“I look at my community as an extension of my
family—who have always been my greatest asset.
I have been successful in business because of my
family and their dedication to our common goals.”
~ Bob Saunders
Bob Saunders is not an easy guy to pin down. In the two months prior to this publication, it was a challenge to find time to meet up. First, he was away in Las Vegas for a week to celebrate his wife, Norma’s 80th birthday. Then I heard he was going on a road trip for a game down in Montana, and then heading over to Vancouver with family on business! At 81 years of age, the man has the stamina of a Duracell Bunny. In the end, it was Dave Saunders, his son, who met with me for a behind-the-scenes look at the Saunders family story and the legacy they are establishing in the West Shore and beyond.
Many people recognize Bob Saunders as the face of his family business and the ‘Saunders Family Foundation’, a non-profit foundation to benefit youth and sports in Greater Victoria. “But,” Dave explained, “although she remains more in the background, my Mom has had a huge influence on my Dad. Gruff at times, a real character, but someone who always has had an extremely generous heart—even more than my Dad, believe it or not!”
Q: Dave, from your perspective, what inspired your family’s dedicated involvement with community?
A: Basically, it was my parent’s upbringing and what they learned about community involvement. We were a large family with five kids, similar to young families that we’re helping out today. Honestly, times were tough. I can remember collecting bottles with my siblings off the side of the road to make ends meet so we could afford things that other people just took for granted. So, we have never, ever forgot that. Our parents never let us forget that it takes a community to raise a large family. We had a family farm, Twin Creek Farm, out on Sooke Road, where my parents still reside. It’s a large acreage that now is part of Metchosin. As a family growing up there, people thought we were from the sticks.
Back in the day, many families like us were in the same situation, struggling to make ends meet. Lots of fishing, lots of hunting to survive. We had a garden, raised chickens, cattle and pigs. That’s how we survived. My parents got us involved in sports, even though we often couldn’t afford the gear to play.
I can remember my Mom making shoulder pads for my sisters so they could play lacrosse. She used some foam for padding and covered it with this floral design fabric. I can remember my very first lacrosse game being sent off the floor by the referee because I was wearing my Dad’s welding gloves to play. Those kinds of experiences resonated with my family.
Q: The first time I ever met your Dad was back in 1999, when I went to Saunders Subaru to buy a car. He was outside washing cars with a dedication I thought was admirable!
A: Oh, my Dad loved to wash cars! It was one of his most favourite things to do. He’d put on his gumboots and worked it; it was a labor of love. When we sold that dealership, it was one of the last things that my dad, my sisters and I did together as a family—we went out and washed all the cars. He also drove the last car off the auto carrier, because that was something else he loved to do, helping the guys bring the cars off the carrier.
Thinking back, I can’t imagine what my parents went through opening up a new car dealership in the 80s, having to secure financing for cars and property back when commercial interest rates were sitting at 28%. I can remember purchasing my first house at 18% interest and when the rate went down to 12%, I thought I’d won the lotto!
Q: How did the ‘Saunders Family Foundation’ get started?
A: As a mayor and as a family business, we were constantly inundated with requests for help. So, we thought about how, as a family, we could best do that. That’s how the idea of a foundation got started. The intention was to create synergies and make connections to individuals, companies or programs that could help move projects along. What we learned right away was, it wasn’t always monetary support that people needed. It was about engaging enough community support to make things happen!
“I have never forgotten where I started, the humble
beginnings, the long hours, uncertainty, the ups &
downs of business. I believe in giving back to the
community that supported me and my family. I
look for ways to get things done, and not to dwell
on reasons why something can’t be done.”
~ Bob Saunders
Q: What kind of projects are in the works right now?
A: We’re looking to do something about the lack of adequate palliative care facilities in the West Shore. Right now, we’re actually having to send away seniors for palliative care. We’re segregating the founders from their community—and they’re the ones who built the community, right? So, through our family foundation, we are working to get a seniors’ palliative care center built in the West Shore. I’ve identified at least five properties to do that; and, we’re taking our properties off the table, so there is no conflict of interest. The project is currently in grease mode: encouraging local politicians, encouraging government to recognize our need sooner and to facilitate the construction of this much-needed seniors’ facility on the West Shore.
Q: What is ‘Comfy Kids’ all about?
A: We learned, over the years, just how many families struggle not only with the effects of their child’s cancer, but with the lack of resources needed to get their child healthy over a 2-year period. Eventually, they could lose all their savings and their funding. So, through partnerships with Jim Pattison, Hub International Insurance and Peninsula Co-op, our foundation was able to provide these families with a vehicle, pay for gas, insurance and hotels. The kids got a comfy quilt and a basket of healthy snacks and a teddy bear for the trip over to Vancouver for treatment.
That ‘Comfy Kids’ initiative, still on-going today, helped to evolve the ‘Island Kids Cancer Association’ founded by Susan Kerr and P.J. Fairfield. It’s a support network for families with children affected by cancer. These women developed this community initiative and we just helped it along. It’s been life changing for those individuals, life changing for us as a family.
Q: Any progress around supporting mental health issues for our community?
A: There’s a newly established organization in Victoria called ‘The Foundry’ with an absolutely amazing program to help young people struggling with their mental health. It was formed by a group of doctors. The stats on youth affected with mental health issues is absolutely staggering. Over 250,000 youth are affected and limited help is only getting to about 15-25% of them. I’m creating awareness about this right now. I’d like to see a Foundry facility built right here in the West Shore. ‘The Foundry’ is another initiative that started in the community and was supported by strategic partnerships with the ‘Children’s Health Foundation’ and the Provincial Government.
Q: Your family is out there anticipating a lot of community needs?
A: I really want to emphasize that it’s not so much our family. It’s how we focus on individuals who have great ideas, those we recognize as movers and shakers, people who are catalysts. We’re only the conduit. The connectors. It’s really funny, you know, how many different things you can get moving by being a conduit—without even realizing it.
Q: After a lifetime full of adventure and achievements, what do you think your Dad’s happiest memories would be?
A: I would say his happiest memories are about what he has been able to accomplish in his time and what he continues to accomplish. He just likes to see kids do well. He knows that, eventually, they’ll build the community, right?
Even though my parents are now over eighty, did you know that for my last year coaching, they came with me and my team, actually riding on the bus—there and back—for a fourday long road trip to Montana? They’re amazing!
Q: Your Dad, especially, is a real character. I’ve seen him work a room. It’s amazing what he gets away with!
A: Yeah, my dad is a real character. On the Montana trip, he was joking around with the team that he had forgotten his winter coat. So, after he convinces my Mom to lend him some money, he goes out and buys this leather coat at Macy’s 50% off sale. It looked quite nice on him, had a liner and everything; but, obviously, not [suitable] for -8° weather. So, I went back to Macy’s and bought a nice ski jacket and just gave it to him. I told him it was mine. And of course, he still had cash left over from the money my Mom lent him because of the coat sale. So, in the end, he got two coats, all the left-over cash, and didn’t pay a dime. He does stuff like that all the time!