A life of innovation: Remembering Business Victoria’s Ken Stratford

Economic innovator Ken Stratford, who helped launch 2,500 small businesses, has died at age 77. He was working and thinking until the end, said Deanna, his wife of 53 years.

Stratford died on Jan. 10 at Victoria Hospice.

He took the helm of what became the non-profit Business Victoria 30 years ago. Stratford spent much of his life trying to help people create and thrive in technology- and information-based small businesses, green enterprise and off-the-beaten-track resource industries.

Even bone cancer couldn’t stop him until the very end, when he was busy connecting with the B.C. Ministry of Transportation about possibilities for the McKenzie interchange and asking daughter Michelle to do a business plan for a late-breaking idea, Deanna said.

She remains “absolutely in awe” with his energy and ideas for promoting economic development. That said, he was not about making money for its own sake, but creating opportunities for people to find their niches and prosper, said daughter Michelle, one of his five children, including three from earlier relationships.

Her parents lived “a true love affair,” Michelle said.

Stratford wanted to help people in business on their own or with one or two others to get their ideas off the ground. He mentored people, both in business and in making a difference in the world, she said.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said city council recently awarded Stratford a certificate recognizing his lifetime achievement in bolstering the community and its economy as the driving force of Business Victoria. “He was a good man, a good businessman and a spark in the start-up of so many businesses.”

Brian Wesley, current chairman of Business Victoria, has been a close friend since he met Stratford in Vancouver in 1981. “Ken was such a creative person, an incredible intellect,” he said. Stratford was “very much ahead of his time” in terms of changing economic conditions and translating their impact on the community or personal lives, Wesley said. “And over the years he created an amazing number of opportunities for people who came through our programs.”

He was especially passionate when it came to opportunities for young people and those with disabilities, Wesley said. “Ken had an incredible caring and thoughtful way about him. There are two words that always come to the top of mind when I talk about Ken — he was a very kind and giving person.”

“He was an amazing father — he loved being a grandpa and a great-grandpa,” said daughter Michelle. He has 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Even though he worked up to 80 hours a week when she was growing up, when he was with his kids, he was truly “present,” she said.

Michelle said she joined her father in consulting over the years, which gave her much to be proud of. As a teenager, she remembers the family moved back to Victoria and the daily paper had a front page headline “Stratford’s back.”

Her father had no idea he had cancer until he fell getting out of bed about five years ago while preparing to go to work.

He and Deanna moved to Sooke in 2008, where she said he immediately immersed himself in small-town life.

Before getting into small business development, Stratford held executive positions in marketing at B.C. Ferries and B.C. Transit. He was an early adopter in promoting economic growth in a sustainable way through diversification, small businesses, high tech, green enterprises, tourism, leisure and learning.

A go-to source on the economy, he was quoted in nearly 200 stories in the Times Colonist once he began advocating for small businesses as part of the transformation from an economy based on fishing and forestry to information and technology jobs.

Stratford had come to Victoria from post-war London, England at age nine and his father, an engineer, had to take the only job he could get at first, a grave digger.

When he was young, Stratford moved all over B.C. working in the transportation industry.

He and Deanna met in London, when Ken attended a six-month educational sabbatical and she was instructed, at age 16, to be a sightseeing guide for the son of friends of her parents. Windsor Castle was among the places they visited.

Four years later, they were a couple, and she accompanied him, with their six-week old daughter, to Port Hardy, where he found work in the town of 900 with one store. “He was “a lovely, lovely man,” she said, and “it was a wonderful adventure” coming to the Island where her husband’s heart was planted.

Dan Gunn, chief executive of the Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council, said: “He cared about our local economy and worked hard to help it grow. He was key in recognizing the potential of the Internet and lobbying to ensure that Victoria developed a strong communications backbone.”

A celebration of Stratford’s life will be held in the spring.