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As he tours his property on the shores of Nova Scotia's picturesque Mahone Bay, John Risley points to an outcropping of rock with a commanding view of the slate-grey ocean. This particular spot is important to the 58-year-old founder and chairman of Clearwater Seafoods, not only because it's the focal point of his estate but also because, long ago, he and his wife, Judy, used to stop here as they walked the shoreline from their apartment in nearby Chester. On these rocks, they would share a Thermos of coffee and dream about owning a piece of land like this.

At the time, the 91 acres was owned by a descendant of Sunoco founder Joseph Pew, and Risley didn't have enough money to pay the phone bills. "They didn't just turn the phone off," he recalls. "They ripped it from the wall." With the neatness of a fairy-tale ending, this land now belongs to Risley, along with a massive guesthouse aptly named Lobster House-it was, after all, lobsters that made it possible.

It's a cool, grey morning. Risley is tousled and unshaven and whippet-thin, with hazel eyes that snap like a flag in a brisk wind. He hops back in the battered pickup truck in which he's been driving me around and continues to point out highlights, while playfully fending off the dogs beside him. "Stop that barking," he says, with mock sharpness, to Lilly, one of two Yorkshire terriers with his-and-hers jewelled collars. The terriers, along with two aging retrievers in the back seat, are Risley's constant companions as he works his land, which in his case means planning and overseeing endless building projects. "You're never really finished," he says, "and I don't want to be."

Today Risley has enough wealth that he doesn't have to worry about the cost of his projects. But he never forgets that this wasn't always the case. When he was a boy growing up in Halifax, money-and how to make a lot of it-was an overriding concern. After graduating from high school, he wasn't interested in continuing his formal education. "I just couldn't see how university was going to make me rich," he says. Instead, he got into real estate in Halifax, and made a few bucks in the boom years of the early 1970s. "There was a time when I confused luck with brains," he says, "something a real estate market bust helped correct."

In 1976, Risley's general lack of funds drew him to the one business that can be started for virtually nothing in Nova Scotia. He opened a lobster shop, securing licences to catch lobsters and deliver them fresh to local customers. He also persuaded his brother-in-law, Colin MacDonald, to quit medical school and join him. The path from that first store to the Clearwater empire wasn't quite as quick-or seamless-as it seems in retrospect. But it is accurate to say that after that first lobster store, the phone bills were paid on time.

It wasn't that long, in fact, before Risley had enough money to make the matriarch of the Pew family an offer for the Mahone Bay acreage. "I offered $3.5 million, and people thought I was crazy." The woman flatly refused, but Risley got another chance after she died and left the land to her grandchildren. When they put it up for sale, Risley was waiting.

He tells this story as he points out the old cottages in a small valley behind the main house. His mother now lives in one, while the others have been restored in meticulous detail to their original condition and style. "I do the outside; Judy takes care of the inside," Risley says. Over time, he bought an additional 210 acres that includes swaths of woodland and field. And he embarked on a building spree, starting with the main house. It took three years, and the help of some of England's finest craftsmen, to complete the sprawling mansion, set on a manicured lawn with gravel forecourt. Lobster House followed, as well as stables, an arena and a fully equipped barn, which cried out for animals.

Risley says the Rockefeller family, with its wealth and history of noblesse oblige, is a model for his life. He has met some of the family, and was inspired by them to build a public park on part of his property. From them, he also bought some of his cows. About five years ago, he decided he wanted horses, and acquired some fine show-class Dutch Warmbloods, as well as some less noble stock for his own use. As we make our way through the barn, he greets a pregnant mare: "Do you miss me?" he croons, rubbing her nose with the palm of his hand.

When Risley discovered that 24-year-old Cheryl Meisner, whom he hired to look after his horses, had riding ambitions of her own, he offered to underwrite her career and, most importantly, give her horses to ride. Today, she is on a short list for the Olympic dressage team. Though he's happy to watch the success of his young stablewoman, he's equally content to play a background role.

Today, that also applies to the business he founded. By the time Clearwater went public as an income trust in 2002, Risley was ready to relinquish control. "That day I handed the keys to [MacDonald] who had always wanted to run it," he says, adding that "it probably helped that I did it cold turkey." The company is clearly a success, but a weak U.S. dollar (and some recent acquisitions stateside) forced Clearwater to suspend distributions in late 2005. "People who bought the IPO and watched it go to $13 get anxious when it declines," he says. "But we've paid out $3 in distributions, a healthy yield."

Though Risley has stepped aside at Clearwater, he keeps busy with running a telecom firm in Latin America and the Caribbean, and building a research and development fisheries business, Ocean Nutrition, the world's largest producer of omega-3 fatty acids. Over time, he's made his share of enemies-most notably, when Clearwater took over Fishery Products International from the province of Nova Scotia-but it surprises him to hear he has a reputation as a tough guy. Seeing him murmuring to a dog cradled in his arms, he certainly doesn't look so tough. Nor does he sound tough when he quotes David Rockefeller, who once said, '"Watch for people who love animals. Those are good people to do business with.'"

What was your first job? Mowing lawns for neighbours. An average lawn was $1; a big lawn was $2 What's your current bedtime reading? The Rommel Papers, edited by Liddell Hart What's the worst decision you ever made? Not getting a university degree, particularly a graduate degree, like an MBA or an LLB What's your guilty pleasure? Ice cream What job, besides your current one, did you like best? Lifeguard on a police boat What do you hope to be doing in 10 years? Spending more time with more grandchildren What's your favourite movie? The Last of the Mohicans What quality do you most admire in others? Patience What were you afraid of when you were a kid? The dark Where would you like to go that you haven't been? The Arctic What time do you go to work every day? 5:30 a.m.

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