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Lee Bragg, left, with his father John at the EastLink head office in Halifax (PAUL DARROW/GLOBE AND MAIL)
Lee Bragg, left, with his father John at the EastLink head office in Halifax (PAUL DARROW/GLOBE AND MAIL)

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EastLink: The biggest cable company you've probably never heard of Add to ...

Lee Bragg, a pair of Bono-like sunglasses perched atop his shaved head, steers his aging Jeep Cherokee around a seemingly endless Halifax industrial park, growing increasingly annoyed.

He's searching for his company's new sales office. "Where is it?" he mumbles, leaning forward in his seat, scanning one identical office front after another. Finally, the chief executive officer and vice-chair of EastLink Communications Inc. spots his company's logo. It's on a letter-sized sheet of paper taped to a glass door.

Putting up signage tends to become an afterthought when a company is growing as rapidly as EastLink. With remarkably little in the way of headlines, the Bragg family's cable TV operation has expanded from its tiny rural base to span much of Atlantic Canada. It now ranks as Canada's largest private cable company - the biggest cable company you've probably never heard about.

The Braggs, who made their first fortune harvesting blueberries, have shown themselves to be equally adept in reaping the benefits of technology. They have consistently beaten the industry giants in spotting where the future lies. In 1999, EastLink became the first cable company in Canada to launch home phone service. It has since gobbled up market share in Nova Scotia, particularly in Halifax. It also stretched beyond its Atlantic home, snapping up cable operations in Ontario and the West.

Now the Braggs are expanding into the wireless business, the fastest growing segment of the telecommunications industry. They are continuing to thrust beyond their Atlantic home, investing more than $200-million over the past two years to upgrade their cable operations in Ontario, Alberta and B.C. The family's increasingly valuable operations in Central and Western Canada are key bargaining chips if the Braggs choose to engage in an industry-changing swap of properties with their much larger cable competitors.

As big as the Braggs have become, they're still rooted in rural Nova Scotia. John Bragg, the 70-year-old family patriarch, is estimated to be worth more than $700-million. He serves on the board of Toronto-Dominion Bank, but continues to live in tiny Collingwood, N.S. His four children are all involved in aspects of his empire, which spans everything from frozen food and lumber to telecommunications.

One of the family's key holdings is EastLink. As a private company, it's not required to disclose much, and it doesn't. Saying anything at all, to anyone, "goes against our nature," says Lee, 43, John's eldest child.

The Braggs are equally terse when it comes to their private lives, preferring to play down their wealth. When pressed, Lee will admit his "lawn is a little bigger than it should be, kind of hard to mow." He will also grudgingly acknowledge that his father does have the nicest house in Collingwood. "But then there's only 50 houses in Collingwood," he adds.

Turn the conversation to business, though, and you find a family as ambitious as anyone in the cable industry. They are refreshingly plain-spoken on the topics they choose to address - such as the wireless network they plan to launch in the next 12 to 18 months. "I think you can make a scandalous amount of money at it," says Lee. "It seems like everybody else has."

Blueberry kings

The Braggs may run the premier telecom operation in Atlantic Canada, but they also happen to own the largest wild blueberry operation on the planet. "I picked my first blueberries when I was 15 on some abandoned farmland that my father owned," John recalls. "By the time I was through university, I was running the blueberry business on the side and I was making a lot more money doing that than I could teaching school."

Over the next few years, John expanded into frozen foods and built an empire that sells onion rings and other "battered vegetable appetizers." In 1969, he decided to diversify away from food and gambled on acquiring a cable licence for the town of Amherst, N.S. Over the next few years, the Braggs gobbled up neighbouring cable operators. In 1985, they broke into the big time when they acquired Halifax Cablevision Ltd., then the largest system in Eastern Canada.

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