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Jan Holmberg passes away

Former Whistler businessman had colon cancer

One of Whistler's pioneer business leaders has died.

Jan Holmberg, 70, passed away Tuesday afternoon at his apartment in Coal Harbour. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in the summer of 2008.

Holmberg and his partner Ted Nebbeling immigrated to Canada in 1977. After establishing the Scanwich restaurant, catering to business executives in downtown Vancouver, they were persuaded by Peter Alder to move to Whistler. They sold the Scanwich to their staff and moved north in the late '70s, opening a variety of retail stores in the fledgling Whistler Village.

Nebbeling, who died in October 2009, went on to a career in local and provincial politics, including six years as mayor of Whistler and nine years as a Liberal MLA for West Vancouver-Garibaldi.

Holmberg was the business side of the partnership. They opened their first Whistler business, the Gourmet Bakery and Fine Foods store, in the Rainbow building in October 1980. The European pastries, cakes and deli items were a huge advancement from what had previously been available in Whistler. As buildings were completed in the village and new businesses opened Holmberg and Nebbeling would welcome them with specially baked cakes.

Their success with the Gourmet, and the demand for services, led them to start other businesses, including a bakery.

"We had absolutely no knowledge of baking, none," Holmberg said in a 2000 interview. "But we became instant bakers. The kitchen was so small we could only have one baker in there at a time, so we ran shifts and had to store all the ingredients off site and bring them in at 2 in the morning."

They went on to open the souvenir store Forget Me Nots as well as Whistler's first T-shirt store, Whistler Tops. That was followed by More Tops, Ruggers, Berg & Berg and Mucho Macho.

At one time Holmberg and Nebbeling were the largest retail employer in Whistler, with a staff of 35.

"There was this Klondike feeling here. If we could have cloned ourselves we probably could have started 15 or 20 businesses back then, because everything was needed," Holmberg said a few years ago. "It was an absolute gold rush and in our case, we were gung ho. The mood was very positive and I think people were willing to risk more than maybe today."

Their business ventures led them to develop a building in Function Junction, which housed Mountain Crests, a computer embroidery company that is still in business. As one of only two businesses in Western Canada that had the computer embroidery technology at the time Mountain Crests earned a huge Expo 86 contract.

Holmberg earned Whistler's Business Person of the Year award in the early '90s.

In 1999 he opened Art Junction Gallery and Framing Studio in the Function building.

"He's pretty much the reason I'm still in Whistler," said Harvey Lim, who took over Art Junction from Holmberg in 2004.

"He was advertising for artists in his gallery. I'm not an artist but I came down to meet him and suggested he add a framing gallery to the business.

"I only had one other meeting with him - I'd only met him twice - and he flipped me his credit card and said 'I'm going off to Europe for a month,' and he left me in charge."

Holmberg was born in Solna, Sweden. He supported himself by working on cruise ships in Europe while he studied for his MBA. Following university he worked in Europe and Mexico for the J Walter Thompson advertising agency during the 1970s. As one the firm's senior representatives Holmberg traveled a great deal, including to Formula 1 races and other events.

He left J Walter Thompson to work for one of his key clients, Wrangler Jeans, which was then the largest jeans company in the world.

On Nov. 15, 2003, a few months after a B.C. Court of Appeal ruling essentially legalized same-sex marriage, Nebbeling and Holmberg were married at their Coal Harbour apartment. At the time, Nebbeling was Minister of State for Community Charter and Minister of State for the 2010 Winter Olympics and was believed to be the most senior politician in a same-sex marriage.

Holmberg is pre-deceased by his father Thorwald Holmberg and mother Stina M. Kihl. He is survived by his brother Peter (Eva), niece Mrja, sister-in-law Heppe Holmberg and grand niece Ella.

A service will be held in January. Donations can be made to the Ted Nebbeling and Jan Holmberg Endowment Fund of the B.C. Cancer Foundation. Funds will support cancer research at the B.C. Cancer Agency.