Ross Gorman

West Kelowna business pioneer leaves a huge legacy

Ross Gorman was more than a sawmill owner—he was an ardent supporter of his employees and in community philanthropy

  • Oct. 21, 2014 11:00 a.m.

The passing of Ross Gorman on Friday, Oct. 17, is being marked as a huge loss to the Central Okanagan.

As the co-founder of Gorman Bros. Lumber Ltd.—a task he undertook with his brother, John, before he was 30—Ross Gorman took philanthropy seriously, making the service to others a top priority.

Over a 40-year partnership with the United Way, the Gormans, their friends and family brought in close to a $1 million for the non-profit organization.

“Building community is of critical importance for all of us and the Gormans exemplified, and continue to exemplify, that in this community,” said Shelley Gilmore, executive director of the Central & South Okanagan Similkameen United Way.

The Kelowna Community Food Bank was another favoured benefactor, and the Gormans sponsored key events for the Westbank & District Chamber of Commerce.

Those keen to rifle through mentions of his name in local papers will find Ross was frequently giving out cheques—$10,000 to the Okanagan College Foundation to keep trades training alive, for example, or the creation of the Ross Gorman Endowment at the Kelowna Hospital Foundation, to be used to improve hospital services in the Central Okanagan.

A hard-working, dedicated man, who was going into the mill until the day of his death, at age 93, his support for the community was implied by his constant presence.

The Gorman influence was felt well beyond the gates of the mill on Highway 97, the first stop before Westbank, yet the brothers did not start out in forestry; the seeds of their success were sown in orchards.

Ross went to school in Westbank, where he was taught by his sister, Helen, for whom an elementary school is now named.

He earned his living with his brother off peaches, pears and cherries until an unusually harsh cold snap, in November of 1949, killed their trees.

The event froze the lake so hard, people were driving across it and Ross gave the Kelowna Capital News a jovial account of the sight in 2001.

“It was really something,” he said, with a chuckle. “I was too chicken to drive across. A lot of people weren’t afraid, and some of them ended up going into the water.”

John and Ross, and their spouses Edith and Eunice, knew they had hit a major roadblock with the freeze.

They initially thought they would either have to leave town or find a job in the wake of the destruction; but the foursome had pluck.

The Gormans decided to buy scrap lumber from local sawmills and resaw it into fruit box components they could then supply local orchardists.

Their first operation, the box factory, contained three pieces of equipment—a chop saw, circular saw and planer.

They took less than $1-an-hour for their labour in that first year, reinvesting to expand and build a plant in Ontario and, then, one in Orville, Washington—a necessary measure after the Americans changed import levies.

Gorman Bros. grew and grew, surviving a fire sparked by an electric short, on Nov. 21, 1969.

In speaking to historian Mary Tracey, employees credited the bothers natural tenacity with their ability to rebuild, saying they were just the types to carry on.

According to Ross’s son Ron, also interviewed for this paper in 2001, Ross was the hands-on guy, while John took an interest in the financial end of the business.

“Employees are your most valuable asset. If you don’t have harmony in the company, you don’t have anything,” Ross said in that same interview.

The company is roundly credited with making its employees feel a part of a family and in 2009, when the Glenrosa forest fire threatened to burn the mill once more, the employees proved their loyalty, coming out to fight the blaze all night, eventually saving the mill.

In another show of loyalty, some 60 employees turned up to provide a free day of work in 1978 as a thank you to the brothers.

In 2011, at a meeting of the Council of Forest Industries, Ross received a standing ovation for his 90th birthday and it was said his influence on those around him was very positive.

He was described by Synergy Pacific Engineered Timber CEO Morris Douglas as “a caring man toward family, friends, employees and his community.”

Ross and Eunice Gorman had one boy and five girls, 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A service will be held this Saturday, Oct. 25, at Trinity Baptist Church. open to the public.

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