Beautifully engraved Certificate from the John Labatt Limited
no later than 1984. This historic document was printed by the Canadian Banknote Company and has an
ornate border around it with a vignette of a woman holding a globe in front of a metropolitan city. This item has the printed signatures of the company's President, Peter Widdrington and is
over 26 years old.
In 1847 Irish immigrant John Kinder Labatt, along with a local innkeeper, became co-owner of a small brewery. It stood near the banks of the Thames River in the tiny, yet thriving, colonial settlement of London in Upper Canada.
The staff numbered just six, and the whole operation produced only 4,000 barrels of quality ale per year. Six years later Labatt became the sole proprietor and renamed the plant John Labatt’s Brewery. The name of John Labatt would be woven into the fabric of Canadian business for the next 140 years and beyond.
After John Kinder’s death in 1866, his son John Jr. took over the family business and continued as the patriarch of the clan and the company for the next 50 years. In his half century running the family business, he witnessed triumph and tragedy and learned how to turn adversity into advantage. A fire in the spring of 1874 destroyed the London Brewery. Just nine months later a brand-new brewery opened and the annual production increased to 30,000 barrels.
Though John Labatt’s family business had existed for nearly one hundred years, it was not until 1945 that the truly dramatic growth really began. It was then that John Labatt Limited became a publicly traded company. This share issue which put $4.5 million in the corporate coffers, allowed Labatt management to put its ambitious expansion plans into effect.
The first move came a year later when Labatt’s acquired the Copeland Brewing Company of Toronto. Although Labatt’s had been shipping its beer to Toronto and area for some time, this was the first opportunity in 94 years to manufacture outside the original London base. This two-plant operation continued for nearly a decade and carved out a growing slice of the large Ontario beer market. Today Labatt’s produces over 40% of all beer sold in Canada with the flagship brand, Labatt’s Blue, the largest-selling beer in the country.
Phenomenal growth would follow over the next twenty years. By the mid-sixties, Labatt’s was producing and marketing on a truly national scale, with fourteen breweries spread throughout Canada. With the formation of these bases in the various Canadian provinces, it was decided that the overall operation should be placed in the hands of a holding company.
This new business entity would be separate from direct involvement in brewing. The new brewing di-vision became known as The Labatt Brewing Company; John Labatt Limited, now the “parent company”, began to look for new opportunities outside the brewing field. Thus began nearly thirty years of intense business activity in Canada, the U.S. and parts of Europe as well.
The first major diversification occurred when, in 1968, John Labatt Limited purchased the Ogilvie Flour Mills Company of Montreal. This was the company’s largest acquisition up to that time and the first outside Ontario. Ogilvie was a well-known and successful Canadian company in business for close to 170 years. Ogilvie brought to Labatt’s two major subsidiaries—Catelli-Habitant and Ault Milk Products.
John Labatt management began to see Ault as a potential major processor of industrial milk. Ault was then still based in the small town of Winchester, Ontario, where it had begun as a small cheese company in the 1930s. The Ontario base was now established for Ault to become a major player in the Canadian dairy business. One important step in this regard took place in 1981 with the purchase of Dominion Dairies, which brought with it the Canadian rights to the brand name Sealtest. Dominion was at that time one of the largest dairy operations in central Canada. Ault’s expansion continued in 1982 with the addition of Copper Cliff Dairies, Balderson Cheese and New Dundee Butter, all well-known names to the Ontario consumer. Ault’s presence in the central Canadian market became even more pronounced in 1984 with the acquisitions of Silverwood Dairies and Royal Oak Dairy based in Hamilton. Silverwood’s carried with it to the Labatt family a historic name and a shared London heritage.
Because of its close association with professional sports promotion, the brewing group had been exploring the possibility of acquiring a major sports franchise in central Canada—preferably in professional baseball. In 1976 John Labatt Limited became a 45% partner in a new American League team, the Toronto Blue Jays, and later became a founding partner in their future home, Toronto’s renowned SkyDome.
John Labatt Limited built upon its strong sports ties when it established The Sports Network in 1984. TSN was Canada’s first 24-hour, all sport, pay TV channel. Six years later Les Reseau des Sports, a French language version for eastern Canada, was launched and both networks moved to basic cable service.
Throughout its history John Labatt has looked beyond the Canadian borders for potential markets. An enormous step was taken with the purchase of Johanna Farms, a large dairy in the northeast United States. Major expansion into the U.S. marketplace continued with the acquisition of a series of companies providing products to the foodservice industry. Also brought into the Labatt fold was an Ontario company, Omstead Foods of Wheatley, Ontario, a processor of frozen fish and coated vegetables for the North American foodservice industry. These packaged food companies, incorporated as JLFoods, are leaders in their industry. Further John Labatt growth included the addition of the Everfresh Juice Company, a producer of fruit beverages and juice.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Labatt’s operates three successful breweries in Italy. As well, the brewing group maintains licence agreements with 10 regional brewers in the UK.
Today John Labatt Limited is a major consumer products company conducting its business in the international marketplace and generating annual sales of more than $5 billion. Total assets are approaching the $3 billion mark. Labatt’s employs more than 16,500 people and manufactures quality products at almost 80 locations across North America and Europe.
John Labatt Limited is now part of the global marketplace. Yet after almost 145 years of business, it continues to be 99% Canadian owned and operated. Almost 70% of the shareholders are located in Ontario. The worldwide head office of John Labatt is still located in London, Ontario. It is clear that John Labatt Limited has never lost touch with its Ontario roots and proud Ontario heritage.
Peter Widdrington is the first child of a Pickering College Class of 1942 member to be honoured as an Alumni of Pickering College. A resident of the school from birth and a student at Pickering from grades 4 until graduation, Peter studied at Queen’s University in Kingston and the Harvard Business School.
From 1955 to 1973, Peter rose from salesman for Labatt’s Breweries to President and Chief Executive Officer of John Labatt Limited, the company that owned Labatt’s Breweries and many other subsidiaries. He was a leader in Canadian Business until 1987 when he retired to become Chairman of the Board of John Labatt Limited. In his career, Peter has held executive responsibility for over 100 companies, 75 manufacturing facilities and 17,000 employees. He presided over an organization whose sales grew from $500 million (US) annually to more than $4 billion. A key force in founding of TSN cable TV sports network, Peter’s efforts were instrumental in winning a major league baseball franchise for Toronto.
In 1991, Peter became Chairman of the Board of the Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Club. Fittingly, the Jay’s two World Series Championships occurred while one founder was Chairman. Presently, Peter is also Chairman of Major League Baseball, professional baseball’s licensing and marketing arm, and Chairman of Laidlaw Incorporated. Peter has been honoured by the Sales and Marketing Executives Association of Toronto, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Western Ontario and became the first Canadian ever to be President of North America’s Chief Executives Organization.