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Leon Joseph Koerner (1892-1972)

Leon Joseph Koerner was born on May 12, 1892 in Nový Hrozenkov, a small town in Moravia, in the eastern part of the Czech Republic. He studied at the finest business schools in Europe before receiving practical training at several European banking centres. Following service in the First World War, he joined the family’s international lumber company, taking over leadership of the firm in 1920. Throughout the following decade, Koerner became a well-known expert in the European lumber industry, and he expanded the family business into an empire that sold lumber to all major European markets. In 1922, he married Thea Rosenquist, an actress and a prominent figure in the cultural life of Vienna. But the happy life was not to last.

In 1938, as the German Reich expanded its territory, the entire Koerner clan (under threat due to their Slav and Jewish ancestry) abandoned homes, possessions and the successful family business to find refuge elsewhere in Europe – Leon went to London. The following year, he and Thea embarked on an extended vacation in North America. The holiday was cut short when, upon arrival in Vancouver, Thea developed a severe case of the mumps. To pass the time awaiting her recovery, Koerner investigated BC’s coastal forest and lumber industries, and realized untapped opportunities. Almost immediately, he made a down payment on a defunct lumber mill in New Westminster, and began hiring local workers.

Through his acumen in business, Koerner became a leading figure in the British Columbia forest industry by developing an innovative use of western hemlock and promoting progressive forestry practices, including selective logging, reforestation, and the implementation of a sustained-yield policy.

He also proved to be an industrialist with progressive ideas regarding labour practices and relations. Koerner brought significant improvements in working conditions for forest workers by setting standards for workplace safety and cleanliness, benefits, and fair wages, and by establishing logging camps and company towns that became models for the industry. Well-accustomed to unions in Europe, Koerner also created a company bargaining agent until the workers were certified under the International Woodworkers of America in 1943.

Having obtained Canadian citizenship in 1947, Koerner returned much of his wealth to his adopted country through a programme of philanthropy aimed at stimulating the advancement of the arts, education and social progress on the West Coast, including the establishment of the Leon and Thea Koerner Foundation.

News Release associated with this Backgrounder.