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Saturday February 9, 2013

An indomitable force in Canadian business

Towering Vancouver personality built an international company after the death of her first husband

In the 1940s, the West Coast party crowd flocked to the Panorama Roof supper club atop the Hotel Vancouver, where the Dal Richards Orchestra would swing through the tunes of the era, including Mr. Richards's rendition of As Time Goes By. He drew a loyal following among the city's stock promoters, lumber barons and resource magnates, their wives and girlfriends, but perhaps his most avid fan was a vivacious young woman named Wendy.

She was a sometimes fashion model married to an upwardly mobile engineer named Robert MacPherson. Over the decades, Mr. Richards played for her through trials and triumphs - the death of Mr. MacPherson in a plane crash, the sudden demise of two more husbands, the raising of 10 children, and Wendy's emergence as an indomitable force in Canadian business.

The small industrial bearings-distribution firm she inherited from Mr. MacPherson, known as BC Bearing Engineers, became a growth machine as it reached across Western Canada and into the U.S. and Latin America. Wendy - now Wendy McDonald - was a woman who thrived in a macho world of mine drills and oil rigs.

She always kept a soft spot for Dal Richards. When Mrs. McDonald had something to celebrate, she wanted the bandleader to play for her. Last June, the Dal Richards Orchestra headlined a Hawaiian luau for her 90th birthday and Mr. Richards, now 95, watched his good friend hula into the night. "She was dancing her head off," he says.

Seven months later, on Dec. 30, she died of lung cancer, and, to those who knew her, it was the loss of a towering personality - and one of the most visible links between the old Vancouver of timber tycoons, industrial fortunes and big-band music, and the new global city of property speculators, video-game developers and Carly Rae Jepsen.

She was part of the pioneering group of families that built modern Vancouver, says Dan Muzyka, CEO of the Conference Board of Canada and the former business dean at University of British Columbia who, as Vancouver Board of Trade chairman in 2005, looked to Mrs. McDonald, a former chairman herself, for her can-do optimism.

She had an attitude typical of that pioneer generation, he says. "You looked at life, you took it the way it came, and you dealt with it."

Her life began as Wendy Burdon Stoker, and she grew up in North Vancouver, where her father tended a small farm and ran a dairy.

She had a wonderful childhood, spending summers on Halfmoon Bay on the Sunshine Coast, where the family would stay at a resort known as Redrooffs.

She finished her formal schooling at 16, went to work for clothing companies and modelled a bit, appearing in fashion shows at the Hotel Georgia. One night in 1941, at the Cave Supper Club, the 19-year-old was introduced to the intense, good-looking Robert MacPherson, who was 12 years older and trying to launch a bearings business in the wartime economy. They married in January, 1942, and she settled into the role of stay-at-home wife.

Mr. MacPherson joined the RCAF in 1943, and gave Wendy, now a mother of two, power of attorney over his business. While he was flying planes in Europe and Asia, she was expanding his bearings operation, taking it into Alberta on the eve of the huge petroleum boom.

Mr. MacPherson came home in January, 1946, and sent his wife back to the kitchen. "Well, I wasn't happy at all," she said years later. She was comfortable with being at home, but she had tasted the life of an entrepreneur. And Robert MacPherson was a hard man to live with - he would put her down, using the cruel nickname "Dumb Ma." She focused on family and a new summer home, called "Camp," built on a lot on the old Redrooffs property.

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