In Memoriam: John Crawford Williams, 1936-2019, Founder of J.C. Williams Group

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One of the world’s leading retail analysts and consultants, John Crawford Williams, passed away on September 21, 2019 at the age of 83 while on a trip to visit family and friends in Vancouver. Mr. Williams founded leading Toronto-based retail consultancy J.C. Williams Group amid an illustrious career that included being instrumental in having helped transform the Canadian retail industry over the past several decades.

Mr. Williams was known for saying “I’ve never worked a day in my life” and pursued his passions until his last days. He was born in Vancouver on February 24, 1936. At the age of 15, his first job was in retail as a part-time ‘bagboy’ packing parcels and shelves for 85-cents per hour at a Safeway store in Vancouver while he pursued his studies. 

JOHN WILLIAMS IN THE 1970’S AT HIS HOME IN MISSISSAUGA’S LORNE PARK AREA

After high-school, Mr. Williams attended the University of British Columbia and subsequently received a fellowship to attend the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois, where he earned his MBA. During his studies, he began working at Canadian department store chain Eaton’s which included a summer salesperson position in Eaton’s Vancouver store. His talents saw him promoted to become a head buyer for women’s fashions in Toronto. 

Soon after graduating, Mr. Williams continued working with Eaton’s which included a stint as a department manager in Victoria, British Columbia, followed by a promotion that saw him run an Eaton’s store in Chilliwack, British Columbia. Remarkably, at the age of 25, he was the youngest store manager in the entire company at the time. 

A YOUNGER MORE SERIOUS JOHN ON HIS WAY TO WORK AT EATON’S IN THE EARLY 1970’S.

Over the course of a decade, Mr. Williams held various senior management and corporate positions, primarily in the realm of women’s fashion, before moving on to work with Canadian advertising giant Vickers and Benson. There, he began a consulting project for Gulf Oil, where he realized that consulting was something that he enjoyed. Given his passion for retail, he took a risk and started his own consulting company. 

Mr. Williams founded consultancy J.C. Williams Group in 1974, and his firm grew to become highly respected as he and others worked on a vast array of projects for retailers, consumer goods manufacturers, shopping center developers, downtowns, and governments. Mr. Williams’ specialties included retail and distribution strategy, real estate, and urban revitalization. He traveled the world where he applied his customized “Wow! Factor” to stores and shopping centres globally. Notable clients included the BC Liquor Distribution Company, Henry Birks & Sons jewellers, fashion retailer Le Chateau, Goodwill (Industries) retail, Benjamin Moore paint, MasterCard, Walmart, Levi Strauss, Bell Canada, and others, where he and J.C. Williams Group helped develop new strategic concepts. Under his direction, J.C. Williams Group has also been involved in real estate projects that have included The Dubai Mall, Deerfoot Meadows in Calgary, not to mention many years of work for major landlords including The Rouse Company, Cadillac Fairview, Oxford Properties, and Ivanhoe Cambridge. He delighted in mentoring younger employees and clients over the years.

CELEBRATING CHRISTMAS IN LORNE PARK IN THE 1970’S AT THEIR VERY “BRADY BUNCH” STYLED HOME.
JOHN WILLIAMS WITH CHILDREN MARK (IN FRONT CENTRE), MICHAEL (FACING RIGHT), MEGAN (FACING LEFT), AND ANDREA AS A BABY.

He was also an educator, having given numerous lectures as well as having authored several books. Included was a book called Getting Retail Right! for the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) where he also lectured at the ICSC’s University of Shopping Centers. Mr. Williams also co-authored A Guide to Retail Success for the National Retail Federation, Building a Winning Retail Strategy for the Retail Council of Canada, and Marketing Main Street for Heritage Canada. He was a frequent speaker at industry and association gatherings across the continent.

Mr. Williams received many honours and in 2013, Retail Council of Canada inducted Mr. Williams into the Canadian Retail Hall of Fame

JOHN WILLIAMS, ON THE BEACH IN THE CARRIBEAN, DURING A WEEK-LONG 80TH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION WITH HIS CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN.

He was a fixture at the Toronto Central Y for almost 50 years — he was an avid runner and worked out in the facility. He also gave back considerably by offering his time and expertise to the Y as well as  the Toronto Public Library and the Art Gallery of Ontario, among others. He was instrumental in fundraising for his Alma Mater, the University of British Columbia, and he organized reunions there and with his classmates from Magee Secondary School in Vancouver, where he grew up.

As part of Mr. Williams’ legacy, family and friends encourage donations to the The YMCA of Greater Toronto, The Children’s Aid Society Foundation or The Toronto Public Library.

Mr. Williams was married to Maureen Atkinson, who was also a partner in business at J.C. Williams Group and with whom he enjoyed travelling and hosting countless dinners for family and friends at their home in Toronto’s Riverdale area. He was also grateful to his first wife, Betty, for their years together raising their four children. He is survived by Ms. Atkinson as well as his his four children Mark (Laura), Michael, Megan (Lorenzo), and Andrea; his grandchildren Maddalena, Lily, Ginevra, Olivia, Elliot, Emma, Sophie, and Max; his brothers and sisters-in-law Paul and Coe Williams and Donald and Therese Williams; his nieces and nephews; the whole Atkinson clan; and many friends.

RETAIL COUNCIL OF CANADA INDUCTED MR. WILLIAMS INTO THE CANADIAN RETAIL HALL OF FAME IN 2013. PHOTO: RETAIL COUNCIL OF CANADA

He and Ms. Atkinson hosted an annual “Wisteria Fest” each spring in their Riverdale garden — he loved bold colours, which was also characteristic of his personal fashion style. 

After an extended summer vacation with family in Ontario’s Muskoka area, Mr. Williams’ final days took him to Vancouver for a high school reunion where he joined his brothers Donald and Paul for a road trip from British Columbia to Washington State to visit nieces and cousins. On the last day of summer, near the end of their trip, the brothers stopped for ice cream, which was John William’s favourite food. John died peacefully in the car with his brothers at his side.

JOHN WILLIAMS WITH HIS TWO BROTHERS DON (FACING LEFT), AND PAUL (FACING RIGHT) IN VANCOUVER TWO DAYS BEFORE HE PASSED.

J.C. Williams Group continues to operate under the management of partners Lisa Hutchinson and Patrick Watt. Advising partners include Maureen Atkinson and John A. Torella. Maria Ramage is the administrative coordinator at J.C. Williams Group, Kelly Hansen handles marketing and administration, and Rachel Alencar is a research associate with the firm. Long-time alumni include Cathy Ramsamujh and Suthamie Poolgasingham.

Under Mr. Williams’ direction, J.C. Williams formed a partnership with Ebeltoft Group, which is an alliance of more than 30 consultancies from around the world. Other partnerships include Environics Analytics, MasterCard Advisors, McMillan Doolittle Research Consultants, Okamura Consulting, and Total Management Solutions. 

A personal message from Retail Insider’s founder and Editor-in-Chief, Craig Patterson 

John Williams was a personal friend and will be dearly missed. This is the first time that Retail Insider has published an obituary of an individual, and it’s also the first time that I have written here in my own voice since I founded this publication in 2012. 

John’s passion for retail got people excited, and his highly animated presentations were impactful. Several months ago he returned from a trip to Italy and he was excited to meet me to discuss what he had observed. We had lunch to discuss the trip, where he described innovative retailers such as La Rinascente — on my desk right now I still have a map of Milan’s shopping streets that John gave me then. I will miss our lunches in Toronto’s downtown core, including at Nordstrom where we met numerous times. 

A PHOTO OF JOHN WILLIAMS IN THE GARDEN OF HIS HOME IN TORONTO’S RIVERDALE AREA

Innovation was part of John’s ethos, and earlier this year we reported on the J.C. Williams partnership with Environics Analytics that launched an innovative e-commerce research platform called ClickSpend. I attended a meeting with John and the Environics team in downtown Toronto prior, and John was clearly excited about what was to come. John would also proudly give me the paper copy of the Ebeltoft Global Retail Trends & Innovations Report that the partnership publishes annually.

He also had an eye on the future, and predicted a time when shopping centres would become high-density communities in a world with autonomous vehicles, drones and other innovations. Sadly he is no longer here to see what is to come, including innovations such as the Toronto waterfront redevelopment by Sidewalk Labs which got the green light to go ahead on Thursday, October 31.

Over the course of his extensive career, John helped shape the retail world that I got excited about in my youth in a small town in Alberta, where I aspired to live in a big city like Toronto. I used to scour newspapers and magazines continuously to learn more about the industry, as I watched retail titans such as Eaton’s and Woodward’s fall. Big city retail got me excited, and John was involved in the initial leasing of the Hazelton Lanes shopping centre in decades past, for example, which I found fascinating — reading about Hazelton Lanes in the 1980’s had gotten me interested in the area of luxury retail, and discussing it with John was like talking to my hero. I wish he were still here so that I could continue to learn more. 

Retail Insider has allowed me to chase my own passions, while reconnecting me with my childhood interests which help motivate me to do what I am doing today. In the process I have grown as an individual, and I have made many friends along the way, including incredible people such as John Crawford Williams. 

Article Author

Craig Patterson
Craig Patterson
Located in Toronto, Craig is the Publisher & CEO of Retail Insider Media Ltd. He is also a retail analyst and consultant, Advisor at the University of Alberta School Centre for Cities and Communities in Edmonton, former lawyer and a public speaker. He has studied the Canadian retail landscape for over 25 years and he holds Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Laws Degrees.

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  1. I’m actually crying after reading the end, this was wonderfully written Craig. John will be truly missed, and he touched the lives of so many. The world needs more people like John Williams. He lived a full life which is to be celebrated.

  2. John was a passionate leader and had a big heart. He made his employees feel like family. I will always remember what he has taught me at JCWG, it was the foundation of my career and ignite my voluteerism with Children’s Aid.

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