As a kid, entrepreneur James C. Temerty didn’t know what indoor plumbing was until he was nine.
Born in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine during World War II, his family members were refugees who fled the war, living in displaced persons’ camps in Germany and Belgium before coming to Montreal at the end of 1950. There his new Canadian friends called him Jim, after determining Constantine was unsuitable for the playground. Today the founder and chairman of Northland Power Inc., a Toronto-based green-energy company, is still Jim, although Constantine appears on official documents.
Before establishing Northland Power, Mr. Temerty logged a 15-year career at IBM and then built the Computerland franchise into Canada’s biggest chain of computer stores. He was named the 2010 Ernst & Young Canadian Entrepreneur of the Year.
Q: What was the most challenging moment of your business career?
A: In 1986, I was in a series of tough negotiations to sell Computerland to Bell Telephone. We were in a dominant position with all the large accounts – the big banks, CN and CP – across Canada but I was feeling pressured by Bell, which had bought out Computer Innovations Distribution Inc., a public company, and then dropped its prices to compete with us. At the same time, grey markets were beginning to happen with all kinds of unauthorized dealers selling computers out of their garages. So I went to Bell and suggested that we merge. Then I had to pitch it to all my franchisees – over 30 individual business people. It had to be one agreement applicable to every single store across the country.
Bill Millard, the franchise founder in California, had given the go-ahead, but people were betting their houses that Temerty couldn’t make it happen. It fell apart at one point and I walked away from it; then we got back together and it closed. It was the best thing for all concerned but one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.
Q: What clinched the merger with Bell?
A: I picked up the phone. It wasn’t easy because human nature steps in and you think, ‘No, I’m not going to deal with those guys because they’re unreasonable.’ You’ve got to swallow that, pick up the phone and try again. They wanted to meet. It was a question of who was going to call first, so I made the call. Everybody was very happy in the end. They asked me to be a consultant and join their public company board, which I did.
Q: How did you make the switch from computers to founding a power company?
A: As soon as I sold, I started looking around for another business. I was still a young guy, in my late 40s. I promised my wife Louise, who had worked alongside me in Computerland, that we wouldn’t do anything to risk our nest egg. So the next business had to be recession proof. I thought of health care ... and then I got a phone call from a couple of engineers who asked if I’d like to build a power plant. It was to be a wood-fired plant using wood waste from sawmills in Cochran in northern Quebec.
I joke that it took two qualities: arrogance and ignorance. I had this idea that I could do anything. I’d been lucky and done well. I’m an avid reader of business publications and saw that people were running all kinds of things – conglomerates with different businesses. So I thought, ‘why can’t I build a power company?’ That was an ignorant attitude because I didn’t know what it took, which is a great deal of expertise. We eventually got that, but at the start we were fledgling.