Iwas sweating the first time I set eyes on Reg Petersen, retired businessman, philanthropist, former nursing home mogul and founder of Bridgeway Foundation, the sought-after prom date of every Canadian Christian organization trying to make ends meet. I’d planned to
arrive well in advance of the appointed hour, but my hopeless sense of direction led to a few wrong turns. By the time
I pulled into a small lot – the wrong lot – just north of his
Cambridge, Ont., office, I was perilously close to being late.
My adrenaline surged.
I’d wanted to meet this man for years. And given his
track record of accomplishment, I sensed he wasn’t a person you kept waiting. Besides, I had a lot of questions to
What was it, I wondered, that allowed him, as a successful business owner in his late 30s with a wife and
growing family, to look at his finances and conclude they
had enough? What compelled him to then freeze his estate (against the advice of experts) and create a private
foundation that would fund Canadian Christian organizations to bring transformation to communities around the
world? What prompted him to ensure all future growth in
his business accrued to the foundation? Then what drove him, for the
next three and a half decades, to work
harder than ever, neither for his own
nor his family’s benefit, but to enrich
the foundation, ensuring it would continue to give away millions of dollars
for many years to come?
I’d asked for an hour of Petersen’s
time. I didn’t want to waste a minute. Craning my neck for
a break in the traffic that would allow me to back out of the
forbidden lot, I noticed a nicely dressed older gentleman
walking down the street toward me. Recognizing my predicament he bowed slightly, smiled and extended his arm,
gesturing when it was safe to back out.
Gratefully, I did, found a parking spot
and raced to my appointment. If Reg noticed I was flushed when he walked into
Bridgeway’s boardroom and shook my
hand, he pretended not to.
At 72, Petersen is not a noisy Christian.
He is quiet about his faith in an actions-speak-louder-than-words kind of way.
His actions speak volumes, his words
are understated, matter-of-fact. “I realized there was more to life than just earning and creating wealth,” he once told a
journalist about why he froze his estate
to establish Bridgeway as a private philanthropic organization.
From Bridgeway’s inception in 1980
onward Petersen only grew his nursing
home business, Versa-Care, to give the
profits away. But he ran Versa-Care like
a business. Rick Willis (whom Petersen
hired to work as his president in 1989) says Petersen was
very clear about keeping the money-generating role of
When Petersen sold Versa-Care to
Canadian billionaire Paul Reichmann
in 1997 for $220 million, he gleefully
poured the $60 million profit (the purchasers assumed
$160 million debt) directly into Bridgeway.
“It absolutely blew the minds of the Reichmanns when
they found out [after intense negotiations for the sale of
Versa-Care] that he was going to give all the money away
anyway,” remembers Willis. “[They wondered,] ‘Who fights
What lies behind one of Canada’s
By Patricia Paddey
“I was a representative of God, and He lives
in me, and so I don’t
want to disgrace Him
in any way.”