By: JOHN GRAINGER, SASKATOON STARPHOENIX
Awards are nice. The recognition from peers is a pat on the back for exemplary work. Often, a plaque or a trophy — something that will likely gather dust sitting on a mantle — is handed over as a memento.
When the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce awarded Grant Kook with the 2018 business leader of the year award, he was appreciative of the honour, but didn’t shout it from the rooftop of his downtown Saskatoon office building.
“Yes, it’s quite an honour and I am humbled by it. But I looked at it as an opportunity, as a way I can inspire others who were in the room who have a dream like I did. If I can help one person through this award, I’d be thrilled,” says Kook, who also admitted he may have taken liberties with the allotted time frame for his acceptance speech.
Kook, the founding president and chief executive officer of Westcap Mgt. Ltd., hopes his efforts in the business community throughout the province go beyond the bottom line. They go to the people he meets with every day, the students he mentors — that’s all part of the legacy he is creating. That legacy is something he learned from an early age through his parents while growing up in Outlook.
Kook was the sixth of seven kids — he jokes they were the cheap labour force for their parents’ Chinese restaurant in Outlook — the New Outlook Cafe. It was expected that Kook and his siblings participate in the running of the business. He washed mountains of dishes, carried his share of heavy wooden crates filled with glass bottles of soft drinks and had his first experience with handling cash.
However, he says those early childhood business experiences aren’t what shaped him into what he has become. That came from watching his mom and dad give back.
“My dad was always helping to raise funds for the community for various projects. He was involved. At the time I didn’t really know what I was watching, but maybe by accident, I kind of picked it up there,” he says.
Kook and his siblings didn’t know his dad was silently helping families in the community who were facing hardships, be it financial or otherwise. When his dad died 17 years ago, Kook was surprised when so many people at the funeral spoke about his dad’s quiet generosity.
“He helped, but under one condition — it was to be anonymous. We never knew,” he says. “Anything that has to do with community or philanthropy, I probably owe it to watching him over the years.”
It took a while for Kook to realize how his father operated, and what effect his support had on families in Outlook.
“It wasn’t until I was a much older person that it dawned on me what kind of a man he was.”
When asked about how his dad would have reacted to his son winning a prestigious business award, Kook says his dad — known around Outlook as Noisy Jim — would have been proud of his boy, but in a quiet way.
“My parents weren’t very good at expressing that kind of stuff, probably like most parents of that generation. He probably wouldn’t say anything to me, but he would probably be proud to tell all of his buddies on coffee row.”
Even when Kook’s father passed, money was left behind to support minor sports in Outlook. Kook saw first-hand how his dad wanted a legacy of giving. Kook’s mom, May, passed away in 2010.
“Even on his deathbed, my dad was trying to help. If I could be 20 per cent of the man he was, I think I will have accomplished something,” he says.
Like father like son. Kook believes this is why it’s very important to him to be connected and involved locally.
To say Kook is connected is a bit of an understatement.
In addition to his Westcap day job, he is the board chair of SaskTel, vice-chair of the recently-formed Saskatchewan Health Authority, vice-chair of Saskatchewan Blue Cross, a board member of 3sHealth Shared Services Saskatchewan and a board member of the Saskatchewan Teacher’s Federation Pension Plan Investment Committee.
Steve McLellan, CEO of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, says Kook’s selection for the award was an interesting process.
“As soon as his name came forward, it was a clear consensus he was the right choice,” McLellan says.
After heading to the big city from Outlook, Kook enrolled at the University of Saskatchewan and graduated with a commerce degree in finance and economics. He took his university training, and paired his dad’s belief in helping locally with an idea of how to expand on that to something that could help everyone in the province.
That’s when the seed of the idea for Westcap first began to germinate. Kook took his lessons from his father on helping others to a whole new level. Westcap has grown into a financial juggernaut in Saskatchewan and beyond through its Golden Opportunities Fund, which invests in provincial businesses and helps them to succeed.
Last fall, the Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Authority (SREDA) completed an economic impact estimate on the fund and found 130 Saskatchewan companies created 15,000 jobs, with 88 per cent of towns and cities in Saskatchewan affected by the fund.
Kook remains a staunch advocate of business in the province.
“Like I said in my speech at the awards, ‘Guys, we have lots going on here.’ We have two choices. We can stand around and talk about the low commodity prices or we can stand up and look around and realize how lucky we are right now.”
Kook says the adage of the provincial economy being a three-legged stool (agriculture, mining and oil and gas) is long gone. He believes a fourth leg has been added to the stool: innovation. The advent and quick growth of local IT companies is something to watch closely as leaders in the province’s economy.
Another major life event which shook Kook and his wife Liza to the core was the loss of their six-year-old daughter 17 years ago to cancer. That pushed Kook to become a vocal advocate for the need to establish a children’s hospital in Saskatchewan. That dream becomes a reality in the fall when the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital opens to the public in Saskatoon.
“As hard as it was, and is, we try to use that in a positive way. We tell our story and we tell people that when kids get sick and they are scared, we will have better doctors and better expertise here. That’s No. 1.”
But even more than that is the fact families won’t have to send their children away to a different city or province, or even another country. Sick children, Kook says, will be cared for at home with their moms and dads still beside them.
“Their parents can be comforted knowing they are doing the best thing they can for their child at that moment. Having lived through that, it’s peace of mind and worth every penny that people have donated.”
Grant and Liza have two other children, Jada, a 21-year-old Edward School of Business student at the U of S, and Arian, a 16-year-old son in high school.
Kook’s brother Steve, head coach of the U of S women’s Huskies hockey team, says he and his brother didn’t really catch on to what their father was doing in terms of philanthropy until he died.
“You get wiser when you get older,” says Steve, who’s in his 10th year as Huskies coach. “We can now see what kind of a legacy our dad was leaving behind.”
Steve is not surprised by his brother’s success, but he is surprised Grant has stayed with his roots after the success he’s nurtured.
“‘That’s one of the things we’re most proud of him. Doing what he does in the industry he’s in … he could have moved away to a bigger metropolitan centre and continued to do what he does,” he says. “He’s stayed here and made this his home. That’s the biggest part of it for me. He’s elected to do it all from here.”
Kook’s business acumen, not unlike his father’s, has allowed him to spread his business plan beyond the borders of the province to a more global reach, specifically into Asia. Kook believes growth will bring a focus back to the province and will enhance opportunities for Saskatchewan entrepreneurs.
Like father like son. Kook’s keeping his business foundation on solid footing at home, ensuring economic strength will continue in the province.
Maybe more awards will be forthcoming some day. Kook, however, won’t be standing around waiting for them. He’s still got work to do.