David Sobey, who helped transform Sobeys into national grocery juggernaut, dead at 92

A former president and CEO of Sobeys Inc. is being remembered for his role in transforming the Stellarton, N.S., grocer from a regional business into a multi-billion dollar company. 

David Sobey’s death was announced in a release issued by Empire, the grocer’s parent company, on Tuesday. He was 92.

The son of Frank and Irene Sobey, Sobey became part of the business at an early age, and for many years, ran the company alongside his brothers William and Donald.

“David was a great grocer, a great retailer and a great businessman who was instrumental in guiding the phenomenal growth of Sobeys from a regional grocery chain, built by his father, into a national food retailing and distribution business that today serves millions of Canadians on a weekly basis,” said Jim Dickson, chair of Empire in the release.

When Sobey was born in 1931, there were only a few Sobeys stores in the country, all located near the family’s hometown. 

Frank Sobey, centre, and his three sons, from left, David, Donald and William pose for a photo to mark the 75th anniversary of Sobeys in 1982. (Sobeys Inc.)

But at the time of his death, the grocer had grown to operate over 1,500 stores across Canada bringing in approximately $31.5 billion in annual sales and employing 131,000 people, Empire said. 

A Sobeys store.
A Sobeys store in Halifax, N.S. is seen in this file photo from 2022. (Craig Paisley/CBC)
A Sobeys supermarket is seen in this file photo from 1970.
A Sobeys supermarket is seen in this file photo from 1970. (CBC Archives)

Though the company has long had grocery stores across Canada, Sobey and his family remained steadfast in keeping its corporate headquarters in Stellarton where it all began. 

He served as chairman and CEO of Sobeys Inc. from 1986 to 1995, and chairman from 1995 until his retirement in 2001. He remained on the board of Empire until 2015.

Sobey was also known for his philanthropy, in particular his enduring association with St. Mary’s University in Halifax, home of the Sobey School of Business, and the David Sobey Centre for Innovation in Retailing and Services.

In 2019, he donated a personal gift of $9 million to the school, as part of a total donation of $18 million from the Sobey Foundation and Sobeys Inc., the largest donation to the university in its history. 

“We are honoured to have had his support and are committed to continuing to nurture his vision for a vibrant retail sector in Canada,” the university said in a statement posted to its website. 

On Tuesday afternoon in Canning, N.S., Premier Tim Houston expressed his condolences,

“It’s a sad day for the family, it’s a sad day for Nova Scotia and it was sad news for me personally,” Houston said. “David was a very insightful person and a very calming voice. I appreciated my interactions with him tremendously and I’ll miss him.”

Sobey was predeceased by his parents and his two brothers, and leaves behind his wife Faye, son Paul, daughter Janis, sister Dianne Sobey and 10 grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements will be announced by the family at a later date.


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