John Risley’s first business breakthrough came from selling gnarly crustaceans whose shells and claws contain the juiciest, tastiest meat in the sea.
And yet, the man who built Halifax’s Clearwater Seafoods Inc. into a dominant shellfish supplier is lunching today on the blandest of food – plain omelette, no cheese – and, astonishingly, no seafood. Mr. Risley is in a Toronto restaurant and he is, as always, in a rush, which means no chance to indulge in his favourite fare of seafood and salad.
Mr. Risley clearly pays a lot of attention to diet, for he is as lean and hungry as 40 years ago, when he and his brother-in-law Colin MacDonald were selling lobsters out of the back of a rented pick-up on Halifax’s Bedford Highway. Since then, he has amassed a fortune estimated at about $1-billion – and has remained the major shareholder in Clearwater through rough times and, more recently, much clearer sailing.
But these days, as he looks out over the ocean from his Chester, N.S., mansion, he dreams not of lobster, shrimp or clams, but of fibre-optic cables laid out across the sea floor or slimy algae infused with micro-oganisms to be harvested as biofuel.
His latest entrepreneurial obsession is a tiny bug that the scientists he employs discovered in Bay of Fundy algae – and that is why he has come to Toronto, to talk to potential investors about mass producing this organism for clean energy, and to grab a quick bite between meetings at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
“I’m in a hurry, like I am with anything,” he says in his relentless, rapid-fire way. “If someone says to me, ‘Here is a three-year plan,’ I say ‘I want a one-year plan. We don’t have three years to wait around.’”
Such bristling impatience is rare on the laid-back East Coast where the business culture tends to favour big-government solutions over risk-taking panache. Mr. Risley has always been an odd duck – a proud son of Nova Scotia, but a global entrepreneur whose insatiable drive to build businesses was spawned as a no-hope university dropout who lost his first business in real estate and turned in desperation to selling lobsters.
Mr. Risley has never subscribed to the play-it-safe mantra of Atlantic business, and if the region is going to climb out of its economic hole, it needs new John Risleys – economic players who are not just deputy ministers or members of old family dynasties, but upward strivers who come out of nowhere. Mr. Risley is an evangelist for an enterprise culture modelled on Silicon Valley that would reduce dependence on public handouts and give entrepreneurs room to flourish or fail in markets around the world.
“Damn it, I’m 65, and there is a point when you say, ‘The community has been great to me and I will do my best to help the community.’ If there are those who do not agree with me, I have no problem with that – but let’s have the debate,” he says.
And who else in Atlantic Canada, or the entire country, has the chutzpah to so gleefully sink millions into tankfuls of fermenting sludge – as part of a business that only a PhD could truly understand? Yet he brings a down-to-earth pragmatism to the game.
“It’s so much fun to learn about a business you know nothing about,” he says. “When we started in the seafood business, we knew nothing and we asked stupid questions. People would look at you and say ‘You stupid bugger, what do you know?’ And yet, he says, “It’s the guy who asks the stupid questions who sees where the industry is going to go, while the industry itself may not have thought about it.”
He has lots of opportunity to play the wide-eyed rube in his role as serial entrepreneur. He devotes about half his time to startups – such as the prospective biofuel business and a pharmaceutical venture that would produce a natural compound to combat heart disease.