When John Simmonds was just 14 years old and sitting in his parents’ basement, he watched a James Garner movie on television called Cash McCall, about a sharp young businessman who buys failing companies and resells them. It proved prophetic.
“It kind of inspired me to be this character called Cash McCall, doing takeovers and that sort of thing,” says Mr. Simmonds, chairman and CEO of A.C. Simmonds and Sons Inc., which is in the process of changing its name from BLVD Holdings Inc.
His King City, Ont.-based company acquires profitable businesses for expansion and development. "(The movie) was way before its time. I saw it about 20 years later in a video store, took it home and said, ‘I’ve become Cash McCall.’ So now we’re actually negotiating for the rights to remake the movie.”
Getting into the film industry is rather personal for Mr. Simmonds, 63, who’s looking forward to working with family members and having some fun on the project. In addition to entertainment, the publicly traded company (as of 2014) has businesses in several growth sectors, including international food, oil and gas, mould remediation, waste management, renewable energy and leisure. Combined revenues of all divisions are projected to reach more than $500-million in the next few years.
Mr. Simmonds grew up in the family business, originally founded by his grandfather as A.C. Simmonds & Sons Ltd., in 1918. After abandoning law studies [his grandmother’s wish], he joined as a partner in 1975. Between 1989 and 1993, Mr. Simmonds co-founded and developed the ClubLink public golf enterprise with his brothers. By 1993, he bought out all other family members of A. C. Simmonds & Sons, and he has been chairman and CEO since 2003.
When did you know you wanted to join the family business?
I’m the middle of seven kids. My dad was a workaholic too, so he’d work on Saturday, take us kids with him and give us something to do in the warehouse – probably to get us out of his hair. From eight or nine years old, I loved it. By the time I was 13, I went to work on every holiday. I’m still there.
I can’t imagine doing anything else. I don’t excel at golf. Pretty much what I excel at is buying, selling and operating businesses. This is my life and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
Who was your biggest influence?
My grandfather died when I was 16. He was pretty intimidating – a large, rather stern man. This is a man who’d garden with a suit and tie on, no matter how hot it was. I respected him but he wasn’t the grandfatherly type. My dad was basically my mentor. Everything I know I learned from him – my work ethic for one. My dad was a real people person who worked in the business for almost 70 years. He knew everyone by name.
How has the culture at your company evolved from your grandfather’s time? What have you changed?
One thing I really resented about the generation before me – although it wasn’t so much my dad – was that the door was always closed. You could never just walk in and say hello. So I have an absolute open door policy. Even in half my meetings, the door is open. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere. I like people to contribute. As much as I am a talker, I do listen a lot.
What kind of a leader are you?
With around 30 to 40 businesses (currently), anybody can come in at any time and ask me a question about any one of them and I can pretty much answer it. My ability to retain information is probably my greatest strength. I have the kind of mind that can figure out solutions very quickly, like my dad. He used to say, “every problem is an opportunity.” He was right.
Over the years, we’ve probably acquired a couple of hundred companies. This year we’ll probably buy 25 more companies. That’s two a month. Most people think it’s crazy. We’ve closed on 10 this year and have 10 more pending. I’d say I contact every one of those owners if not every day, at least every other day. I meet with every one of them once a week.
People come to me. I get 15 to 20 people a week coming through my door pitching me on technology or a company or an idea. Everyone thinks I’m nuts because I meet with them all. Some of my best deals seemed the least likely to get done. That’s just the way life is sometimes.
What’s your criteria for buying a company?
Every opportunity is unique. For example, we have a 45,000-square-foot bakery that makes pita bread. When we got that company, it was operating at under 40-per-cent capacity. So when the former owner came to me saying he wanted to expand and buy some ovens. I asked how much it would cost. He said a couple of million dollars. So I said, before we buy that, let’s see if we can buy the company. So we’re probably going to buy the company that makes the equipment for less than what we’d pay for the equipment.
It’s the same reason we’re in the trucking business. We’re spending about $10-million a year on logistics so I thought, 'let’s buy a trucking company. Or a cold storage business. They’re very expensive so let’s buy one and get in that business.' It’s all about my vertical integration strategy. If you go back and look at Cash McCall, that’s exactly what he was doing in this 1960 movie.
You came into a family business you didn’t have to build from the start – so what’s been tough?
Reinventing ourselves. If we were doing what we were doing in the ‘20s, which was selling lightbulbs, we’d be out of business. If we were selling radio parts like in the ‘30s or hi-fi systems like in the ‘70s or even wireless devices like in the ‘80s and ‘90s, we’d be dead. You have to continually reinvent yourself and ask, 'What’s the next trend? What’s the next opportunity to make money?’
That’s why I’ve been in so many industries. Golf is a great example. ClubLink was a perfect company for its time. It wouldn’t work today. But in the early ‘90s, people were making lots of money and wanting to join the best golf courses – and didn’t want to be like their parents stuck in a Rosedale golf and country club playing one course.
They didn’t want the snob thing either of having to wear shorts and knee socks on the golf course. Cellphones were prohibited on most of the golf courses then. We took a different approach and made it sort of a corporate thing. But now, those guys are baby boomers and have trouble doing 18 holes so that’s why we did 12 holes. But not just for the old people; it’s for the younger people.
I want to make golf a family outing – something you can do in two hours. We’re trying to reinvent golf so it’s not intimidating and it’s fun. I play with my teenage boys. You’ve got to adapt and that’s what we’re doing.
What does timing have to do with it?
I’ve always made the most money in bad economies because I pick up struggling companies. When the economies are good, I sort of take a break. I sold all the businesses in the late ‘90s in the boom. Then 9/11 hit and I was doing nothing. In 2002, I decided to get back in. Then I sold all those businesses before 2008 and was out until 2010 when I got back in and built up again.
I’m now working toward getting the next generation established. My four older kids are all involved with me, so mentoring them is very important. I’m hopeful that eventually all six of my kids will come into the business. I’m doing it for them.
The reason I took A.C. Simmonds public – it’s always been a very private company – was it’s time that the family got some of the recognition they deserve. It’s hard to sustain a business for 96 years – and continue to grow and reinvent it. So my challenge is to turn it over in the best shape it’s ever been to the next generation.