Remembering a telecom giant: the enduring impact of JR Shaw

Published on September 22, 2020

On the second floor of NAIT’s Feltham Centre is a set of doors that bears JR Shaw’s name, at a spot where students pass each day on their way to class. The JR Shaw School of Business has graduated thousands of students since its 2007 naming, which recognized the founder and leader of Shaw Communications for his unwavering generosity and friendship.

“JR was a devoted family man, a true pioneer of Canadian business, a visionary of the Canadian telecommunications sector and a dedicated philanthropist. But most of all, he was my dad,” says Brad Shaw, current CEO of Shaw Communications, the company his father founded 50 years ago.

JR and Carol Shaw portrait in front of the doors to the JR Shaw School of Business at NAIT.When JR Shaw passed away this past spring at the age of 85, he left a tremendous legacy through his company and those he helped in the community. That legacy includes providing millions of Canadians with broadband internet, phone and Wi-Fi hotspots, creating the country’s fourth largest wireless provider and growing their radio and television programming services.

“He was a giant in our industry and one of our country’s great entrepreneurs.”

JR will not only be remembered for what he achieved, but for the many life lessons he often shared with whoever was listening, especially his family.

“As a child, and throughout our lives, he taught all of us to dream big, keep our eye on the ball, and never stop moving forward,” Brad says. “That’s a legacy that will live on for generations in our family and in our company.”

"To be successful, you need the vision of an eagle and the work ethic of a plow horse.”

If you could capture the secret of success in a simple philosophy, JR most likely would’ve said, “You need the vision of an eagle and the work ethic of a plow horse. These traits do not come easy; they require endless practice and constant learning.”

Those who knew and worked with JR heard those words often. And he lived by them.

“JR’s passion for our business, our industry, and our people never wavered,” says Brad. “Every decision he made and every action he took was done with intent and he instilled in our family and our employees the importance of hard work, discipline and singleness of purpose to be successful.” 

Laying the groundwork for a telecommunications empire

JR’s fascination with the telecommunications industry began while he left his hometown Brigden, Ontario, for Michigan State University. There he bought his first TV set to watch football games. After earning a business degree, JR Shaw returned home to work at his father’s pipe-coating business Shawcor, then known as Shaw Pipe Protection, in the 1950s.

JR Shaw portrait in company studio at Shaw CommunicationsOpportunities to establish Shawcor in Alberta’s oil and gas industry beckoned, bringing JR, Carol and their young family to Edmonton in the 1960s. He worked long hours to build the company’s plant, but it was only a matter of time until he turned his attention to cable television to help diversify the family business.

“In my life, I have never met someone who worked harder or dreamed bigger than my Dad.”

JR noticed that Alberta lacked the television channel options he had out east and in other parts of Canada near the U.S. border. With the vision to provide Albertans with better connectivity, he began laying the groundwork for cable to expand television offerings in Edmonton.

“In my life, I have never met someone who worked harder or dreamed bigger than my dad,” says Brad. “His biggest mentor was his father – my grandfather, Francis, who taught all of us that, ‘Once you start, see it through to the finish.’”

It was this advice that JR followed to a tee – despite being told that television was just a passing fad. It would take several years until he was finally able to win a federal license to establish his company, known then as Capital Cable Television Co. Ltd. By 1971, they were officially on the air.

“Be bold and courageous – thrive on change.”

With change and technology at the helm of the telecommunications industry, JR continued to grow his cable company over the next several decades. Later renamed Shaw Communications, services expanded to include phone and internet.

“Shaw Communications is a reflection of JR’s passion and persistent quest to be at the forefront of innovation and technology,” says Brad. “Thirty years ago, the internet had barely reached Canada, but JR could see the potential of what this new technology would allow Canadians to do.”

In 1999, JR spun Shaw’s media assets to form Corus Entertainment, the company’s radio and TV programming arm. Corus would later become Canada’s largest dedicated media company with 34 specialty television services, 39 radio stations, 15 conventional television stations, a global content business, digital assets, live events, children’s book publishing, animation software, and technology and media services.

JR Shaw and his family portrait on the steps of the Hotel MacDonald in Edmonton.By the time JR was ready to retire in the late 1990s, his sons, Jim and Brad, and daughters, Julie (NAIT Architectural Technology ’82 graduate and Top 50 alumna) and Heather Shaw, had joined the family businesses. He handed over the reins to Jim, who took over as CEO in 1998, and was succeeded by Brad in 2010.

Throughout their tenures, JR continued as executive chairman and offered plenty of advice to his sons. Brad recalls one bit of guidance that he received from his dad, which he still refers to often.

“Be bold and courageous – thrive on change. Evaluate yourself by your own standards,” he says. “Society is undergoing rapid change – opportunities and challenges. If you hold fast to those important personal values that endure over time, you will do well for yourself, your family and your community.”

Brad credits both JR and Jim (who passed away in 2018) for helping Shaw Communications achieve a major milestone in 2016 by acquiring and rebranding WIND to Freedom Mobile, which laid the foundation for the launch of Shaw Mobile for BC and Alberta residents in July 2020.

As a result of almost $30 billion spent since 2013 to build, upgrade and expand its Fast LTE and Fibre+ networks and services, Shaw is also on the precipice of another technological advancement: the coming of 5G.

“He saw opportunity in every challenge … and he showed us how not to be afraid in taking risks.”

 “The launch would not have been possible without dad’s vision and his ideals of embracing and leaning into the changes that are constantly evolving in our industry,” says Brad. “He saw opportunity in every challenge … and he showed us how not to be afraid in taking risks.”

“We will be remembered by what we have given, not what we have received.”

Philanthropy, says Brad, was a value that JR Shaw inherited from his father, Francis, who founded the Shaw Family Foundation to support a variety of charitable organizations. It was a value that JR lived by each day.

“He ensured that charity and philanthropy was always at the heart of what we do as a family, and as a business,” Brad says.

In 2013, JR received a phone call from Calgary business leader and philanthropist Clay Riddell. That conversation led to the creation of the Shaw Charity Classic – a new Calgary-based event for the PGA Champions Tour. Since then, the annual golf tournament has attracted some of the world’s best golfers and generated over $50 million for over 200 children and youth charities in Alberta. 

JR also had a special place in his heart for Shaw Communications’ Shaw Bear program, which provides stuffed teddy bears for first responders to give to children during traumatic and emergency situations. Since 1989, over 450,000 bears have been given to kids across Canada.

A champion in the community, JR led a number of fundraising campaigns for health and education, including the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute. As NAIT’s chair of the board of governors, he helped lead the institution’s first ever fundraiser with then-president Dr. Stan Souch to build the South Learning Centre.

“The more successful you are, then the more you give back.”

In 2007, NAIT awarded JR an honorary award and named the JR Shaw School of Business in his honour. When speaking to aspiring entrepreneurs and leaders at an event at NAIT, he shared why he was compelled to give back to the community.

“The more successful you are, then the more you give back,” said JR. “You can give back, whether you are successful or not. It isn’t just money, it could be time, commitment and energy.”

It was advice JR unwaveringly demonstrated at NAIT. Through Shaw Communications and the Shaw Family Foundation, he established sustainable funding through endowments for scholarships and applied research.

“My dad would constantly say, ‘After we are all gone, we will be remembered by what we have given, not what we have received,’” says Brad.

Anyone fortunate to have known JR Shaw will no doubt remember his kindness and generosity. If we are indeed measured by what we give, then JR Shaw’s legacy ranks him among the company of giants.

The JR Shaw School of Business by the numbers

  • 17 credit certificate, diploma and degree programs
    • 12 of the available programs have certified professional designations
  • In the 2019-20 year, there were 6,819 students enrolled in 44,208 credit and non-credit courses
    • Students participated in 16 provincial and national business case competitions
  • Since 2006, the JR Shaw School of Business has awarded 14,719 diplomas, degrees and certificates
    • 57 students to date have received scholarships and bursaries thanks to JR Shaw and the Shaw Family 

Endowments mean lasting impact

Endowments provide important, sustainable funding by supporting programs, student awards and  applied research. By creating an endowment, the earnings from a donor's investment is directed the area or cause they want to support every year in perpetuity.

In 2019-20, 792 students received nearly $1.27 million in student awards thanks to endowment donors like JR Shaw and the Shaw family.

See more about NAIT endowments.