The rise and fall of Robert Campeau

January 24, 2011
By The Editor   

Robert Campeau

Robert Campeau is a Canadian investor, probably most famous for a series of corporate takeovers in the 1980’s

Robert Campeau is a Canadian investor, probably most famous for a series of corporate takeovers in the 1980’s in which he acquired several large department store chains, including Bloomingdales, when he gained control of Allied Stores and Federated Department Stores in the US.

Born in 1923 in Ontario, he has often spoken of a poor lifestyle, and claims that this gave him the drive to succeed. At the age of 14, using forged documents, he became a machinists apprentice. Campeau started out as a labourer, but in 1949, a job as a carpenter led him into a full time career as a contractor in residential construction.

Eventually Campeau parlayed his residential construction career into larger contract work within the city of Ottawa, putting together office buildings and residential housing alike. Although his work was often criticized by many, including the the current mayor of the city, this venture was very successful for him and by 1979 he had become one of Canada’s largest private contractors, and his construction operations represented the bulk of his wealth. Campeau made news in the Canadian real estate industry when he criticized certain design restrictions in the city of Ottawa, including zoning laws concerning the height of skyscrapers.

In 1986, Campeau bought out the shareholders of Allied Stores for the price of $3.6 billion,and two years later, also acquired Federated Department Stores for $6.6 billion. Although this made him the largest retailer in North America, with over 250 brands and chains under his control, the combined debt of both companies nearly drove them to bankruptcy, forcing the company to be sold.

Campeau himself protected his assets by either giving them as a gift to his wife or making sure they remained otherwise exempt. This, along with his poor management of what was then seen as several many very successful brand drew a lot of criticism. Former associates publicly derided him in the media for poor management decisions and uncertain business tactics. Although Campeau attempted further business ventures in North America, eventually he moved to Europe in 1996.

Campeau went on to develop real estate in and around Berlin, Germany, although this venture too was doomed. He was criticized by many for losing the money of charitable foundations in the bankruptcy Campeau continues to reside in Germany with his current wife, former German politician Christel Dettmann.

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