Every autumn for the past four decades, John Bragg has surveyed a rich palette from his factory yard – crimson and yellow trees, orange mountains of carrots, and grey trucks hauling away millions of pounds of frozen blueberries.
And when he has taken a break from frozen-food processing, he could drive out to the little country church built by his great-great grandfather, also named John Bragg, whose weathered tombstone is nestled among memorials for generations of family members.
This is John Bragg country – and it is tempting to typecast Mr. Bragg as some amiable country squire, who at 72 still clings to the craggy hills of northern Nova Scotia, which his family has called home for 180 years.
That would be so wrong. Beneath the veneer of the rural blueberry baron, there is one tough, risk-taking tycoon with an ardour for growth, game-changing technology, and debt financing.
Mr. Bragg’s office in pastoral Oxford, N.S. (population 1,200) is the nerve centre of a billion-dollar enterprise that spans the worlds of blueberries and BlackBerrys. It is powered by two growth engines – a frozen-food empire with global reach, and a fast-rising communications powerhouse called Eastlink, whose cable, telephone, Internet and soon-to-be-launched wireless operations extend from Halifax to Bermuda to northwest Alberta.
“We have a philosophy of growing – we’re just never sure where,” he says, over lunch of lobster and chicken wraps at his office coffee table.
The drive to stay on that growth track means that Mr. Bragg does not shy away from a necessary fight. Recently, he enthusiastically joined the “Say No to Bell” coalition that opposed giant rival BCE Inc.’s proposal to acquire television content provider Astral Media Inc.
The broadcast regulator ruled against the Astral takeover, and that “allows us to stay in business,” Mr. Bragg says with an intensity that belies the laid-back pace of quiet Oxford. “And why shouldn’t we be allowed to stay in business?”
Not that anyone expects John Bragg to retreat from the communications venture he has fought so hard to establish.
Still, he argues that by depriving BCE of its bid to own large swaths of television programming, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission allowed the scrappy underdog from rural Nova Scotia to remain competitive in a world of giants.
“If our raw material – the programming – costs a lot more for us than the competition, then we can’t stay in business,” he insists. “If the programming is dominated by one supplier, can we compete?”
When it is mentioned that BCE is launching a revised proposal for Astral, he responds with: “Isn’t Bell big enough, basically? If Bell says it can’t compete unless it gets more, what does that say for the rest of us?”
For now, the initial CRTC ruling provides added financial certainty as Mr. Bragg prepares to go toe-to-toe with BCE surrogate Bell Aliant in the Atlantic wireless market, and to jump on international opportunities like the one where he bought up a telecom company in Bermuda.
This mosaic of ventures further burnishes Mr. Bragg’s reputation as one of the quickest studies in Canadian business. His ability to grasp the essentials of any business, anywhere, has secured his status as the largest wild blueberry supplier in the world, with a supply chain running from Cape Breton to Portland, Me., and markets stretching into Japan and China – but also as a technology adventurer who pioneered cable networks for telephone conversations in Canada.
What started out as a student sideline picking berries is now a combined business with $1-billion of annual revenue, of which 75 per cent comes from moving data, voice and video over networks – an enterprise growing at a double-digit annual pace. And he runs it all from a temporary building just off his factory yard. The Bragg businesses have grown so fast since 1968, when he built his first blueberry-processing factory, he has never taken time (or devoted the capital) to erecting a proper head office. There is always another machine to buy or a company to acquire.