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Illustration of Ken Rowe, executive chairman, IMP Group International Inc. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Ken Rowe, executive chairman, IMP Group International Inc. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)


Ken Rowe: This captain of industry is still at the helm Add to ...

He came to lunch at Halifax’s Ashburn country club – that is, Old Ashburn, a 90-year-old landmark just off a major expressway in Halifax, as opposed to New Ashburn, which at 42 years old is not really new but qualifies as a mere piker in this historic port city. The golfers are long gone, and the club is operating under winter hours, but Old Ashburn is a convenient place to dine, being just down the road from IMP headquarters.

During the summer, Mr. Rowe likes to hit the short fairways of Old Ashburn, where he can still achieve scores in the mid-80s. He averages a few strokes higher on the longer New Ashburn course, where his drives don’t have the same reach as they once did. So he relies on his short game to stay competitive – which could also describe his growth plan, which entails moving in small, strategic steps.

At lunch, he eats carefully to stay in shape for the tennis season in Florida. He is always connected to Halifax by e-mail and phone, keeping close tabs on the IMP empire. “When you own the business, you can’t retire from it,” he says, “and your mind is never far away from it. But I can do as much or as little as I want.” These days, he is doing quite a lot.


Officer in charge

Mr. Rowe grew up near the ocean in Essex, England, the son of a railway-manager father and a store-owner mother. He left home to join the British Merchant Navy and the maritime mentality is still there. He feels that running a company is like steering a battleship with its rigorous chain of command and disciplined teams of operating crews backed up by support functions.

“I run the company like a ship, and there is only one captain, no matter what you call the job. The buck stops at my desk in the end,” he says. Like any good captain, he relies heavily on an able first mate, chief executive officer Steve Plummer, who joined him more than 30 years ago out of business school. (At some point, Mr. Plummer will retire and that will raise an interesting succession decision, for Mr. Rowe’s three children are all senior IMP managers.)

After his navy stint, Mr. Rowe trained as a corporate secretary, the British equivalent of a professional manager, and joined the Great Grimsby Coal Salt & Tanning Co. Ltd., then Europe’s largest manufacturer of commercial fishing equipment. In 1964, he was sent to Halifax as managing director of the company’s North American interests. As he and wife Dorothy, with two children and a German shepherd, arrived by train through the grimy industrial areas of Halifax, Dorothy said they might not last the full two-year posting. But they grew to love the city and it, too, has blossomed – although Mr. Rowe says it badly needs a transfusion of redevelopment in the core.

Heading out on his own, he bought a foundry he called Industrial Marine Products, later shortened to IMP. Over the years, it diversified out of marine markets and into its twin focuses of airlines and aviation. Three times, he entered the business of running scheduled airlines, and three times he exited, and now CanJet operates as a charter airline. The experience left him with a sour feeling about the scheduled flight game and a lingering enmity toward rival Air Canada.

His most colourful battle was over a Moscow hotel, in which he partnered with the Russian airline Aeroflot in the early years of Russian capitalism in the 1990s. IMP’s management agreement was unilaterally terminated, setting up a legal battle. At one point, Canadian authorities in Montreal seized an Aeroflot plane on the airport tarmac, holding it until a payment was made to IMP.

When the Aeroflot tiff was resolved, Mr. Rowe watched as Russian gangsters moved in to seize the hotel. IMP sued the Russian government in a push to regain its investment, and Mr. Rowe finally salvaged a satisfactory agreement.

You might think he would rue the whole sorry episode but, no, he mostly loved it. “We worked hard and played hard,” he said, and Russia in the post-perestroika era was an exciting place to be. But any investment in Russia is going to be high-maintenance, he said.

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