Electronics and communications magnate David Campbell referred to entrepreneurs such as himself as having a “Type E” personality. Such people, he wrote in his 2004 book Do You Really Need an MBA?, possessed an eye for opportunity, were risk-inclined and willing to work up a sweat. These characteristics, combined with an attunement to the needs of consumers, often before consumers themselves were aware of such needs, paid off. Riding a wave of post-Second World War demand for innovation in domestic products, he parlayed a $2,000 loan from his mother into a financial empire.
A ham-radio hobbyist in his youth, he foresaw the usefulness of a portable device to connect people and began one of Canada’s first paging systems. As television started to grow in popularity, he pioneered one of the country’s earliest cable companies. In the mid-1960s he started Combined Market Quotations Inc. (CMQ), a business that connected Canadian traders and investors with a global network of markets. By the 1980s, CMQ was distributing information from 22 stock exchanges around the world, covering 60,000 securities. In 1986, Mr. Campbell sold the company to Dow Jones for $100-million, a figure he regarded as a “nice round number.” But money was simply a way of keeping score. No amount would ever be enough to jettison him into retirement. “There should have been nothing easier for me to do than sit back in a deckchair with a frosted highball, light up a cigar and enjoy the sunlight dancing off the water in the swimming pool,” he wrote. “Of course, I couldn’t do it. In no time, I was restless.”
Mr. Campbell assuaged his restlessness with Tricaster Holdings Inc., a company that invested in existing businesses. Until then, he had primarily pursued ventures of his own. Although he once regretted his own lack of formal business education, he soon began to see it as an advantage. He wrote, “The trained manager relies on the MBA thinker’s equivalent of a parents’ manual. The Type E is an artist of improv.”
Mr. Campbell died on Sept. 13 at his home in Toronto. He was 98.
The wealth Mr. Campbell accumulated throughout a lifetime of entrepreneurship afforded him the means to become a philanthropist and art collector. A long-time patron of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, in 1987 he established a foundation that supported a wide variety of cultural, educational and health institutions. Over time, it included the Art Gallery of Ontario, the University of Toronto, the Munk Centre for Global Affairs, Baycrest Centre, Sunnybrook and Mount Sinai hospitals and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre, as well as the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Toronto’s Harbourfront Music Garden, in which he and his wife, Vivian, collaborated with celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma, was also a recipient of his generosity. In 2006 he was named to the Order of Canada.
In addition to his largesse, Mr. Campbell was also renowned for his wit. Journalist John Fraser, who was master of the University of Toronto’s Massey College from 1995 to 2014, was involved with Mr. Campbell in an endeavour to bring air-conditioning to the stifling building. It included an interdenominational chapel.
“How would you like to cool down some Christians?” Mr. Fraser asked mischievously.
“Of course I would,” Mr. Campbell retorted. “I wish I could have cooled them down 2,000 years ago.”
In 1915, Mr. Campbell’s father, Samuel Kimmel, escaped violence-torn Lithuania by boarding a ship bound for Halifax. When it came time to present himself to the immigration officer, the young Jewish refugee’s surname came out sounding like “Kammel.” His identity papers registered him as Samuel Campbell. He never bothered to correct them.
Canada was welcoming thousands of east European immigrants at the time, so Samuel Campbell’s knowledge of several languages made him an asset to the government. The Immigration Department posted him to New Brunswick as a translator charged with recruiting labourers for Canada’s expanding railways. Mr. Campbell saved enough to buy a horse and cart in order to work for himself as a pedlar selling household goods in the backwaters of rural New Brunswick. He was 31 when he married 16-year old Ida Isaacson, the daughter of a farmer. The couple settled in Fredericton, where they had a daughter, Dorothy. On May 23, 1920, her brother, David Milton Campbell, arrived.
The Campbell family lived frugally on cheap, starchy fare such as porridge and potatoes. As he grew up, young David packed on weight and was bullied for it. His mother dispensed advice that stayed with him: “Fight back if you are attacked,” she urged. “Do not start the fight, but make sure you finish it.” Fists flailing, David soon commanded respect in the schoolyard.
In 1929, the stock market crashed, setting off the Great Depression. Times became even harder for the Campbells, who were then eking a meagre living from a small general store they ran east of Fredericton. Using scant savings, Ida Campbell invested in a hairdressing course in Montreal. She subsequently opened a salon in the family home, earning enough to buy a used car. In the summer, she’d load her permanent-wave equipment into the car. David travelled with her to remote villages, where his mother gave the women modern hairstyles. Her steely resolve and ingenuity made a great impression on David, as did the beauty of the Annapolis Valley. He wrote, “It fed a sensibility in me that would blossom into a life-long avocation: the collection of art and other beautiful objects.”
Seeking better opportunities, in 1932, the Campbells moved to Montreal, where David undertook his first entrepreneurial activity. In his final year at elementary school, he, like other kids in his neighbourhood, bought school supplies from a local variety store that charged exorbitant prices. David noted the name of the company on the side of the supply delivery truck. He phoned and asked if anyone could buy scribblers and pencils from them. The answer was yes. Their prices for pencils and notebooks were so much lower than what the store charged that David knew he could easily sell them to his classmates at a profit. It was a valuable lesson for the budding entrepreneur: Overcharging left room for a competitor.
In 1938, during Mr. Campbell’s last year at Westmount High School, he met Vivian Rothbart, a vivacious brunette slightly older than him who made a big impact. Her mother was less than impressed with Mr. Campbell, who seemed to be going nowhere. He had neither the marks nor the money to go to McGill University. He settled instead for a general science program at Sir George Williams College (later Concordia University). Being the kind of kid who regularly dismantled objects to see how they worked, the study of science suited him. He joined a comedy sketch group at the college, and committed jokes to memory. The value of social connections began to dawn on him even though he viewed himself as a loner who admitted few to any deep level of personal intimacy. One exception was Vivian, whom he married, despite her mother’s disapproval, on April 4, 1943. After 60 years of marriage and three sons, he wrote “It’s beginning to look like a permanent thing.”
After the military rejected him for medical reasons, he worked for an unsatisfying stint at Northern Electric, where he realized he was temperamentally unsuited to being a cog in a machine. He determined to create his own employment. Dave Campbell’s Melody House opened on Sherbrooke Street in October, 1945, with Vivian behind the counter selling records. In their first month, they made a profit. Innovate and promote were pillars on which Mr. Campbell built his businesses. He broadcast music outside the store and installed audio booths inside so customers could listen to a record before buying it. Melody House soon became the “It” spot for Montreal audiophiles, including jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. Within 18 months, the store had to move to larger premises to accommodate new inventory that included fridges, ranges, air conditioners, dishwashers and automated washing machines that came with a complimentary box of All detergent. The detergent was recommended for use in the machines, but not available in Canada. Where would customers get more after they ran out? Mr. Campbell was soon in Ohio signing a five-year contract for the rights to sell All in Canada.
If something new came on the market, Melody House was sure to have it first, including televisions. TV sets required antennas that needed installation, and also content. Mr. Campbell profited from both. He pioneered his own cable TV business with a steady flow of income from customers willing to pay a monthly fee. He sold the business in the 1970s for more than a million dollars.
In the 1980s, at a time when many CEOs were asking what computers were actually for, Mr. Campbell enrolled in several programming courses offered by IBM and other companies. He foresaw all kinds of uses for the machines in the banking and brokerage communities.
“He took them from ticker tape to terminals,” his son Barry said. “He was demanding, volatile, brilliant, impatient, and tough – sometimes all in the same day. His last idea for a business was a device you could tether to things so they wouldn’t go missing. He called it ‘Forget me not.’ “
He leaves his wife, Vivian; sons, Henry, Barry and Jeffrey; numerous grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Campbell wrote: “For the fortunate individual who commands the right mix of attitude, instincts, reflexes and gifts of character, nothing on Earth could be more thrilling than conceiving of an idea that might just make a buck, seizing the moment, assembling the resources, piloting a risky venture into the stratosphere, reaping the rewards that go to the daring – and being able to say: I did that. That person is a born entrepreneur, a true Type E personality.”