 1600s, 1700s because there was no electricity, and that’s what I wanted; that’s the adventure I wanted. The original thought in joining the Hudson’s Bay Company was that I just wanted the adventure and then I was going to go back to university. Long story short, I loved it and found out that I was really good at trading and stayed with the Hudson’s Bay Company. I joined in ’66 and was there maybe 20 years. I left and did a whole bunch of other stuff, ended up back at Hudson’s Bay Company and ended up being the CEO of the Hudson’s Bay Company.”
After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, George assisted some his relatives with their business ventures
“In ’89 when that whole system fell apart, I had relatives who were my age who basically lost a good part of their lives to communism, but now all of the sudden they had somebody who understood business and had access to capital, so I set a lot of my relatives up in business in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, and I’d go back to help them out. One of my cousins, her and her mother – who was my mother’s first cousin, so she was my second cousin – so the two of them worked in the cafeteria of a major factory outside of Prague, and she could buy the cafeteria because the business was being privatized. So I gave her the capital, she actually bought the cafeteria and there were 1500 workers in this, and the whole cost of buying the cafeteria – it sounds crazy right now – I think was $5,000. So, $5,000 is like nothing, but in ’89, $5,000 was an impossible sum of money for most people in Czechoslovakia. So it was really interesting because I had several of them where for a pittance, they could go into private enterprise.”
George discusses the economic recovery of Czechoslovakia
“The Czech Republic in the ‘30s was the ninth-largest economy in the world. So the history of capitalism, entrepreneurship, existed in Czechoslovakia, so the heritage was all about industrialization, private enterprise and whatnot. Communism was overlaid on them. They never embraced it, unlike Russia which went from being peasants to communists, so there was no history of industrialism and capitalism. So it was really interesting for me to see that it was literally – and this is what is fascinating to me and should be to the world – is that Czechoslovakia went from communism to capitalism in 12 months. Somebody should actually write a book about it because it was amazing. It was genetically encoded in them to be an industrial nation, capitalist enterprise. The minute they finally got rid of the communists, in 12 months, you could not recognize Prague, you could not recognize Czechoslovakia. Because all they needed was freedom and a little bit of capital. They had it in them. This is why it exploded. If you went to Prague in 1988 and then you went to Prague five years later, it was unrecognizable. I’d go with my wife and the whole of Prague was nothing but old buildings with a whole bunch of scaffolding on them and nobody working on them. Two years after they god rid of the communists, you couldn’t find a more beautiful city than Prague, and it’s only gotten better since then.”
George talks about being of Czech heritage
“I have a ton of family there, I visit there all the time, I’ve done business in the Czech Republic, I’m extremely proud to be Czech, but I don’t have any sense that I’m misplaced. I’m not misplaced, I’m a Canadian. I’ve been fortunate in business here in Canada. Very proud of my heritage – in any biography of me or any interview, I always start off by telling people ‘I’m Czechoslovakian, my father was Slovak, my mother was Czech, I was born in Mariánské Lázně,’ so I’m very proud of my background, but that’s different from saying that I feel Czech and not Canadian. I’m a Canadian born in Czechoslovakia; I have a great love and admiration for the country and I’ve worked with the Czech government to help them in terms of trade and export. Canada has been extremely good to a lot of immigrants, certainly the Czech community.”
Category: Oral History