John Risley – 2023 Testimonial Dinner Award Honouree
Date: Thursday January 26, 2023
Photography by Blair Gable
John Risley: “We wanted someone who would be a good steward for the business. And that led us very quickly to First Nations”
John Risley is the former CEO of Clearwater Seafoods Inc. and a leader in reconciliation in Canadian business
For most of his career, John Risley was best known as Canada’s lobster mogul, the CEO of Clearwater Seafoods Inc., a shellfish behemoth with operations around the world. His was a classic up-by-the-bootstraps story: he started selling lobster off the back of a pick-up truck in the 1970s and wound up with two billion-dollar companies, along with the massive seaside estate, mega-yacht and private jet one might expect of a captain of industry.
Where his path diverges from the norm was in his 2020 decision to sell Clearwater to a partnership led by a coalition of First Nations, one of the biggest Indigenous business deals the country has seen. He did it not out of a sense of obligation or because government was encouraging the move. “We did it selfishly, frankly. We thought that it made good business sense,” he says.
And he did it because he saw in First Nations ownership a good way to sustain an iconic Canadian company. Risley had built Clearwater by consolidating the shellfish industry, buying up licences from small operators and chasing new export markets. Where Canadian fishers had been focused on the U.S. market, he looked first to Europe, where no one had thought to send lobster anytime other than at Christmas, and then to China, where he convinced buyers and restaurants that the two-clawed, cold-water Canadian variety was so much tastier than its spiky, spidery Australian cousin.
After decades building the company, when it came time to sell, he wasn’t interested in a “financial player” who might sell it again in five years to other investors, who might then sell it yet again. “That wasn’t why we built the company,” he says. “We thought the company was pretty special, an Atlantic Canadian company, and we wanted to find a good, stable, long-term home for the business — somebody who would be a good steward of the business. And that led us very quickly to First Nations. The great thing is, they don’t think of 20 years as long term. And they will never sell.”
The Mi’kmaq Coalition, led by Membertou First Nations Chief Terry Paul, took shape and partnered with Premium Brands, a Vancouver-based prepared foods company, to buy Clearwater in a billion-dollar deal. To access capital through the First Nations Finance Authority, the Mi’kmaq needed proper governance structures and financial controls in place. Everyone, says Risley, accepted that the company needed to keep professional management in place and would need to reinvest in order to grow.
The deal was a landmark moment for reconciliation in Canadian business. For more of this to happen, Risley says, business needs to recognize that Indigenous Peoples should be more fully woven into the fabric of the economy. “The nature of the relationship between the traditional business community and the First Nations business community has been all ass-backwards,” he says. “It’s like we do a deal and we write a royalty cheque and a few jobs go to First Nations members, all at the low end. If you really want true reconciliation, you need to look at First Nations as partners.” That means education and training, a commitment to providing high-level jobs and recognizing First Nations as potential buyers of billion-dollar enterprises. “This is not something you do because government says we want this deal to happen, or we’ll provide incentives to make it happen. This is something you do because it makes good business sense. And when people realize that, they will embrace it as just that, as an opportunity.”
With Clearwater sorted, Risley is on to the next thing, or the next several things. Not that Clearwater was ever his only entrepreneurial success — he built a fish oil and nutrition company into a global player before selling in 2012 and, along with a partner, he took over a telecommunications company called Columbus Communications in 2004 that modernized and consolidated a fragmented industry in the Caribbean before selling in a US$1.85-billion deal in 2014.
His newest ventures are marked by the same kind of global ambition. In 2019, his private equity firm, Northern Private Capital, led a group of investors that includes former Research In Motion CEO Jim Balsillie to buy MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (now known as MDA) for $1 billion. Known as the builder of the space shuttle’s Canadarm, MDA’s most recent success was a deal to build low-Earth orbit satellites for Apple.
Risley sees space technology as a fast-growing market — just as telecommunications in the Caribbean was in the mid-2000s, and as green energy is becoming now. That’s where his next effort is focused, as an investor and chairman of World Energy GH2, which wants to build a mammoth US$12-billion wind farm on Newfoundland’s west coast to produce green hydrogen. “It’s a brand-new industry, so everything has to happen all at once,” Risley says. “You’ve got to find technically qualified people, you’ve got to develop a market, you’ve got to find suppliers, there are huge capital costs. We’ve never had a project of this scale in the history of Atlantic Canada. Even projects like Hibernia didn’t cost this much money. It’s a big deal.”
Building world-class companies, he says, is a matter of identifying the sectors and finding the markets where Canadian companies can excel. “It’s intimidating to grow up beside such a dominant economy as the United States. And we have got to learn that this isn’t about taking on the United States in everything. You win by deciding which sectors you want to be a winner in and saying, ‘OK, do we have the right resources to make that happen? How can we create public policy and enable those sectors to be given every opportunity to succeed?’”
It’s government’s job to be “an attractor of capital aggregation,” he says. “Capital will go where it is loved, and stay where it is embraced.” He means that, in the broadest terms, Canada needs to be competitive across a host of issues: “quality of life, health care, taxation, of course, government regulation … I think we are becoming much too oppressive a regulatory environment and that adds cost for little benefit.”
It’s the job of business to think strategically. Risley is a voracious reader with a particular fondness for biographies of, as he puts it, successful people — like Randolph Hearst, John D. Rockefeller Sr., even Howard Hughes. (“He was on the fringe, but brilliant.”) One of his favourites, a book he’s read several times, is The Rommel Papers, the collected writings of Second World War field marshal Erwin Rommel. “In war you could be successful by simply overwhelming your opponent with quantums of men and material, like Montgomery, or you could be a brilliant strategist like Rommel, who fought against tremendous odds.”
Entrepreneurship, he says, is all about strategic thinking, “taking a limited amount of resources or inputs and creating real value around them.” It’s a lesson Canadian business is learning, he says. “I think the country is becoming more mature about how we are doing these kinds of things. I think 20 years ago we thought we had to be good in everything. I don’t think we think that anymore.”
Profile by Mark Stevenson