The $50-million man
Garry Hurvitz was a low-profile entrepreneur until he made a thunderous donation: $50 million to create a mental health centre at SickKids. So much for shunning the spotlight
Extremely wealthy people have been launching themselves into space lately. You took a different tack—donating $50 million toward mental health at SickKids. What inspired you?
My goal was to make a difference in the mental health space. It’s so underfunded, and it’s been a personal struggle for me. At five, I was walking around the house checking the stove and the locks every five minutes. Back in those days, OCD wasn’t something people talked about. I was 10 by the time my parents sent me to see somebody. By my early 20s, I was struggling with anxiety and depression. It was extremely isolating.
For someone dealing with so much, you got a pretty early start on your career.
I was 12 when I started working at the CNE. I bought a machine that could make customized buttons. I had five or six kids working under me. At 16, I bought my own booth to sell band T-shirts. I would fly to Asia to pick up merchandise.
You say it like it’s normal for a 16-year-old to take a business trip to Asia.
Looking back, I think my mental health challenges became a motivator. But with that success came new anxieties: Why me? What’s going to happen next? Is it all going to be taken away? Am I going to die? In my early 20s, I suffered a full-on breakdown. I lost everything and had to rebuild. In 1990, I launched Ash City, a manufacturer of corporate apparel—customizable uniforms, jackets and polo shirts. I grew that business for 24 years, and in 2014 I sold it to focus on our family investment office, which has done very well.
When did you decide to get serious about philanthropy?
Ten or so years ago. I asked myself what I wanted to accomplish in the big-picture sense, and the answer was to create a positive legacy around mental health. The first major donation was $20 million to Sunnybrook in 2017 to create the Garry Hurvitz Brain Sciences Centre. The SickKids donation will help build a mental health centre for young people.
Child and adolescent mental health has become a huge area of concern during the pandemic. Did that factor into your decision?
I had been talking to SickKids before the pandemic, but things started to get really hot and heavy in the spring of 2020. The pandemic seemed to be hitting kids especially hard.
Do you have young people in your life who have been affected?
I have three adult children. They have been doing okay.
Did you see much of them during lockdown?
We established a family bubble, and they would visit often, which was nice.
Do you live alone? With someone?
With someone who has been very supportive.
You seem a little bit cagey when it comes to personal details. You have your name on two hospitals, but not so much as a Wikipedia entry.
I’ve always been private. Lately, I’ve made my peace with the fact that my philanthropy work means being on the radar, but I’m really just a quiet guy with a small circle of friends. I’m not one of those jet-setter types. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
How would your kids describe you?
They would say I’m tough, honest and low key. I still fly on points. If there’s no flight, I’ll book later.
You must have some indulgences.
I like wine. I’ve been a collector for 45 years. I’m a Burgundian at heart.
How much is too much to spend on a good Burgundy?
It’s all about what you like. That might be a $20 bottle. I just got an email from someone in Hong Kong who bought a case of Leroy for $600,000. I’m not drinking that!
How is your mental health these days?
I’m managing. For so long I saw psychiatrists who put me on pills that made me worse. Then I saw Ian Gilmore, a psychiatrist, who gave me the right tools.
You mentioned how badly mental health is underfunded. How do you convince fellow deep-pocketed Torontonians to pitch in?
I’d tell them to look at their family, their neighbourhood. Very few people are not impacted. I’m not saying don’t donate to cancer, but… cancer, like other similar causes, is overfunded. Mental health is such a huge issue, and because of Covid, the suffering has increased tenfold. We can really make a difference here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.