Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Buzz Hargrove has never met Ches Penney. The Canadian Auto Workers chief knows almost nothing about the shrewd, low-key industrial magnate who might just be Newfoundland and Labrador's most powerful business leader.

But he does know that the fate of nearly 2,000 CAW-affiliated workers in Newfoundland depends heavily on Mr. Penney's ability to manage the battered remnants of local fisheries icon FPI Ltd. "He's an unknown quantity but our people are breathing a sigh of relief and saying 'let's work with him,' " says the Toronto-based Mr. Hargrove.

Until now, the stocky, ruddy-faced Mr. Penney, 75, has been little-known outside Newfoundland, and not exactly a household name even on the Rock. But that anonymity may be about to end.

Story continues below advertisement

The Newfoundland and Labrador government this week approved the breakup and sale of FPI, the heart and soul of the local fish economy for more than 23 years.

Under the agreement, whose details are being hammered out, Ocean Choice International Inc., a St. John's-based company controlled by Mr. Penney, would get most of FPI"s Newfoundland assets, including six fishery plants, vessels and various offshore rights.

High Liner Foods Inc. of Lunenburg, N.S., would buy a secondary processing plant in Burin, Nfld., and a U.S. marketing arm.

In the view of Mr. Hargrove, as well as many Newfoundlanders, Mr. Penney's purchase would represent a hope for quieter times after the controversial stewardship of Nova Scotia fish tycoon John Risley and his ownership group.

Mr. Penney has been a relatively small player in the fish game, but is hardly a business neophyte. Whatever happens in Newfoundland, he has his finger in it, whether it's oil tankers, construction, building materials, car dealerships, real estate, even high technology.

It adds up to a privately held conglomerate with interests in more than 50 companies and $600-million in annual sales, run out of an unprepossessing industrial building in suburban St. John's.

The son of a service station owner in Carbonear, Mr. Penney joined Bank of Commerce out of high school and became the youngest manager in the bank's network. But he yearned for something more, so he opened a small auto parts store, and parlayed that into a construction company.

Story continues below advertisement

He lost his company through bankruptcy in 1969-1970 because, he has admitted in interviews, he was distracted by a turbulent personal life. Vowing never to lose focus again, he rebuilt the business and it took off.

It is a typical Newfoundland success story. His construction firm grew as much as it could in the lightly populated province, so he branched out by accumulating a conglomerate of varied assets, often with partners.

Along with a Norwegian partner, he operates the shuttle tankers that transport oil from Hibernia and Terra Nova offshore fields to a trans-shipment port. He owns interests in about a dozen car dealerships, working with his nine children.

Mr. Penney was clearly the province's top choice to take over the local FPI assets after Mr. Risley and his group put them on the block. The other options were to sell the assets piecemeal, or to another contender, the Barry Group of Corner Brook.

The big question is why Mr. Penney wants to expand in a business plagued by overfishing, declining stocks, fluctuating prices and government interference. Two years ago, Mr. Penney said "all my businesses with the exception of fish plants are doing well."

His hands may be further tied by conditions the province has put on the sale. Under a complex new arrangement, fish harvested under Canadian quotas must be landed in the province, and not shipped to lower-cost countries for primary processing.

Story continues below advertisement

One theory being offered is that he has considerable backing by Icelandic financial interests, and that the purchase may amount to an exit strategy for Mr. Penney. In time, this theory goes, the Icelandic interests will assume control and he will fade to the background.

Mr. Penney did not return calls yesterday.

John Crosbie, the former federal cabinet minister and a onetime FPI director, insists that idea is "nonsense." He said he would be surprised if Icelandic interests were not involved in the financing. Icelanders have their hand in many fishery deals, reflecting their experience and knowledge.

But he says it is not like Mr. Penney to be a frontman. "Ches Penney doesn't get stalked. If there is any stalking to be done, he does it." Mr. Crosbie said the big advantage for both Ocean Choice and High Liner is that the asset will no longer fall under the provincial FPI Act. "FPI has been a political plaything down here."

Ches Penney

Details

Story continues below advertisement

Chairman, The Penney Group,

St. John's

Born: Carbonear, Nfld., 1932

Education: High school graduate

Career highlights:

Joined Bank of Commerce out of high school

Story continues below advertisement

Became a manager in Grand Falls, Nfld.

Quit the bank to go into retail auto parts

Founded a construction company

Business failed in 1970 and assets sold off

Later, he reacquired many of the sold assets

Private life

Story continues below advertisement

Has nine children, a number of them partners in his car dealerships. Entertains on a 51-foot yacht called Friday Night.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Tickers mentioned in this story
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies