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Ernest Rady
Photo by Thomas Fricke
Conversation with a Visionary

Ernest Rady

The alumnus and philanthropist behind the largest-ever personal donation to UM talks about his giving, his business philosophy and why it was easier being “a nobody.”

“Give back… make a difference in someone’s life. Do that, and it will make a difference in yours.”

– Ernest Rady

On May 12, 2016, Ernest Rady walked into the Brodie Centre atrium and made history. He announced the Rady Family Foundation’s gift of $30 million, the largest-ever personal donation to the University of Manitoba, and to what is now the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences. Members of the UM community shouted “thank you, thank you, thank you!” while the trailblazing alumnus held back tears. Ernest [BComm/58, LLB/62, LLD/15] and his wife Evelyn [BA/60,BSW/61, MSW/67] dedicated the gift to his parents, Rose and Dr. Max Rady [MD/21], the latter a UM alumnus, physician and namesake of the Max Rady College of Medicine. With such a transformational contribution, this hub of multidisciplinary health education and research in Manitoba boldly steps into the future while honouring a legacy of those who made it possible.

Ernest studied business and law at UM before going on to establish Westcorp, growing the company’s assets to a staggering $17 billion-plus. Now chairman, president and CEO of American Assets Trust—a publicly traded real estate investment trust with a market value of roughly $4 billion (USD)—the 82-year-old is equally celebrated for his visionary career achievements as he is for his philanthropic gifts to education, children’s health and scientific research. This September in Winnipeg, he’ll be recognized as the recipient of the 2020 International Distinguished Entrepreneur Award (IDEA).

President and Vice-Chancellor David Barnard recently sat down with Ernest, who was candid about his giving, his business philosophy and why it was easier being “a nobody.” 

PRESIDENT BARNARD: Why was it important to you to donate to the Front and Centre campaign?

Ernest Rady: It was to honour my father, who was an immigrant to Canada, didn’t speak the language and lived with his sister and brother-in-law—in those days…you received a quarter section of land that you could farm. He lived with them, succeeded in entering medical school, and he used to tell me often—he worked, as well, for $25 a month—he could only afford a banana and a slice of bread for lunch. But he was a very kind, loving father. And I thought what I’m going to do with the resources I’ve been able to accumulate is honour him. I’ve made many gifts but the one I cried most [about] was giving that gift in honour of my father, who would have been so happy. 

What were you like as a boy? 

I was a spoiled child, if you want to know the truth…. I had two older sisters {Marjorie Blankstein [BA/50, LLD/14] and Mindel Olenick [BSc/45]} so I had three mothers. So, I was spoiled rotten. My father wanted to make a man of me, he thought, and so he sent me to a school called St. John’s College School [what is now St. John’s-Ravenscourt]. I was not very happy there but it kind of toughened me up, frankly. And I remember that with pride and some pain.

As a child, what gifts of kindness did you witness?

Well, my mother was very active in the community, and service was very important to her. Her family fled Russia; my father’s family fled Russia. And then I was brought up during the Second World War and I was aware of what happened to the Jews in Germany. So that was a central theme for my parents. And, of course, my father was a doctor and loved to help people. He used to tell me, “Ernest, when the patient would come to see me and say, ‘Thank you, doctor,’ it was like making a million dollars.”

When you were 15, you took on substantial responsibility. Can you talk a little bit about that?

My father started to have strokes, heart attacks and ended up with Alzheimer’s. And this is when he was 60, and he was dead at 68. And a lot of the responsibility fell on my sisters and me, and to a lesser extent, my mother. Because she loved him so much, she could never see that he was anything less than perfect. So, from age 15 ’til he passed away, there was a lot of responsibility and trauma. I had my father on a pedestal. He was a loving, great human being, and to see him do things that I couldn’t understand was very, very painful. 

Who inspired you? 

On my mother’s side, the family was very successful—that was inspiration. I wanted to be my own person and not somebody’s son, somebody’s nephew, and that was a driver. What inspires me now is I love what I do. It’s just fun for me. 

Tell me about a transformative moment in your life.

When the [financial] meltdown came a decade ago, and I had built up a company—which was the 14th or 15th largest bank in the country, number one or number two in auto finance in the country, and one of the top in the world—and the regulators said that you have to merge because you’re too concentrated in auto finance, and I chose Wachovia. I could’ve merged with anybody. That transformative moment is when Wachovia got, in effect, put out of business by the regulators, and that was a nightmare for me because it was what I’d built up for 30 years and it just disappeared…. That was the end of a significant part of the fortune I’d built up. That got my attention. But you know, you get through it.

What’s a memory that stands out from your time at the University of Manitoba?

Well, I loved the degree I got in commerce [now the Asper School of Business]. One of the things I’m most proud of is I received the university gold medal. It still hangs on my wall. I took it home and showed my parents and they were very proud. I remember the first year, I kind of partied too much, and then they started reading out the results of some of the exams. They got to mine and they said, “Mr. Rady, your results are so low, I can’t even read it out loud.” I said, “Oh my God.” I can remember the sweat started steaming out of my brow. And I said, “I better get to work.”

What’s your vision for your gift to the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences?

Well, I hope it helps it be all it can be. I hope it positions the university as an international leader in health education, training, research and practice. Whether that’s through a new endowed Chair in Inter-professional Collaborative Practice, or an innovation fund to serve as a catalyst for collaborative research, or a new maternal health child pilot program to improve health outcomes in remote communities. I think the best thing is I entrust people who will do the most with it. 

That’s wonderful. Your philanthropy has done a lot for many people. What do you feel being philanthropic has done for you? 

It’s probably on the whole—you’re not going to like this answer—been a negative. The best time of my life was when I was nobody. I was never a nobody in the business community but I was nobody in the community and being visible has its downfall.… Ten years ago, after I made the gift to Rady Children’s Hospital, we had a home invasion. And I survived four hours with this fellow—who in the end, we became friends—and he said, “So I want to take your money.” He had a knife, a gun, and he tasered me and tied me up and then we started chatting. So that visibility is a negative. And then, frankly, people take it too seriously. I mean, I’m, you know, I’m not special at all. I’ve got a lot of common sense but I’m as human as anybody else. So it’s been, on the whole, a negative, but what the hell am I going to do? You know, I can’t take it with me. I want to make sure that it’s used in the most productive way possible. 

You’re an astute observer of businesses. What, from your perspective, is the number one reason that businesses fail?

It boils down to people…. I’ve always said if you take a good business and put bad people in it, you’re going to have a poor business. And if you take a bad business and put good people in it, you’re going to have a good business.

Do you have entrepreneurs that you admire?

My hero has always been Warren Buffett because he is the world’s greatest investor. I am not—but I would have liked to have been—Warren Buffett. I spent a little bit of time with him. What a good human being, and humble, you know? “Warren,” I said, “you keep drinking these Cokes. Don’t you worry about your calories?” “Well,” he says, “I know if I’m going to consume 2,000 calories, 1,000 has to come from Coca-Cola.” [Buffett owns a stake in the company]. I’d like to be Warren Buffett if I get reborn again.

What advice do you have for people who would like to be entrepreneurs?

Find something that you enjoy and then associate with decent, honest people. If you find somebody you don’t trust, get ’em out of your life.

If you were getting into business today, what sector would you choose to get involved in? What new industries excite you?

Of course, the world has been in an upheaval with technology. I don’t really have the ability—at least not at this stage—to understand the technology which is disrupting the world. It is a greater occurrence than the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century…. I’d probably go back into the same businesses that I’m in now, which are all asset-based, people-based…. That’s what I was comfortable with, and it’s probably too late for me to be somebody different. If I could be somebody different, I’d probably like to be Bill Gates because he made a hell of a lot more money—but I don’t understand technology.

What do you hope your legacy is?

People won’t remember, you know, whether I made this amount of money or that amount of money, or I had this deal or that transaction. Hopefully they’ll remember that the fortune helped others.

That’s fantastic. Thank you. If you could do it again, is there anything you’d do differently?

I live life, David, so that if I got hit by a truck tomorrow, and my life flashed in front of my eyes, would it be, “I’m glad I did” or “I wish I had”? I don’t have [many] “I wish I hads.” I’m glad I did. I’m grateful.

How he spends Saturday mornings:
Playing golf with the same group of friends he’s had for 25 years. “We’re all lousy golfers, but I really look forward to those guys—I love those guys.”

How many hours he still works a week:
50-60— “I’m always thinking about what the hell am I going to do next?”

His most powerful management tool:
“Look for ways to praise.”

A huge learning curve for him:
People, specifically, how to help others be all they can be.

A daily ritual:
“I’ve been exercising every day for 50 years for about an hour a day, which I hate but I do it.”

A talent he wishes he had:
“I wish I had a higher IQ. Almost everybody, I think, is smarter than me, but I probably have more common sense than most.”

The best advice he’s received:
Don’t take yourself too seriously.

How he knew he didn’t want to be a doctor:
His father brought him, at age 11, to view an emergency appendectomy. “I looked into this fellow’s incision and they carried me out. That was the end of my medical career.”

What he’s grateful for:
His marriage of 60 years to wife Evelyn, his children and his grandchildren.

What he’s not good at:
“Oh, just about everything.”


Purchase your tickets for the 2020 IDEA dinner, Sept. 24, 2020, in Winnipeg at the RBC Convention Centre. Visit

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