The business behind millions of childhoods sits in a small farming town called Altona, located 100 kilometers away from Winnipeg in southern Manitoba. Home to Friesens Corporation, Canada’s largest printer of hardcover books, the company has been supplying North American shelves for over 100 years now. They were the first Canadian printer of the Harry Potter series as well as a long-time partner of Robert Munsch – bringing hundreds of millions of copies off the press and into the hands of children across the continent. Conrad Grebel University College alumnus Curwin Friesen served as the COO and then CEO of Friesens Corporation for over two decades, and while it may seem like he was running the family business, Curwin’s journey was a bit more complicated than that. “I was actually the first CEO of this hundred-year-old company who wasn’t related to the founding family,” he explained. “It’s just a pretty popular name in southern Manitoba.” 

“I grew up on a farm but always vowed to go to university,” mused Curwin. “I never wanted to farm.” Rather, he had a knack for mathematics and was drawn to the University of Waterloo for its co-op program. His guidance counsellor suggested he study engineering, so Curwin packed his bags and headed east to embark on a new journey - one that quickly took a turn in his first-year economics course.  

He remembers his professor telling him, “It seems that you’re more interested in how to pay for the bridge rather than build it,” which led him to switch into economics, a discipline that would tie together his mathematics strength and business interest. He was part of the first batch of students in a new program called the International Trades Specialization which helped him land multiple co-op roles in private finance. 

As a young graduate, Curwin enjoyed the downtown Toronto life for a few years. With a steady job in finance alongside multiple offers to pursue master’s degrees, Curwin was debating working his way up in the industry or revisiting an academic route. That all suddenly paused when his car was stolen and apartment was broken into. That same week, when Curwin thought all luck was against him, he received a phone call from his hometown. David Friesen, president of Friesens and grandson of the founder was calling with a plan. A plan to expand the business outside of the family and put together a professional management team, for which Curwin had the resumé to kick things off. “If he had asked me to move back to Manitoba a week ago, I would’ve immediately said no, but at this point, I was open to it,” Curwin joked. “The opportunity to help lead an extraordinary company at an early age was compelling.” 

When Friesens became the first Canadian printer of the Harry Potter series, the business exploded. With millions of copies regularly going out, the craze had reached a point where Curwin remembered having to contain their recycling. “We had reporters going through our trash trying to get their hands on the ‘secret files’,” he said.  

But beyond all the bustle and success, Curwin’s fondest memory is one where he was able to build upon the legacy of an employee-owned business and create a new structure to ensure its viability for decades to come. Through a joint trust where all 700 employees are beneficiaries, dividends are paid out based on the success of the business – a model that not only empowers employees but fosters an environment of leadership and resilience. “When the fourth Harry Potter book was announced, I met with staff to let them know that if this is going to happen, we need to work through the May, July, August, and September long weekends - the only weekends that matter in Manitoba because of the weather,” said Curwin. “And they happily agreed. Everyone in the room was an owner, so they were doing it for themselves.” Curwin is a proponent of the employee-owned model and associates much of Friesens’ success with it. For many years now, his team, in cooperation with other Canadian businesses, has been lobbying the Canadian government to create better legislation to promote this model, to which the government has been responsive to, with new provisions continuously underway.  

Curwin’s desire to build a close-knit team stems from his small-town roots, where he is heavily grounded in community values. As he reminisced on his days at Grebel, he noted that, “the beauty of small colleges is that you get to tackle life as a family. My fondest memories were gathering in the lounge to regularly debate world topics. We experienced the Berlin wall falling together. The initial GST-tax implementation. Discussing war taxes from a peace-based Mennonite perspective.” The warmth of the Grebel community replicated the small-town feel he was used to.  

Curwin continues to experience life with other Grebelites as he remains well connected with his roommates and peers. A peer he remains especially connected with is Jill Weber who he met on a summer day at the Grebel beach volleyball court – a high stakes game for Curwin. They have now been happily married for thirty years, and their son, Simon, is in his fifth year at Grebel.  

curwin friesen with the combine

Leadership has been at the forefront of Curwin’s life ventures. He left Friesens in 2017 to return to his farming roots and lead Greenvalley Equipment, an agricultural technology company, but remains a board member of Friesens. “A student of business” as he calls himself, Curwin also sits on the board of several other companies in industries such as software and insurance, and even helped to build a Church in Altona that is now going on 23 years of service. He owed much of his leadership development to Grebel and UWaterloo, where he was given the opportunity to be involved in clubs, debates, and co-op, which helped to sharpen every skill he needed to excel. “You need that one opportunity to prove yourself as a leader, and university is the perfect place to do that,” said Curwin. “Find something you're competent in, because competence drives confidence, confidence drives commitment, and commitment drives results.” 

As advice to current and prospective students, Curwin said to get involved as much as possible. “Do all kinds of things, make all kinds of mistakes, and learn from them. Just act,” he said. 

“Leadership is action, not position." 

Curwin's story is part of Grebel's 60 Stories for 60 Years project. Check out our 60 Stories page for more articles in this series. If you would like to nominate a Grebel alumnus to share about their experiences at Grebel, please submit a nomination form.

By Farhan Saeed