The man whose name is synonymous with St. Jacobs passed away Tuesday after a lengthy battle with cancer. Milo Shantz was 76.
Beginning with the opening of the Stone Crock Restaurant in 1975, he eventually transformed the village into an international tourist destination. In 1981, he launched Mercedes Corp, which focused on property development and promoting tourism. Along with brother Ross Shantz, he amassed extensive holdings in the village, including the St. Jacobs and Waterloo Farmers’ Markets, the Ontario Livestock Exchange and the St. Jacobs Outlet Mall.
The company also ventured into other fields, such as nursing homes.
Shantz was also well known for his philanthropy, as he was involved in a variety of organizations, from Habitat for Humanity to The House of Friendship and the Mennonite Economic Development Associates.
“His real legacy is the contribution he made to the church and to various faith-based organizations,” said Larry Martin, president of the St. Jacobs Country Inn who worked with Shantz for more than two decades. “He was a man of passion and of compassion.”
Turning around a “dying village” with the work of Mercedes Corp., Shantz was always interested in putting community first, he added.
Shantz’s vision for St. Jacobs centered on the Old Order Mennonites, whose culture many visitors to the area marveled to see. Using the models for support he’d seen in use by the Mennonite Central Committee at work in the developing world, he saw the possibilities for a business incubator approach in the village, encouraging artisans to form the basis of what would become a budding tourist area. The idea was to provide a launching point to enjoy the Mennonite experience
Central to this plan, however, was the need to be respectful of the culture, noted Del Gingrich, who runs the Mennonite Story Visitor Centre.
Shantz was the “driving force” behind the creation of the interpretive centre.
“He was aware that there’s a fine line between inquisitive and invasive. He wanted to be sure to be respectful of the Old Order Mennonites.”
His vision for St. Jacobs caught on, and business boomed in the village.
“He put St. Jacobs on the map,” said Gingrich, noting visitors from some 150 countries have passed through the centre.
The enormous success wasn’t always universally embraced, however. Longtime residents who were happy to live in a sleepy little village sometimes found the changes difficult to deal with. But as an equilibrium set in, the tourism business has proved to be mostly a boon, suggested lifelong resident and Woolwich councillor Mark Bauman.
“He was someone who had a vision, who could look at something and see things others couldn’t,” he said of Shantz. “At the end of the day, most people would say it’s been a positive impact on the community.
“He made the community a stronger community.”
While there were changes to the village, there were many benefits, including jobs and a strong tax base for the township, Bauman added.
Those benefits were no accident, said a longtime colleague who served as in-house legal counsel for Mercedes.
Tom Jutzi, now with a K-W law firm but having retained professional ties with Shantz, said business ventures were entered into with the community benefit in mind and with a sense of stewardship – “Those were things he talked about a lot.”
Though sometimes misunderstood, his entrepreneurial spirit was channeled into doing good, on which he focused his complete attention.
“Milo was a unique person. He was creative. He was visionary. And he was disciplined – if he had an idea, he knew how to stick to it and not get distracted.”
He saw opportunities others didn’t, staying the course even if others couldn’t initially see the same outcome he had envisioned.
Shantz’s industrious nature came naturally, surfacing early on following his birth in New Hamburg in 1932.
At the age of 13, he started buying and selling pigs. At 21, he bought 500 turkeys. By 1958, he had made it a family business with his father and brother, and involved employees as shareholders. The business eventually evolved into Hybrid Turkeys, one of the largest and most innovative companies in the field. It was sold in 1981.
“He had a gift of entrepreneurship, a gift he wanted to use … to benefit others,” said Jutzi.
Through all his successes and philanthropy – including many personal acts that he wanted to remain private – Shantz remained humble and true to his roots, he added.
“Milo went through his life with a fair bit of gratefulness for the success he had. He was not a man of a big ego.”
Shantz is survived by his wife Laura, and children Jenny, Christine, Sandra, Margaret and Marcus.