Allen Vandekerkhove

Call him Van. His friends do.

“They nicknamed me Mr. Van when they couldn’t say Vandekerkhove,” says Allen Vandekerkhove, who, at 73, sits contentedly in his home office wondering who to give money to. Deer amble across his 40-plus hectares of rolling hills of deep, verdant green, framed by a protective backdrop of forest. Four generations of Vandekerkhoves live on the quiet spread in Saanich behind fences and an electronic gate to keep the curious and nosy at bay.

The Payless Gas owner-turned-investor-turned-philanthropist has been looking at the same grand view since 1976 when he was running a four-year-old chain of gas stations and making headlines for his battles against men with briefcases and expensive suits. Seems like there was always a deal to be cut. And, if it wasn’t trying to find a supplier for his gas pumps or fending off aggressive bank officials, Van was trying his hand at something else — real estate investing, financing, even cattle farming.

Even the acquisition of his farm became one of those legendary business deals. The land came up for sale for $1 million and Van offered half a million in cash, though he didn’t actually have anywhere near that. “Remember, I’d started Payless in ’72 with only $28 in the bank and this was only four years later. I just didn’t have the money… And, I didn’t tell my wife. I was wondering, ‘How am I going to get out of this?’”

That Vandekerkhove good fortune was right on schedule. A few days after putting in the offer, Van was told the seller had a bit of a tax problem and didn’t want all that cash up front. He’d take a small down payment instead. “It was meant to be,” says Van.

Mercurial to the point of distraction, effervescent, a bit feisty, Van loves to talk and has enough engaging stories to script his own miniseries. In fact, his is the sort of rags-to-riches tale the CBC loves to make Sunday evening TV about. Poor Manitoba farmboy quits school at 13 to drive a truck (yes, at 13) and tries to save the family farm after his parents divorce. A year later, he meets his future wife, Loreen, just 13 herself. Three years later, they marry and have the first of six children. Along the way, Van moves west, becomes owner of Payless Gas, battles to survive, sells it, becomes a multi-millionaire, and starts a career in retirement as a philanthropist.

Founded in 1991, the Allen and Loreen Vandekerkhove Family Foundation has been handing out close to half a million dollars a year, providing crucial funding for 40 or so charities, plus endowments to big institutions like the University of Victoria and Camosun College. “We sold Payless and I was blessed with more money than I ever dreamt about or deserved,” Van confesses. “I feel a responsibility to do good things.”

Those good things have a way of multiplying. The Vandekerkhoves always look to make a donation where others will match it — and it’s happened many times. “When I ask people why they do it, why they’ll match our gift, you know what they say to me? ‘Because you did it, so we feel it’s safe.’”

Does your Foundation have roots in the way Payless Gas used to sponsor sports teams?

There was always money for minor sports like football and softball, as well as the Mann Cup-winning Victoria Shamrocks and the Payless Open Golf Tournament, which made the city a stop on the pro golf tour. We started giving to be helpful and, all of a sudden, the fallout of having all these sports teams started showing up in the business when customers started buying gas at Payless just because we’d sponsored their kid’s team. Eventually, it was a big part of Payless — giving to the sports people. That’s really when the giving started.

Do you think those who have mined success in Victoria and on the Island have been generous in putting some of that money back into the community? Could they do better?

Encouraging them is the key. Matching each other’s gifting is key, too. I’m sure there’s always room for a lot more to be done, but remember there’s a lot of giving being done quietly and that’s fantastic. If you’ve been blessed and fortunate in your life — share and you’ve done something great for yourself, too. You’re making yourself feel good.

You’ve given generously to so many groups. What sort of projects appeal to you most?

I don’t have any one I would favour more than the other. The thing that appeals to us most is giving where there is high volunteerism and that the results are really obvious.

You were one of the original investors in Len Barrie’s Bear Mountain — you “floated” him $3 million. Did you ever get the money back?

In spades. And I got a golf membership for life, but I play very little, so they’re not losing money on me. It was so much fun dealing with those guys. I’m still impressed with what they’ve done.

Is there a better way to run things in Victoria?

Amalgamation is big on my mind because I’m a businessman. The perception is that municipalities, and governments in general, are wasteful by their nature by a bureaucracy that cannot be helped. As a businessman, I’ve always felt it important to try and run the city as efficiently as possible for the taxpayer.

You had some legendary battles with the big oil multinationals in the late 1970s and ’80s. Is it something you look back on with a smile now?

I smile because I’m surprised I survived. It became a survival game walking the minefield between oil companies and the banks. Roland Beaulieu, the past owner of Metro Toyota, once told me: “If you’ve survived your bank calling your loan and your bank cutting you off, you are a businessman.” I survived them and became better at what I was doing. Turns out, getting a beating now and then is helpful.

How do you describe the oil companies now?

You’re going to be surprised at what I’m going to tell you. I think big oil are the best managed companies in the world. On the negative side, the same oil companies are extremely powerful and make a lot of money, and they have the world on a hook.

Was there ever a time with Payless Gas that you just wanted to fold your tent?

Quite the opposite. The more I got beaten up, the more I fought back. I’m not going down.

What made you such a fighter?

Because I was the runt of the family and, if you have five big brothers, you learn to negotiate and survive. Those training periods in your young life make you who you are.

After being so high profile, you live a quiet life these days. How do you like that change?

I like it that way. I love meeting people and I like them just to meet me on the basis of who I am. I think people treated me differently when I owned Payless. They didn’t know how simple and basic a person I was.

You had five brothers and your wife had five sisters. How important is family to the Vandekerkhoves?

Family is everything. Who cares about the money, the toys, and the tools? For us, it’s the main reason of being. Here’s something else… all of my children worked for me at Payless, and I hired all of my “outlaws” and fired them all. They were more uppity than the family and they just didn’t fit.