Melvin Woodward was one of the most successful businessmen of his generation in Newfoundland and Labrador. Starting with a single fuel-delivery truck that he drove himself in predawn winter mornings, he built companies that became major players in the oil and gas, aircraft refuelling, automotive and marine-transport industries, and restored the province's role in Arctic shipping. He developed tank farms, and supplied them with his own ships, a fleet that now includes the tankers Alsterstern, Havelstern, Travestern, Nanny and Dorsch. His MS Apollo also provides ferry service on the Strait of Belle Isle.
Starting in 1976, Mr. Woodward opened GM dealerships in St. Anthony, Labrador City, Hawke's Bay, Bay Roberts and L'Anse-au-Clair, and quickly expanded into rentals. In 1996, he received the first petroleum products supply-and-delivery contract with Voisey's Bay Nickel Co. He won contracts to distribute fuel through Nunavut, and with the power commission (now Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro). In 2014, his Woodward Group of Companies – including Woodward's Oil Ltd., Woodward's Ltd., Coastal Shipping Ltd., Woodward Motors Ltd., Labrador Motors Ltd. and Labrador Marine Inc. – employed more than 800 people and made $750-million in sales, according to a statement from the family.
"Mel could see an opportunity where others would not," said Edward Roberts, former lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, and a long-time friend and colleague. "He demonstrated this time and time again.
"I don't know another story like it. He didn't inherit money and there were no great breaks. I don't know anyone else who did as well as Mel did."
A St. John's-based Sunday Independent article on the province's wealthiest people (Dec. 14, 2003) called him "Labrador Magus." He was ranked No. 6 of 10, just after former premier Danny Williams.
Mr. Woodward was twice elected member of the provincial House of Assembly, in 1971 and 1972, and served as minister of Labrador Affairs under Joseph Smallwood. He ran again in 1976, but lost by about 20 votes.
"He loved politics. Dad was all about doing something," his son Peter said.
Melvin Woodward died March 16 in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. The cause of death was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to his family.
"He was steadfast about never living anywhere but Goose Bay," Peter said. "And he was very successful from day one."
Mr. Woodward was born Aug. 23, 1933, in North Boat Harbour (population then 40), on the western tip of Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula, the youngest of nine boys and two girls of Joseph, a fisherman, and Jennie (née Scanlon), the postmistress. Both his sisters died very young.
The spring he was 16, he was walking along the shore and saw a pan of ice dotted with black specks. He quickly realized these were seal pelts left behind by a sealing vessel. He clambered aboard the ice and dragged 90 pelts to shore, which he sold for $1.25 each. "That was the first money he ever earned," Peter said.
He went to school in Cook's Harbour, on the other side of the peninsula, boarding with a family. At the end of Grade 11, he wrote the public exams – in those days they were graded in England and it would be autumn before he knew if he'd passed. He went to work for the local merchant family, the Elliotts. At the end of the summer, when he expected to collect his pay, he was told it had been applied to his family's accounts.
That upset him, but he was rarely so financially vulnerable again.
He did pass his exams and a nearby Anglican minister telegraphed him about a sole-charge school in Savage Cove, down the coast. He accepted the position, for $65 a month, and when it was time for him to start and the weather was too rough to travel by boat, he walked with his suitcase strapped to his back – a journey that today would take almost two hours by highway. Once there, he decided to upgrade his mode of transportation to a bicycle, so he went to George Coles's store and asked the young saleswoman for a Raleigh. Thus he met Sibyl Coles.
The sweethearts moved down the coast, where he read meters for the power company in Corner Brook and she worked at the Esso station in Deer Lake, and then to St. John's, he as a clerk at the London, New York, and Paris department store, she as a grocery store cashier. They were living in different boarding houses and wanted to marry and make their own home. Mr. Woodward thought $600 would be enough to buy wedding rings and pay for the ceremony. Word was there was good work at the U.S. Air Force base in Goose Bay, so he boarded a DC3 and flew up to Labrador.
He was soon employed as a cashier at the Base Exchange. He sent word to Sibyl to join him, so she went down to Pier 17 and boarded the SS Kyle. They married on Remembrance Day in 1957.
In 1960, Mr. Woodward began working for himself. For security reasons, no one could live within three miles of the base, so they lived in Happy Valley (so called as everyone was happy to have a regular job, Peter explained). At that time, when someone wanted to buy furnace oil, they drove to the base with a jerry can. Mr. Woodward learned there was a fuel truck for sale for $300, and Sybil announced she had $300 saved from the grocery money that she had secretly collected in her winter coat pocket. So he bought the truck and began his winter mornings delivering fuel, and for summer work he started a stevedore company, servicing the coastal boats.
"One thing he saw early on was an opportunity to do something about the way fuel oil was being delivered," Mr. Roberts said. "Everybody needed gasoline. All over the isolated Newfoundland and Labrador coasts, fuel was delivered in 40-gallon [American] drums. These became a curse. Oil drums are heavy even when they're empty, they are hard to move, they rust, they are an environmental nightmare.
"Mel went to England to buy a ship, a Shell Oil surplus coastal tanker; he built tanks; he pumped the fuel ashore. It revolutionized life in coastal Labrador."
Mr. Woodward opened the Canadian Arctic using the same approach. "In the Arctic, it is all fuel – all their heat, all their light, all their transportation, other than dogs. Mel recalled that Newfoundlanders had run the ships for the Hudson's Bay Co. Romantic or not, Mel decided to see if he could get back some of that shipping business. The Nunavut government contracted him to carry all the POL [petroleum, oil and lubricants], which was quite an accomplishment.
"He would buy double-hulled ships that could carry big volumes of fuel. People sell ships like they sell cars. In 2004, he bought the Astron … for freight service, and she could put her rear end into the dock and lower the ramp. Up until then everything was derricked out of the hold. It looks so simple," Mr. Roberts said. "And it was."
Mr. Woodward saw big opportunities – to him the North was an opportunity – but he did not take big chances,
"The business was conservatively run," Peter said. "He lived a conservative life. They stayed in the same home they'd purchased in 1967."
Mr. Woodward liked salmon fishing, and had purchased a lodge on Eagle River. He also loved airplanes, though he never flew himself. He was dynamic, self-directed and had strong opinions: He held court. Mr. Woodward served as a member of Memorial University's Board of Regents, chairman of the St. John's Port Authority and a director of the Bank of Canada. His many honours included induction in the Newfoundland and Labrador Business Hall of Fame in 2001.
Mr. Woodward leaves his wife, Sibyl; daughter, Tana; sons, Peter and Melvin Jr.; and five grandchildren.
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