Prominent Nanaimo businessman Tom Harris died Thursday in Roche Harbor in Washington State. (CHRIS BUSH/The News Bulletin)

Businessman Tom Harris dies during trip to U.S.

Nanaimo businessman Tom Harris died unexpectedly Thursday in Roche Harbor in Washington State

Prominent mid-Island businessman Tom Harris, owner and founder of Harris Oceanside Chevrolet Buick GMC, has died.

Harris died unexpectedly in the early morning hours Thursday while visiting Roche Harbor in Washington state.

“Obviously we’re devastated,” said Andy Lankester, general manager and partner of Oceanside Chevrolet with Tom Harris and Tom’s son, Mike Harris. “We broke the news to the staff last Thursday. I gathered everyone together and told them, and you could tell it was a heavy burden on everyone here.”

Harris was also dealer principal at Nanaimo’s Harris Mazda, president of Harris Kia, president of Tom Harris Cellular Ltd. and a partner in other businesses.

“His legacy will be that Harris name that sits on so many businesses in town, and I think that so many people who have worked for Tom in his businesses have great respect for him as an employer and a manager and a friend…” said Kim Smythe, chief executive officer of the Greater Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of us in business would love to emulate him and be as honoured in the community as he is. I don’t want to put him on a pedestal, because he just liked to be the regular guy, but so many of us looked up to him in so many different ways.”

Lankester said Harris’s death hit particularly hard in Parksville, where the majority of staff has been with Harris Oceanside Chevrolet for between five and 30 years.

“They’ve known Tom personally for a long time,” he said. “We know that Tom would have wanted us to maintain and keep the legacy going, and that’s our position going forward.

Harris Oceanside Chevrolet Buick GMC opened in Parksville in 1999 as Woodgrove Chevrolet, with Mike Harris as executive manager. It became the first addition to what became known as the Harris Auto Group, joining the flagship dealership established by Tom in Nanaimo in 1983.

Nanaimo’s Citizen of the Year in 2004, Harris was appointed to the Order of St. John in 2005 and also received the Rotary Centennial Service Award for Professional Excellence. In 2012, he received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal recognizing his service to the community and to Canada.

In 2015, Harris was honoured with a lifetime achievement award from the New Car Dealers Association, joining the two previous recipients, Jim Pattison and Marnie Carter.

Harris chaired or sat on numerous boards including the Nanaimo District Hospital Foundation, Nanaimo Community Foundation, United Way, Vancouver Island University Foundation and others.

Lankester described a man who had a great relationship with his sons and his grandchildren, and who encouraged the dealership’s involvement in Parksville Qualicum Beach, from sponsoring sports teams to investing in the region.

“He was influential in his ability to be positive in slow times and encouraged us to give back to the community,” Lankester said. “He made my job easier as general manager and partner, because he was aligned with my philosophy. He was such a philanthropist.”

San Juan County undersheriff Brent Johnson said a man in his mid-60s visiting from B.C. fell off of a friend’s boat near Roche Harbor early Thursday morning and was found dead a few hours later. Johnson said there were no signs of trauma on the body, which was transported to the medical examiner in Snohomish County.

“It’s a shame,” said Lankester. “He’ll be sorely missed.”

— With files from the Nanaimo News Bulletin and the Journal of the San Juan Islands