When he got the call several months ago, George Melville politely said, “Thank you, but no.”
“It was sort of a strange call to get because it never, ever occurred to me; I did not go to university,” said the chairman and owner of Boston Pizza International at the company's longtime headquarters in Richmond. “I was very honoured by the request, but I thought, ‘No, it's not going to work. It's way beyond me.'”
Back when Grade 13 still existed in British Columbia, Melville opted for hands-on workplace learning over university classes. Four and a half decades later, the only degree Melville holds is an honorary one from Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU), where he will assume the role of chancellor this October.
“I think it's something that is very different for me, coming from the business world into the academic world,” said Melville, who calls himself a proud KPU alumnus since receiving his doctor of laws degree last year. “It's going to be a learning curve for me.”
Born and raised in B.C., Melville joined Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co. in 1968 as an articling student fresh out of high school in Penticton.
“In fact my yearbook, my grad year, I put in that I wanted to be a chartered accountant. Which was sort of weird … because there were astronauts and all kinds of other stuff in there but that's what I wanted to do,” he said.
And that's exactly what he did, spending five years in public practice, where he worked with major contracting companies, cities, hospitals and private- and public-sector businesses as he earned his chartered accountant designation through correspondence courses from the University of British Columbia.
“I really enjoyed the work and found I learned a lot better as I was doing things, rather than straight classroom or academic study,” he said.
It was “sort of a natural thing,” then, when Melville decided to cross over into business himself, knowing public practice would be there if things didn't work out.
He consulted with his accounting clients, one of whom was retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer Jim Treliving, who, at the time, was a three-restaurant franchisee who held the B.C. area development agreement for Boston Pizza, then headquartered in Edmonton.
“If anybody had said to me I was going to be in the restaurant business, I wouldn't have believed it. It wasn't on my radar,” Melville said, adding that “it was probably the riskiest of all the opportunities, but very exciting business dealing with a lot of people and different business decisions.”
He partnered with Treliving, and for the next decade the pair, starting with their three Boston Pizza locations, created a thriving 16-restaurant chain in B.C. As franchisees, however, their growth was limited.
“When the opportunity came up [to purchase the company] it was like a gift from heaven. It was wonderful,” Melville said. “We were so ready to do it.”
They found some partners and in 1983 bought Boston Pizza International and its 44 restaurants in B.C. and Alberta.
“Once we were the franchisor, we were able to go and meet all the franchisees, talk to them, get all the best ideas and get real strong buy-in from everybody to the growth pattern we had developed.”
They moved the company's headquarters to Richmond, and from there they expanded their casual-dining franchise to include over 400 locations across Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.
Forty years into their business partnership, Melville and Treliving now carry a portfolio that generates over $1 billion in annual sales through investments that include Mr. Lube, Kitchen Partners Ltd. and brand.LIVE as well as Boston Pizza International. They also established the Boston Pizza Foundation Future Prospects, which has raised and donated over $18 million to Canadian charities since 1990.
“I've really enjoyed the business part of it, particularly working with people,” Melville said. “I still love the business. The business got much bigger over the years and we have a great management team running the business, so I've been able to step back a little bit.”
In a few months, Melville will begin building something else – the profile of Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
As chancellor, the Surrey resident will serve a three-year term, during which he will preside over the university's convocation ceremonies and grant students their certificates, diplomas and degrees. He will also hold a seat on Kwantlen's board of governors.
According to Melville, the rest of the position is relatively flexible – and it's the opportunity to define how he makes a difference that ultimately drew him to the role.
“I think it's very important when you take on a role, particularly a new role, [that] you want to be able to feel the world's going to be better because of it,” he said. “What I feel that hopefully I can do is provide a real pride factor, and explain to people why I'm so proud to be involved with Kwantlen.”
While academia may be new to Kwantlen's soon-to-be second chancellor, Melville has a long history with the four-campus institution, first as a parent to two Kwantlen College students, then as a six-year member of the university's board of governors, on which he oversaw Kwantlen's transformation into a full degree-granting university.
In 2012, Melville and his wife, Sylvia, contributed $500,000 to create the Melville Centre for Dialogue at the university's Richmond campus.
For the better part of 2014, he also had conversations with board members of the alumni association – which recommended him for the position – and members of the board of governors – who officially appointed him. Among those he spoke with was Alan Davis, Kwantlen's president and vice-chancellor.
“He understands the struggles that students have, he understands the importance of education and he really believes in Kwantlen Polytechnic University,” Davis said. “ What he brings as a businessman, as a philanthropist, I think is going to help us in all kinds of ways.”
Davis said he believes Melville will both “raise the profile and raise the expectation for KPU.”
“You know immediately with a firm handshake and a stare in the eye that he's the real thing, and everything you've heard about him is correct: he's an extremely accomplished and generous man.”