He built his first factory to process and package an annual blueberry crop of two million pounds. Today, at the height of harvesting season, the two side-by-side factories of Oxford Frozen Foods Ltd. handle twice that much in a single day.
Mr. Bragg hasn’t really understood all the new communications technology since he bought his first cable system in the early 1970s – he depends on other people for that, and the eldest of his four children, son Lee, runs Eastlink out of Halifax. (Another son, Matthew, heads up logistics and sales for the family’s food business.) He seems more comfortable talking about the Nanaimo bars, laced with blueberries, that are served for dessert, than back-office systems for wireless.
What he brings to the table is common sense. It has made him a legend in the Maritimes, whose plain talk about everything from debt (he is very comfortable with it) to rural development (he’s a passionate advocate) are constantly quoted. “He doesn’t mince words in the nicest way,” says Derek Oland, executive chairman of Moosehead Breweries, where Mr. Bragg is a member of the advisory board.
These days, the Oracle of Oxford is pulling back from day-to-day operations, delegating responsibilities to his children, and to co-chief executive officer David Hoffman, who helps run the holding company. Through an estate freeze, he has transferred ownership to his two sons and two daughters, while remaining, for now, the effective decision-maker.
A year ago, when he underwent heart bypass and valve surgery, he went into the operation “not worried at all about the business.
“We have a good professional manager and the family is involved.”
He still lives in the Cape Cod-style house built in 1964 for himself and wife Judy – it has been greatly expanded – across the road from the ancestral white-frame house where he grew up in Collingwood Corner, just south of Oxford.
In the late 1800s, that white house was also the boyhood home of Albert Warren Bragg, John’s father’s uncle, who went west to try out ranching and founded the Alberta settlement of Bragg Creek. Today, Bragg Creek is a picturesque dormitory community for Calgary, and home to many of the city’s business barons.
The Braggs of this generation have gone West too, notably to thriving Alberta towns where Eastlink now owns cable systems. They are part of the legacy of Eastlink’s acquisition of Persona Communications in 2007, which delivered a patchwork of properties in places like Grande Prairie and Cold Lake, Alta., and Sudbury and Picton, Ont. He insists there are no plans at present to consolidate these far-flung properties by trading cable systems.
The idea of vertical integration looms large in his blueberry business – he grows his own berries for processing, but he also works with 1,000 growers in the Maritimes and Maine. But that doesn’t mean he wants to apply the integration model to Eastlink, taking a page from BCE’s book by owning his own content.
“There is not a lot to buy,” he says, and, even if a Bell-Astral deal frees up some content, he is not sold on this convergence model in communications. In addition, “we’re determined to stay private, which limits what we can do in terms of size.”
But in the same breath, he is enthused about the wireless service poised to be launched in 2013 in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. It sets up another classic confrontation with Big Bell, operating as Bell Aliant, which has made headway through its bundling, fibre optic networks, and, he maintains, aggressive discounting.
“They’re there and they are going to take some of our customers, one way or the other. But we are not going to give it up easily.”
You can pretty much take that to the bank.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
On the CRTC decision: If you feel right is on your side, you are surprised if you lose. And we really felt right was on our side.
On the perils of planning: When we’re asked about growth, we have an answer: Whenever we look back five years, we’ve always done a lot more than expected.