Albert D. Cohen, who brought Sony to Canada in the 1950s and rode his connection with the Japanese conglomerate into his country’s business stratosphere, died Nov. 21 in Winnipeg at 97.
Cohen had an eye for new and innovative products. Along with Sony’s mid-50s transistor radios, he brought Paper Mate pens to Canada, and built a retail empire across Canada with his brothers.
"Guided by honesty, integrity and a real sense of noblesse oblige, the modest Mr. Cohen made a difference without raising his voice or seeking personal publicity,” Cohen’s hometown Winnipeg Free Press wrote.
The Toronto Globe and Mail wrote that Cohen happened upon Sony while on honeymoon in Japan. His first meeting there brought him into contact with now-legenday Akio Morita, who guided Sony for decades. In Tokyo, Cohen paid $1,350 for an order of 50 Sony pocket transistor radios. Three years later, Cohen became the first overseas distributor of Sony products. In 1995, the Cohen family sold its 51 percent stake in Sony Canada back to the parent company for $207 million.
“They were good friends for many years,” Cohen’s son James said. “When my father visited Tokyo, he would be invited for dinner to the family home. In Japan, that’s the ultimate honor.” In 2000, Cohen was given Sony’s first Lifetime Achievement award; in June 2011, he received Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun.
Along with Morita, Cohen also developed a close friendship with James Bond’s creator, novelist Ian Fleming. “I’m probably the only Canadian who knew Ian Fleming as a friend,” Cohen said once. “He saw something in me that I didn’t. For some reason, he seemed to see me as a sort of James Bond character of the business world. He seemed to think that I led an adventurous life as opposed to what he felt was a ho-hum life that he had, even in light of his startling success.”
Fleming gave Cohen a rare first edition of the 1961 Bond novel, "Thunderball." Cohen auctioned off his Fleming collection for charity in 2001 and raised $10,000.
Cohen was born in Winnipeg. He was the third of six sons of Alexander Cohen and Bereka (Rose) Diamond, who emigrated to Canada from Ukraine in 1905. His father was a poor country peddler; he later went into business with his son and sold chocolate bars to theaters and restaurants throughout Manitoba and northern Ontario. The family moved to Calgary in the 1930s, and later the Cohen brothers joined in what became Gendis Inc. in 1983. After World War II, he and one of his brothers opened the first of what became a country-wide chain of army surplus stores.
In later years, Cohen’s philanthropy encompassed the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Manitoba Theatre Centre, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Manitoba Opera, Winnipeg hospitals and health research initiatives. He was among the founders of the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba and held three Canadian speed skating records in the over-70 age category. He last skated at 94. He collected numerous awards and honors over the years.
The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at firstname.lastname@example.org.