Clarence Heppell

Clarence Heppell

Farm kid became a B.C. grocery legend

Overwaitea president Clarence Heppell grew up in Cloverdale and never forgot his roots; was key Pattison ally in ‘darkest days’

He was born during the winter of 1929 at the family farmhouse in Cloverdale and helped transform a modest, made-in-B.C. grocery store chain into a retail icon across western Canada.

Clarence Heppell, who was president of Overwaitea from 1971 to 1989, passed away March 9 from pancreatic cancer.

He’s being remembered as a talented and inspiring business leader, winsome adventurer, beloved father and friend. He was 87.

Born and raised in Cloverdale, Heppell’s career with Overwaitea and Save-on-Foods spanned more than 40 years.

It began as a junior clerk as a high school student at Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary in the mid-1940s.

He grew up on the family farm on 184 Street south of Highway 10, and enjoyed hunting and fishing as a youth. But according to family, he wasn’t destined to become a farmer, showing instead a definite flair for business, renting school supplies to other students and promoting square dance parties in town, among other schemes.

He began working part-time at 15 at the Cloverdale Overwaitea before earning a wage at 18. At 21, he became the company’s youngest store manager, taking charge of the Qualicum Beach grocery store. He went from store manger to buyer, district manager, general manager and president, at some point doing just about everything at the company except advertising.

At 24, he married his wife Mary-Lou and they raised two sons, Jim and Ken, who grew up in Coquitlam.

In1971 he was appointed company president, a position he would hold for nearly two decades. It was a crucial time for the company, which saw significant growth and change, launching the Save-on-Foods stores and introducing such Canadian grocery store ‘firsts’ as bulk foods sections and pharmacies – innovations that have changed the way people shop for their dinner.

According to The Overwaitea Story, published on the company’s 100th anniversary, Heppell and the other senior managers used their experience and community connections to build the business.

He was, according to Jim Pattison, “The most enthusiastic person you’d ever hope to meet,” putting together a management team with his brother, Gary, and others after he was offered the job of president of Overwaitea.

[Four generations of Heppells, from left: Clarence Heppell (centre) with son Ken, grandson Daniel, and father Leslie.]

“These folks, under Clarence’s leadership, really took on the world,” Pattison said, speaking at Heppell’s celebration of life, held April 1 at Newlands Golf Course.

“His small team and enthusiasm started the revitalization of the new, re-energized Overwaitea as we know it today.”

When Pattison had trouble with personal and corporate lines of credit in the 1970s, it dramatically affected the company’s growth plan, which in turn, meant that Heppell’s plans as president had to be put on hold.

“He never at any time showed his disappointment and immediately downsized his plans until I finally solved my bank problems,” Pattison said.

“Until adversity strikes, you never can tell who your friends are, but Clarence was there for me and the Jimmy Pattison Group in spades when the chips were down in my darkest business days.”

The company would become the largest, Western-based grocery chain in Canada.

It had been a relatively small company with locations in dozens of communities from Nanaimo to Prince George, but lacked the capital to expand or enlarge its stores.

Jimmy Pattison Group’s Neon Products Ltd. bought the company from founder R.C. Kidd’s two children and a limited number of employees in order to gain liquidity and grow the company. Kidd had given store managers the freedom to run their grocery stores as best they could, and had introduced profit sharing.

It would go on to become a chain with the largest market share in Western Canada – a fact that president Jim Pattison credits in no small part to Clarence Heppell.

Here’s a sample of his managerial advice: “Listen to your staff. Ask them, ‘How can we run this company better?’ Tap in to what they’re hearing from customers and what they’re telling you – and then do something about it. It’s that simple. It’s the Overwaitea way.”

He earned two presidents awards, the highest honour in the Jim Pattison Group of Companies, and the pair eventually became good friends.

“We have lost one of our very best,” Pattison said.

Heppell may have caught the travel bug as company president, travelling across B.C., opening new stores as the company’s fortunes rose.

It was always exciting for the family when a new store opened.

There were difficult times, too. On April 23, 1988, the rooftop parking lot caved in five minutes after the opening ceremonies for the Station Square Metrotown Save-On-Foods.

Burnaby mayor Bill Copeland, a former firefighter, acted fast, guiding scores of customers out of the store in a speedy evacuation before the roof came down, sending 21 cars with it.

More than a dozen people were hospitalized briefly, but there were no fatalities, The Overwaitea Story says.

“We were as horrified and devastated as anyone by this tragic event,” Heppell said.

The mall owners suspended construction, and a commissioner of inquiry was set up to identify the causes – found to be an undersized steel beam – and make recommendations. The structure was rebuilt over the next few months and the store re-opened later that year.

When he retired in 1989 at the age of 60, Pattison gave Heppell an RV, setting the stage for a proming new chapter. At 62, he began flying, taking to the skies across southern B.C.

A memorable episode saw him landing a plane on 64 Avenue in Surrey, sticking his head out of the door to glide the plane when engine coolant spilled over, killing the engine and coating the windshield in goo.

He safely touched down in a trucking lane on the route. By coincidence, another pilot passing by helped him replace the missing screw that had caused the trouble.

Heppell hopped back behind the controls and managed to take off again, returning the plane to the airport without any further problems.

Mary Lou was the love of his life. She had a stroke soon after his retirement.

She passed away in 2005. The pair had enjoyed taking cruises and visiting their winter home in Palm Springs, and so, although he was in his late 70s, Clarence started checking off his travel bucket list.

He climbed aboard the trans Siberian railway, went on safari in Africa, and cruised up the Yangtze River in China, where he visited the Beijing Olympics.

He set off for India on his own at the age of 83.

In his retirement, he also took up bee-keeping as a hobby, sharing the honey he made with his close-knit extended family, and tended a vegetable garden.

Surrey bursaries

The importance of a good education was to remain with him all his life.

Clarence Heppell never seemed to forget his roots in Surrey, or the importance of an education for the city’s youth.

A member of Lord Tweedsmuir High’s Class of 1946, he was one of just over 40 graduates that year. Fifteen of them got together in Cloverdale in 2011 to reminisce.

“We didn’t have anything, but we had a wonderful life,” Heppell told the Surrey Leader, recalling a childhood spent in rural Cloverdale.

Their parents were mostly farmers, like the Heppells, and the students worked before or after school on the farm, or delivering the local newspaper. Many left high school at Grade 8.

“Only a few of us made it to Grade 12,” he said. “To get to Grade 12 was like getting a master’s degree today.”

In his 80s, he established the Clarence Heppell Foundation, which provides bursaries to Surrey students who show promise.

The grants pay for two years’ post secondary tuition.


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