Seizing opportunity comes naturally to Patrick O’Callaghan, the 70-year-old founder, president and CEO of East Coast Catering Ltd. (ECC). The Newfoundland- and Labrador-based company focuses on catering and accommodation services to remote sites for the oil and gas, marine, mining and industrial construction sectors.
Growing up in a family of eight, Mr. O’Callaghan got into business at age six “doing the shopping” for neighbours in Dundalk, a small town right on the border dividing the north and south of Ireland, halfway between Dublin and Belfast. Before turning 12, he was smuggling butter with the local gang, taking advantage of trade restrictions and price differences between New Zealand butter, at two shillings and seven pence, and Irish butter, at four shillings and 10 pence.
The profits were a small fortune back then, says Mr. O’Callaghan, referencing Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s biography, for a snapshot of Ireland’s post-war poverty. Despite once being caught, he continued trading in butter until he fell in love with horses at the age of 16, finding new opportunities for wheeling and dealing around the stables.
Mr. O’Callaghan blames his father for “conscripting” him into hotel school to get an education and start a real career. After graduating in hotel management from St. Mary's College in Dublin, in 1965, he worked in five-star hotels in Ireland, England, the United States and Canada. He arrived in Atlantic Canada in 1971 to serve as food and beverage manager of the Hotel Nova Scotian, before moving Newfoundland, becoming general manager of Hotel Newfoundland in 1976 (then owned by CN) and overseeing construction of their new Hotel Newfoundland in 1982.
He founded ECC as a private company in 1984 and remains the sole owner. Companies under ECC’s umbrella include: ECC NS Ltd. in Dartmouth, N.S.; Labrador Catering Ltd. Partnership in Goose Bay, Labrador; Horizon Remote Catering Ltd. in Edmonton, and ECC Ireland in Dundalk, Ireland. Mr. O’Callaghan is also a partner in Capital Structures Inc. [to install the camp sites] and in Offshore Recruiting Inc. [providing skilled workers globally for offshore oil], both spinoffs of ECC, as well as in other Canadian and Irish business ventures.
With a staff fluctuating between 300 to 400 people, ECC operates across Canada and in Ireland, providing accommodation for over 5,500 people and serving up to 26,000 meals every day. The annual revenue for ECC last year was about $50-million. Mr. O’Callaghan was the Atlantic winner of Ernst & Young’s ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ award in 2012.
Why did you pick Canada?
I came back to Ireland when I was 25, towards the end of the ‘60s, after working in the hotel industry in the United States and London. I got my first management position, but the hotel was very isolated and I didn’t particularly like the Ireland of those days. I saw Pierre Trudeau on the front page of The Telegraph sliding down the bannister in Buckingham Palace in London at a Commonwealth conference and doing a little pirouette behind the Queen. He was a breath of fresh air and that’s the reason I chose to go to Canada.
Why didn’t you stay in the U.S.?
I had seen Irish Americans coming back to Ireland with loads of money and throwing it around, so the minute I graduated from hotel school, I headed for New York and San Francisco. But I had a green card so was liable for the draft and they not too kindly advised me to join the army. I told them I could fight in Belfast – there was no need for me to go all the way to Vietnam to fight – and was told to clear out in 72 hours. I was working with Hilton hotels and they transferred me to London, England, which was great, but I had to pay my air fare.
How did you get into catering?