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Most big ideas don't get their start from the cramped interior of a ruby-red Volkswagen Beetle.
But in 1975, with his one- and four-year-old sons bundled in the back seat, his wife, Maria, ready with a notepad, and an hours-long drive from Toronto to Montreal that stretched before them, Walter Schroeder began to talk through his vision for a bold new business.
By the time the family arrived at their destination, Walter, who was working as a credit analyst for the investment firm Wood Gundy, had hammered out a plan for a homegrown credit-risk agency – a company that would determine whether a business could pay back its debt to bondholders on time and in full.
"The kids, remarkably, stayed quiet the entire time in the backseat – otherwise, we couldn't have done it," Walter says now, from his small, but airy office in downtown Toronto. "But we put the whole idea together, from funding to timing to furniture."
It was then that Dominion Bond Rating Service (DBRS) was born. Over time, the company grew into the fourth-largest bond rating agency in the world – it even had its name in giant red letters on the top of a skyscraper in Toronto's financial district.
In 2014, though, Walter felt it was time to sell.
"We had probably taken it as far as we could," he says. Two private equity firms bought the business later that year for a reported US$500 million.
Walter, now 80, may not have had to venture into his office every day anymore, but he had no intention of slowing down. With the money made from the sale, along with proceeds from other investments he made, the Winnipeg-raised businessman embarked on a new career as a philanthropist.
He's already committed nearly $200 million, but has plans to donate $300 million more.
"I've got a Mennonite background, which comes with a philosophy of helping people," he says. "You don't just help the individual, but the whole community."
Funding rehab research
When he started the Walter & Maria Schroeder Foundation in 2015, Walter thought carefully about what causes they wanted to support and found an opportunity in the medical field.
"I looked around and the main thing we could help with was health," he says.
Over that time, they've made landmark investments in brain and heart care, multiple sclerosis education, arthritis treatment, and in allergy prevention, among many others.
One of his main focuses, though, has been rehabilitation. In 2017, he donated $20 million to Toronto Rehab to support the scientists who work at KITE, the centre's research arm.
It was the largest-ever gift to a rehab hospital in Canada.