Legendary B.C. dealer Tom Harris dies unexpectedly

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Tom Harris

One of the most prominent and admired auto dealers in Canada, Tom Harris, 67, died unexpectedly in June at Roche Harbour on San Juan Island, in the state of Washington.

A well-known philanthropist, Harris owned several dealerships on Victoria Island, the Tom Harris Cellular business, with stores in Alberta, and B.C., and was involved in other businesses.

“Tom was just a class act,” says Blair Qualey, President and CEO of the New Car Dealers Association of BC. “If you wanted to hold up a fine example of the best of our industry, and the best of Canadian citizenry — it would be Tom Harris.”

Qualey says the association extends its sincere condolences to his wife, children, and many grandchildren. “It was a real shock to everybody and it’s a tremendously sad time for them. We are thinking about them most of all,” says Qualey.

Qualey says it’s also a sad time for the many staff at his dealerships and his other business associates.

Harris also served on the board of the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association for several years.

“On behalf of Canada’s auto dealers, we extend our sincere condolences to the Harris family, to his dealership staff and business associates for their profound loss,” said John White, President and CEO of the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association.

“Tom Harris exemplified the entrepreneurial spirit, support for his community and excellence in his operations that many dealers strive to emulate. He also proudly served on the board of our association, including a term as CADA Chairman. He will be sorely missed,” said White.

In 2015, Harris received the New Car Dealers Association of B.C.’s lifetime achievement award — becoming one of only three people to ever be bestowed with the honour.

“Tom was such a great guy and we were honoured and thrilled to be able to recognize that special contribution. These kinds of people don’t come along very often,” says Qualey.

The award recognizes very special qualities in recipients for business integrity, community service and dedication to the industry and its associations.   

Qualey was told Harris died from a massive heart attack while in one of his favourite places, among friends and family, in Roche Harbour, in the San Juan Island area of the state of Washington, just south of B.C.

“He had a massive heart attack and that was it. It was very sudden, and very quick,” said Qualey. “It happened all very quick — and very final.”

Long roots in B.C.

Born Sept. 5, 1949 in Duncan, B.C. Harris helped grow the Harris Auto Group which had roots for more than 60 years in Nanaimo, B.C.

Born and raised on Vancouver Island, Tom Harris began his career in retail sales in the late 1960s, learned the business fast and went on to found Tom Harris Chevrolet in 1983 — a store that remains a thriving part of the Island auto retailing scene, as Harris Oceanside Chevrolet Buick GMC.

In addition, the group now encompasses Harris Kia, Harris Mazda and Harris Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram. Tom Harris Cellular Ltd. opened its doors in 1990, after initial sales at the dealership, and has grown to ten stores across Vancouver Island and current status as the third largest Telus retailer in B.C.

Tom was selflessly devoted to industry associations for much of his career. He served on several GM advisory boards, with the New Car Dealers Association of BC and its predecessors, and with national industry groups, often holding senior positions, including chair of the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association.

Tom has always been equally dedicated to community groups, including the Nanaimo Jaycees, the United Way, Nanaimo Regional General Hospital and the Nanaimo District Hospital Foundation.

He’s held senior positions or chaired several of these groups and played a leading role in a campaign to build a permanent home for St. John Ambulance in Nanaimo. Tom earned numerous awards for business leadership in the areas in which he operates.

Tom never let his decades of selfless dedication to industry and community stand in the way of a thriving family life, which included marriage to wife Christine in 1973 and five children between 1974 and 1983.

To learn more about Tom Harris and the history of his dealerships, visit the Harris Auto Group site.

Tom Harris was an early ally for this magazine, and helped advocate for its creation more than 10 years ago to help give Canadian dealers a strong voice.

On behalf of Canadian auto dealer, we extend our condolences to Tom’s friends and family, and add that he will be missed.

With files from Tony Whitney

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