01/21/2016 04:14 EST | Updated 01/21/2016 05:59 EST

Ron Southern, Spruce Meadows And ATCO Founder, Dies At Age 85

Larry MacDougal/CP

CALGARY — Alberta business magnate and Spruce Meadows co-founder Ron Southern died Thursday at age 85.

The Calgary equestrian facility and the companies he built announced Southern's death.

Southern and his father S.D. started the Alberta Trailer Company in 1947 with 15 trailers. It became the ATCO Group (TSX:ACO.X), a Calgary-based conglomerate with interests ranging from construction trailers to pipelines to natural gas distribution.

ATCO now has operations in more than 100 countries, 8,000 employees and $19 billion in assets. Ron Southern served as the company's president for 48 years.

Southern was also the founder and controlling shareholder of Akita Drilling (TSX:ATK.A). Forbes pegged Southern's net worth at $1.55 billion last year.

Southern and his wife Margaret purchased Copithorne Ranch south of Calgary with a vision of establishing an equestrian facility. Spruce Meadows opened its doors in 1975 and hosted its first tournament the following year.

It has become a fixture for the world's best riders and horses with 300 events held there annually.

Spruce Meadows marked its 40th anniversary in 2015. The equestrian organization says riders representing 57 countries have earned $110 million in prize money in front of almost 10 million visitors since the park opened.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed his condolences on Twitter saying he was "deeply saddened'' and called Southern "a great Calgarian.''

"Beyond his career as a prominent businessman, Ron was a true community builder,'' Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said in a statement.

"It is because of Ron's vision for Spruce Meadows more than 40 years ago that we as Calgarians are lucky enough to enjoy this iconic venue.

"And Spruce is only one example of the extraordinary work of Ron and his family. Their legacy is felt here every day and we will remember Ron with deep gratitude.''

Equestrian's world governing body, the FEI, dubbed Spruce Meadows the world's top show jumping venue multiple times.

Olympic and Pan American Games medallist Ian Millar of Perth, Ont., credited the Southerns and Spruce Meadows in 2015 for making Canada a force in the sport.

Canadians have won 23 medals at the Olympic Games, Pan Am Games, World Equestrian Games and World Cup finals since the facility opened.

"It is arguably the finest facility in the world, which is an amazing thing for Canada and Alberta,'' Millar said.

Because of Southern's business connections, Spruce Meadows also hosted many business conferences that drew the world's movers and shakers.

Southern his survived by wife Margaret and daughters Nancy Southern and Linda Southern-Heathcott.

Southern-Heathcott, who competed in show jumping at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, took over as president and CEO of Spruce Meadows in 2006.

Control of ATCO's voting shares will remain in the family, the company said in a statement, with Nancy will continuing on as chair, president and chief executive officer.

Control of Akita will also stay with the Southerns as Southern-Heathcott remains chair of that company.

ATCO, Akita and Spruce Meadows included Southern's definition of excellence in their announcements of his death: "Going far beyond the call of duty. Doing more than others expect.

"It comes from striving for and maintaining the highest standards, looking after the smallest detail and going the extra mile. Excellence means caring. It means making a special effort to do more.''

Southern was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1986 and a companion of the Order in 2006. He and Margaret were inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame as builders in 2006.

Donna Spencer and Lauren Krugel contributed to this story.

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