Charitable giving is ingrained in the Robinson family – just ask Ross Robinson.
“My father said to me, ‘If I get my way, when you receive your inheritance cheque I’m going to make sure it bounces, because I’m going to give everything to my favourite charities.’ He was writing cheques like a madman in his 99th year,” Ross says.
Burton A. Robinson wasn’t able to give it all away before his passing in 2008 at the age of 100. Nonetheless, BA (as he was affectionately known) would have been happy with the end result: the small inheritance went to support his favourite charities, Ross says.
BA Robinson founded lighting supply company B. A. Robinson Co. Ltd. in 1936. He was the third generation to work in the lighting industry, following in the footsteps of his grandfather Thomas Robinson, who started as a candle maker in Montreal around 1850, and of his father William Wadby Robinson, who in 1919 opened a Winnipeg store which was the first in Western Canada to sell pre-wired lighting fixtures.
As a boy, Ross fondly remembers his father coming home every day for lunch. Over a meal in their River Heights house, BA would often teach his four children about the importance of giving back, and about the family business.
As the business grew, so too did BA’s capacity for community support. He was extremely generous with his time and money, serving on numerous volunteer boards such as Camp Manitou and the Salvation Army, and supporting a variety of charitable causes. And he always reinforced the importance of supporting local business and being a Winnipeg booster.
During his lifetime, BA Robinson established 10 funds at The Winnipeg Foundation.
“I know he was always impressed with [Foundation founder William Forbes] Alloway’s first gift. He wanted to do his own little contribution following in Alloway’s footsteps. So, he started a fund in his name, and in our company name, and then [one in] my mother’s name, Geraldine Robinson,” Ross says.
These funds support a variety of causes including: specific charities such as the Salvation Army, University of Manitoba, and Providence College; certain fields of interest like food and shelter; as well as Winnipeg’s most pressing needs and emerging opportunities through Community Building Funds.
“He started those funds when we were young kids in school, so he had lots of family expenses and [yet] he was contributing as much as he could to each of those funds.”
Under BA’s direction, B. A. Robinson Co. prospered over 37 years. In 1973, Ross and brother Bruce acquired the company and began a period of further growth and expansion.
Today, B. A. Robinson Co. supplies lighting, plumbing and heating products throughout Western Canada and to export markets around the world. It operates more than 25 branches and employs more than 500 people. It is a Platinum member of Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies.
“We’re very proud of being from Winnipeg. In the industry we’re in, we’re surrounded by foreign-owned global companies. We’re adamant that we’re going to keep this company going for as long as we can,” Mr. Robinson says.
A fifth generation of Robinsons are now at the helm: Ross’ sons Shea and Matt are President and Vice President Sales, respectively, and daughter Kaley is a shareholder and Board member. Ross is now Chairman and CEO.
“It’s every father’s dream come true, if you own your own business, to see succession work in a way that you can work with your family for a number of years and see them make the business flourish. So I’m very proud of Shea and Matt and Kaley.”
Like his father before him, Ross has instilled a strong sense of community spirit in his children; all make charitable gifts, and Kaley helps manage B. A. Robinson Co.’s charitable giving.
“I think all of us understand the importance of giving back to the communities that have helped us, and our whole family of employees.”
Ross is also highly involved in the community and has chaired many fundraising campaigns, including the Neeginan Foundation capital campaign, the Health Sciences Centre Research Foundation capital campaign, and the current capital campaign for the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada. Amongst his other achievements, he was named Honorary Colonel RCAF 17 Wing in 2012.
Today, the Robinsons have a family fund at The Winnipeg Foundation. The Donor-Advised Fund allows them to work with Foundation staff to determine which charities will receive grants.
“We like the Donor-Advised fund… because the funds we’ve committed are fixed and growing and have a projected annual return rate [for granting]. We like that The Winnipeg Foundation is managing it and we get to have the fun of a donor-directed program.”