In this month’s small business Success Stories profile, we chatted with Rob McLeese, founder and president of Access Capital Corp., co-founder and president of Cobble Beach, and the president and CEO of American Consumer Industries (ACI).
In 1998, when Rob McLeese went looking for a property in Ontario’s Muskoka district, he complained to his father, industrialist Willis McLeese, about the cost of real estate. Back then, as now, he was president of Access Capital, the Toronto-based company he founded in 1990, which went on to complete more than $1.6-billion in independent power project financing, but he felt the Muskoka market was overpriced at “$1-million for 300 feet of frontage with a dilapidated cottage and a lot of boat traffic.”
He describes the challenge “like putting up a red flag to a bull” for his father, then in his eighties. Three weeks later, his father announced over Sunday dinner that he could buy two kilometres of Georgian Bay shoreline on the Bruce Peninsula, with nearly 600 acres and two houses, just north of Owen Sound in Kemble, Ont., for under $1-million. Despite the complication that it might be a First Nations burial site, they decided to purchase it and figure out what to do with it later. That led to another dinner and a bet McLeese made with his father that he could turn it into the next Muskoka.
The result was Cobble Beach, co-founded by father and son as a private company and slowly developed over the years into a world-class waterfront golf resort and community, including luxury town homes, a Nantucket-style clubhouse, restaurant and spa, and Doug Carrick-designed 18-hole golf course overlooking Georgian Bay. The community is focused on clean energy, using geothermal for heating and cooling the clubhouse and offering energy-efficient homes and dark-sky lighting that promotes stargazing. Staffing varies from a peak of 120 employees in the summer to about 25 in winter and annual revenue is a slightly more than $4-million.
On Sept. 13 and 14, the 18th fairway will become the site of the second annual Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance, an elite car show featuring several hundred million dollars worth of rare classic cars from private collections. Fine automobiles are a personal passion for McLeese, who drives a 1971 Porsche 911, an interest he shared with his father, who died nearly three years shy of the inaugural Concours event. McLeese had promised him a spectacular birthday party so it was held close to what would have been his 100th birthday.
In addition to juggling jobs at Access Capital and Cobble Beach, McLeese, 61, is also president and CEO of American Consumer Industries, which owns and operates 124 MW of solid-fuelled power plants in the United States.
What was the biggest challenge in setting up Cobble Beach?
Initially, that someone believed this was a First Nations burial site, but it turned out not to be the case. We did an exhaustive study with a professor from the University of Guelph proving there are no human remains buried on the property at Cobble Beach. But that’s why that property was available.
Then as we started to go, neither my father nor I knew a whole bunch about real estate, so we teamed up with people that did. When we finally got our first model homes built, which wasn’t until July, 2008, three days later the Conference Board of Canada formally declared that Canada was in a recession. We couldn’t have hit the bottom any closer. That was the biggest challenge from a commercial standpoint.
How did you manage the financing to get it going?
We were lucky to get our financing in place in 2007, when the market was still relatively strong. The bank was very conservative with us but it gave us the ammunition to get all our servicing done, and we serviced 180 lots and the clubhouse. We had a wastewater treatment plant built that can handle the equivalent of 880 residential units. That was all part of our initial financing. It was a real break.
You’re still developing Cobble Beach?