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At the Top
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Tom Bitove: Keeping it in the family
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GORDON PITTS
From Monday's Globe and Mail

It all started 60 years ago with a 14-stool restaurant run by a Macedonian immigrant family in Toronto. Today, the Bitove family is ubiquitous, with interests spanning food service, restaurants, media, satellite radio, van lines - and, increasingly, charitable giving. Tom Bitove is one of five children (four sons and a daughter) of 81-year-old patriarch John Bitove Sr. - and a key player as the business evolves through its second generation, with a third poised to get involved.

Are you the brother who likes to roll up his sleeves?

Operations have always been my strength. I love the day-to-day activity, the detail. John [Jr.] is the deal maker - he is very strategic. I have two other brothers at various points. One, Nick, is retired - he did okay. The other one, Jordan, is very active in the event-planning business.

How long have you been in the business?

I joined full-time in 1977 but pretty much from the early 1970s when I was in school, I was working summers. In my mind, I was always going to end up in the business. I had two great role models. My dad was the business man. There was always a deal there to go after. It was "never say no and just challenge yourself." My mom [Dotsa] was the stay-at-home defenceman who actually taught us great financial practices.

Such as?

You work hard for your money so you don't just give it away. If you are going to invest it, invest it smartly.

How did you and your siblings all manage to find roles?

We understand very few families make it successfully to the next generation, and so we have been blessed. Our parents taught us early that we are all different, but we should engage the strengths of the others to make ourselves better. We always looked at it as if we are all part of a big jigsaw puzzle and each one brings a different piece of the puzzle.

Do you ever fight?

Absolutely - the things you would normally fight over. The way we were brought up is it's okay to argue. But if I were to argue with, for example, a brother, my father would force one of us to go and talk to the other and just explain why you were upset with him. You don't have to admit you are right or wrong, just explain it.

Things would settle down after a day or two. Chances are you missed something in the first part of the argument that set you off. I honestly don't remember being upset with any of my siblings for an extended period, more than a day or two. We confronted the issue at the time and that also helped with the family business. We knew we were always going to communicate well.

Who will call the shots in your generation?

The way it has been set up with the trust and everything is that the five of us will equally oversee the family assets. My parents had the foresight a number of years ago to continue with certain family assets that were shared, but each of us set up our own silos and now have our own businesses. I have my own businesses now; my brother John does, and all the others have their own investments.

What's the mandate of the Bitove Foundation?

It's run by my sister Vonna, and it generally seeks out health and youth causes. Last year, we made major commitments to two major hospitals, both in the area of about $1-million. It ebbs and flows, but that is our ballpark.

Are you feeling the same tough times as other foundations?

Our foundation is funded just internally, and we're not being affected. We do it through our own businesses, and we don't rely on endowments. But the downturn will have an effect even on us. With the billions of dollars wiped off the net worth of individuals, and the billions lopped off balance sheets, there are going to be huge changes coming, and obviously we will be affected by it.

One cause for which you raise money is ProAction, which brings police officers and youth together in activities from camping to the arts. How did that get going?

Most police become officers because they want to make their community better. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of funding within the police service or the city that officers can tap into to develop these programs. A lot of times they have to do it during their off hours.

Also, when you and I were young, you'd go to the Canadian National Exhibition, for example, and your parents would say if anything happens, find a police officer. But somehow, in the 1970s, they moved into vehicles and you couldn't find a cop.

In 1991, my father had lunch with Toronto's police chief and kind of lamented the fact there were no longer cops on the street. He just thought if we could create an opportunity for police officers as individuals to connect with youth in the community, only good things can happen. All of our funding is directed to the police officer. We will only entertain requests brought from the police service.

People who know the family as hard-nosed must be surprised by this charity side.

We like to believe we're really fair in business. Sometimes in business, it gets challenged and you have to stand up for what you believe is right. I don't think people are surprised we get involved in charity. If anything, our family reputation is probably a help to me when I go out and talk to people about the causes I'm involved in.

Tom Bitove

Title:

Chair, AMJ Campbell Van Lines

Director, Bitove Foundation

Managing partner, Wayne Gretzky's restaurant, Toronto

Born:

March 8, 1955 in Toronto

Education:

BA in economics, University of Western Ontario

Career highlights:

Early 1970s: Begins working summers in the family business.

1977: Joins the family business

1989 to 2002: Serves as president of Lettuce Serview, a travel and airport concessions company owned by the family. Company was sold in 2002.

Owns distribution rights for Red Bull energy drink in Ontario.

gpitts@globeandmail.com

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