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Illustration of entrepreneur Rod Bryden. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Illustration of entrepreneur Rod Bryden. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

THE LUNCH

Rod Bryden: Taking a shot at another entrepreneurial goal Add to ...

Rod Bryden should be having a bowl of cat food for lunch.

The serial entrepreneur, former NHL team owner, high-tech pioneer, law professor and government bureaucrat has lived nine lives already. And he has at least a couple more to go.

“I’m 71. So I probably have two more start-ups in me,” Mr. Bryden says.

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He’s smiling like the Cheshire Cat, but he’s quite serious.

Mr. Bryden has ventured it all, and lost most of it, several times over in the past four decades. Now, at an age when most of his peers are happily sitting on corporate boards and doing charity work, he’s doing it all over again. This time in the clean technology business. Garbage and sewage, to be exact.

Why? A shot at something that has eluded him: a global success story. His new ventures – Plasco Energy Group Inc. (garbage to energy) and Clearford Industries Inc. (waste water processing) – both offer a rare chance to make an impact on the world stage, he says.

“We have a solid opportunity in both those industries to be a major world leader. I didn’t have that before,” says Mr. Bryden, chief executive officer of Plasco, chairman of Clearford and a major investor in both. “If you can change the world, and don’t charge people anything or [require them to] change their habits, they’ll buy whatever you’re making. And I’ve found that in both these things.”

Mr. Bryden still has the bravado that has stuck with him over the decades – even as he lost companies, his beloved Ottawa Senators and several fortunes.

His hair is a little thinner, his face a bit more lined. He’s a great-grandfather, after all, with grown families from two marriages. But Mr. Bryden is fit and healthy, still driven and a lot wiser.

“I came to the conclusion after losing the Senators, and a very large sum of money, that it’s not a good time to have money because the value of money is very low right now,” Mr. Bryden says between bites of braised duck and beet salad at the Brookstreet Hotel – a favourite haunt of Ottawa’s battle-scarred high-tech set in west-end Kanata.

“What really has value is the ability to make things happen. There’s a lot of money in the world looking for people who can make things happen.”

Mr. Bryden, who comes from a modest New Brunswick farm family, is a rare breed in Canada: the quintessential entrepreneur. He’s an innovator and a dreamer – a glass-half-full kind of guy, who sees a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.

“Canadians have a tendency to say ‘What’s wrong with Canada?’ There’s a lot that’s going right,” he says, rattling off low unemployment and government debt, rising wealth and the strong state of entrepreneurship.

Plasco Energy is getting most of his attention these days. The company, flush with U.S. and European private equity cash, is putting the final touches on a controversial $180-million, 20-year deal with the City of Ottawa to process 300 tonnes of garbage a day.

Using a “plasma gasification” process, Plasco’s full-scale Ottawa plant will generate electricity, water and a non-toxic glassy byproduct to be sold as construction aggregate. The “green” promise of the Plasco system is that it redirects waste destined for landfills, cuts greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding incineration, generates clean electricity and maximizes recycling.

“I like businesses that are driven by worldwide necessity, not a fad,” he says.

Critics complain the city is hitching its future to an unproven technology that has already taken years to come to fruition.

Mr. Bryden counters that Plasco is assuming most of the risk. And he points out that subcontractors across Ontario stand to gain as the company builds its Ottawa plant, and eventually plants across Canada and beyond. That will mean the equivalent of 13,000 jobs for a year in Ontario.

Finding money has typically been relatively easy for Mr. Bryden. Keeping it has proved more challenging.

And while he has a track record of making things happen, it sometimes gets a little messy along the way.

In the early 1990s, he lost his first big fortune when he was forced to shed debt by unloading SHL Systemhouse Inc., the pioneering Canadian computing company, and Paperboard Industries Corp., once the country’s largest paper recycler. Thousands of investors also lost big along with him.

From there, Mr. Bryden moved on to the Ottawa Senators, picking up the baton from the team’s struggling original ownership group to build a new suburban arena (now Scotiabank Place). But even a winning team couldn’t overcome the low Canadian dollar, heavy debts and a financially troubled partner – Ogden Corp. The Senators wound up in bankruptcy protection in 2003, leaving Mr. Bryden out about $400-million and off the team.

“The team was a fun experience on the ice, but it was a constant challenge financially,” he recalls.

A year later, he would lose control of struggling blood-pump maker WorldHeart Corp., a stock market sensation in the early 2000s.

Mr. Bryden may have lost control of the Senators. But the team and Scotiabank Place remain part of his legacy. And for that he was inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame Wednesday, alongside Bruce Firestone, Cyril Leeder and Randy Sexton.

The corporate triumphs, and setbacks, have given Mr. Bryden a lifetime of lessons.

But for the man who has lived nine lives – and plans to live many more – his most important advice is perhaps unsurprising: Look out for No. 1.

“There used to be a sense that if you go work for a big company, you’re safe. No one believes that any more. Recognize that the only person who will manage your business affairs is yourself. Each individual has to rely on exercising their own intellectual capacity and dynamism. You can take those anywhere.”

CURRICULUM VITAE

  

BACKGROUND

Born March 13, 1941, in Port Elgin, N.B.

Earned degrees from Mount Allison University (Arts), the University of New Brunswick (Law) and the University of Michigan (Masters of Law).

PERSONAL

Twice married father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

Married to Sandy Bryden.

Lives in Ottawa.

Co-owns the family farm in New Brunswick with his older brother John, a former Senator and Liberal Party fundraiser.

CAREER

Owner of the Ottawa Senators from 1992-2003.

Founded and ran a long list of prominent Canadian companies, including SHL Systemhouse Inc., Paperboard Industries Corp., Kinburn Technologies

Currently president and CEO of Plasco Energy Group, and chairman of Clearford Industries Inc. and PharmaGap Inc. His private investment company is SC Stormont Corp.

HOBBIES

Works out 45 minutes a day in his home gym.

Has a cottage and small fishing boat on Bras d’Or Lakes, Cape Breton, N.S., where he spends time with his large family.

VERBATIM

On the civil service cuts in Ottawa: “We’re not going back to nature, where we’re not going to need central public services. Ten years from now, there will be more people employed in the public service, in spite of the painful trimming going on now.”

 

LESSONS OF A LIFETIME

Shun investors who don’t share your objectives: “Ask ‘Where am I going tomorrow that requires capital, and the extent and nature of the risk?’ Seek funds that are in the business of taking that same risk-reward profile.”

Have a clear plan: “You have to reach down with a clear-enough plan that convinces people to take more risk than they would normally take.”

Don’t get hung up on the past: “We’re building for the next 50 years, not the last 50 years. … The future of urban areas are more related to facts that haven’t yet unfolded that they are to projections of the past.”

Give up golf: “It got in the way of my business. There are things I’d rather be doing. It’s so time-consuming.”

 

Follow on Twitter: @barriemckenna

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