Live and Learn: John Risley

The bullish entrepreneur on his accidental start and what it takes to start three companies from scratch.

When I want a deal, I think about nothing else but how to get it done. I wake up at night to take a leak, I’m thinking about the deal. I’m very focused.

My father was an insurance adjuster in a two-partner shop. That business struggled. I remember he had to give up his office and work out of the house. Watching my father go through tough financial times maybe explains why I’m very afraid of failing.

When I was eight or nine years old, I became aware money is a driving force in life. If you don’t have enough of it, you can’t do certain things. Some people accept this, and some people don’t. I guess I didn’t.

I got into the seafood business when I was desperate to make money. I had a young son, and I was worried about buying groceries on Fridays. A friend asked me to run his seafood restaurant. I said, “I don’t know anything about the restaurant business, but I’ll turn it into a seafood store.” Every Nova Scotian thinks they know something about the seafood business.

My mom never really believed I could earn any money working for myself. She was skeptical even as the seafood business continued to grow. She’d say to me: “If your business is worth any money, show me your bank account.”

I still worry about money all the time. I don’t really have to, but I do. I think it’s this fear of failure somehow.

I spend time on the weekends cleaning the stalls of my horses and cows. It brings me back down to earth. Besides, I tell people I shovel bullshit all week long—I might as well get my hands on the real stuff on the weekends.

I get a lot of credit in the sailing community for being a pretty good sailor. That’s bullshit. I’ve just figured out how to get really good people around me.

I don’t think there’s any one secret to becoming rich. But I do think you need to have an appetite for stress and responsibility.

I remember my wife complaining I was never home. I said, “Don’t ask me to choose between you and the business because the business is going to win every time.” At the time I meant it. But now I look back and think, “What a stupid thing to say.”

I’ve learned you respect character, not money. I’ve met some guys who are amongst the richest in the world, and they’re assholes.

Every entrepreneur should have a mentor. Mine was a great guy named Mac Swim. You need someone who can tell you if you’re working hard but moving in the wrong direction.

Not getting a formal education cost me a lot. When you shoot from the hip like me, it can take a long time to hit anything.

Timing is something you can’t plan for; it’s a function of luck.

I’m a hands-off manager. I really encourage people to make up their own minds. They don’t learn anything from my decisions.

My proudest moment happened a few years ago, when I knew my businesses could operate successfully if I got hit by a bus tomorrow.

My most embarrassing moment was at a strip club in London. A friend and I had taken an overnight flight from Halifax, after finishing exams. I fell asleep, while we were seated at the front. I woke up with a huge start just as this girl was removing her last bit of clothing. She looked at me and in a room full of 200 men said, “What’s the matter, honey? Haven’t you ever seen one before?”

Business people need to spend more time thinking. They run around answering phones, writing e-mails and talking to customers, but they don’t ask themselves, “Is the business strategically better positioned at the end of the day than it was at the beginning?”

It’s kind of neat to look back and say you started three businesses from scratch, all of which have reasonable material value and are employing lots of folks. But I ain’t going to start another one. It’s just too much work and agony.

John Risley
Chester, N.S.
Born April 26, 1948,
in Halifax
Co-founder of Clearwater Fine Foods

After struggling with the required science courses for his arts degree, drops out of Dalhousie University.

Together with brother-in-law Colin MacDonald, starts Clearwater Fine Foods, a seafood business in Bedford, N.S.

Forms Ocean Nutrition Canada, which focuses on health supplements that get their key ingredients from the sea.

Spins off Clearwater Fine Foods’ seafood business into an income trust, with about $300 million in annual sales.

Partners with Michael Lee-Chin in Columbus Communications, a Caribbean ISP, telephone and cable TV company.