Named one of Canada's most powerful women back in 2015, and once described by author Ian Brown as “very tough, exceedingly rational, and she has very good judgement in lawyers,” Martha Billes has been named the University of Guelph’s new chancellor.
Billes is the majority shareholder of Canadian Tire Corp., a company started by her father Alfred Billes in Toronto back in the 1930s. After the father’s death, the daughter bought out the shares of her brothers Fred and David. She has controlled the company since 1997.
The appointment continues a trend by the university of placing high-profile Canadians in the largely ceremonial role. Billes replaces David Mirvish, the Canadian theatre mogul, who served in the role from 2011. Before Mirvish, Canadian senator, journalist and diplomat Pamela Wallin held the position. Near the end of her tenure, Wallin was embroiled in the Canadian Senate expenses scandal. She was suspended from the Senate for a time, but no charges were laid.
Elected by the university’s senate, the office of chancellor is a three-year term, and is renewable. A purely formal role, the chancellor confers all degrees, is a voting member of senate, and represents the university to the external community, primarily as an ambassador.
Billes has been the subject of a number of books, including Ian Brown’s Freewheeling: The Feuds, Broods and Outrageous Fortunes of the Billes Family and Canada’s Favourite Company. She also made headlines back in the late-90s, not only for taking control of Canadian Tire, but after she was sued by a former lover and his former wife related to the collapse of Devoncroft Developments Ltd.
Billes is a U of G alumna, a 1963 graduate of the Macdonald Institute, and is the first among the university’s graduates to be named chancellor. She will be installed in the role during a ceremony in June.
“Martha Billes fought long and hard to establish herself as one of the most successful business leaders in Canada, shattering stereotypes along the way,” said U of G president Franco Vaccarino in a statement.
“I am delighted and honoured to be serving as chancellor for the University of Guelph," Billes said in the statement, calling her years at U of G “transformational.”
“I look forward to contributing in a new way, using my passion and experience to help inspire the next generation of leaders and to enhance the University’s already strong reputation for quality and excellence,” she stated.
Martha Billes has been a director of Canadian Tire Corporation since 1980 and the controlling shareholder since 1997. She was born in Toronto.
Her career began in consumer product research and development, and she transitioned into teaching for a time. She joined the board of Canadian Tire in 1980, taking up the seat previously occupied by her father.