Art DeFehr might be Manitoba’s only business leader to have had a gun pointed at him in the middle of the night. A veteran of international affairs and no stranger to military-controlled checkpoints – not to mention a master negotiator – he has always managed to get cooler heads to prevail. The same ice water that runs through his veins has also helped him navigate Palliser Furniture through some turbulent markets. DeFehr became CEO of the family enterprises in 1984 and purchased the part of the business that became Palliser in 1996.
At the company’s peak, Palliser was hitting around $500 million in annual sales with a payroll of about 3,000 employees. Today, it has roughly half that number of employees but its revenues are on the upswing. His success as the CEO of the Winnipeg-based furniture maker has allowed him to focus on perhaps his true calling – international affairs.
Over the years, he has led a massive agricultural redevelopment project in Bangladesh after its civil war in the 1970s; took a senior United Nations post in Somalia; started a university in Lithuania as the Soviet empire crumbled; and organized a conflict resolution conference in Myanmar. You know, the usual tourist hot spots.
DeFehr also found the time to head refugee programs in Canada and help spearhead Manitoba’s nominee immigration program, which has brought thousands of immigrants to the province since the late 1990s. Not surprisingly, he has been a big supporter of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
A graduate of both the University of Manitoba and Harvard – he earned an MBA at the latter – DeFehr has visited more than 130 countries, including North Korea, Iran and Kosovo. DeFehr is looking forward to his induction into the Manitoba Business Hall of Fame and says it will be very rewarding to be honoured by his peers and the community.
“I’ve got a bit of a mixed feeling to have attention drawn to my person rather than my work,” he says. “Being inducted into the Business Hall of Fame sort of suggests you are done and being hung on the wall. That reminds me too much of my age or perception of age.”
DeFehr has been to his fair share of awards ceremonies, too. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a member of the Order of Manitoba and the Canadian Manufacturers Hall of Fame. He has also received three honourary degrees, one each from the U of M, the University College of Cape Breton and Red River College.