Carbonear-born businessman dies
Few able to say full reach of Newfoundland and Labrador business icon
Ches Penney’s name was well known all over the province, both for his decades of involvement in the business community and for notable philanthropic endeavours. Last Thursday, the man who headed Pennecon Ltd. and founded the Penney Group of Companies died at the age of 84. He was born in Carbonear.
Chesley Penney died Thursday at the age of 84. He would have hated this piece - according to some of the people who knew him best, and the scarce quotes in The Telegram archives, he wasn’t one for attention.
“Ches,” as he preferred, was the eldest of 12 children, born in Carbonear. He was a banker who became a businessman, then a businessman who started and failed ... and started again. He continually sought business opportunities and, through some key successes over a long-but-lucrative road, became the famous name who stood at the head of more than 3,000 workers: Ches Penney, founder and chairman of the Penney Group of Companies.
“He passed away at home. And we had very much a private time with him and he was well surrounded by those who love him,” said his daughter, Gail Penney, also Penney Group president, speaking with The Telegram Friday.
She said her father suffered a head injury in a fall about 17 months ago, and the brain injury he suffered factored in his death.
“All of the family are brokenhearted. Each person has their own relationship with him. He was a supporter of us all,” she said.
Penney had nine children of his own and a stepson.
“As a Dad, he encouraged us to be strong, he was very transparent, honest, he spoke his mind, he expected us to do the same, to take responsibility for our actions, to live honestly, to respect those who were less fortunate than us. He instilled all of those qualities in us,” she said.
Her father loved business, she added. More to the point, she said, he liked making sustainable businesses and building up the community.
Des Whelan, chairman of the St. John’s Board of Trade, says Penney succeeded in that goal.
“The employment that has been generated, the benefits to this community and the resilience that he’s shown through his career ... there’s a lot to be learned,” he said. “I’m using the word icon on purpose. This man ... he is to be listed amongst a very small number of absolute icons of the business community that we, as the current business community, can look to and say, here’s how to conduct ourselves.”
Fred Taylor started working with Penney at age 26 in Grand Falls-Windsor. Now 80 years old, Taylor could write a book - more than one - on the ups and downs with Penney, looking all the way back to when Penney was the youngest bank manager with the Bank of Commerce (the CIBC), working in Grand Falls in 1955.
“He looked at one of the clients and one of the clients had a distributorship for automobile parts and whatever. It was similar to a Canadian Tire and it was called Western Tire,” Taylor said. “So he looked at it and said, ‘If I can have confidence in that particular business as a bank manager, lend them money, sure I can go in and be part of the business.’”
Penney left the bank and became part of the Western Tire franchise as a shareholder. He saw potential in the Western Tire building, moving to add a car franchise at the back and later a supermarket. He would ultimately sell the Foodland to Sobeys.
“And of course they took the name Foodland. Foodland right across the province now is what Ches had started,” Taylor said.
Partnering with an American serviceman, Penney added a bowling alley to Lincoln Road, although the business as launched didn’t last.
“Then Ches decided he wanted to get into construction, so he bought out a small little company that had a gravel pit in Grand Falls and he started a construction company,” Taylor said. “He was stretching himself. ... He got himself too far exposed and he ended up going out of business. I think that’s public know- ledge. “But then he started again.” Building up the Penney brand was a slow process, but he was determined and hands-on, with lessons learned. He punched long hours to get things moving.
Taylor said Penney’s later success in business could ultimately be attributed to an ability to find the right people to surround himself with, and not looking down on his employees.
“Ches was like the bank manager. He had a knack for identifying hard-working, capable people and he partnered with them all. And they got a start from Ches. And at some point they went out on their own, as I did here at Oceanex,” said Capt. Sid Hynes, who worked with Penney in shipping out of Lewisporte, then in the offshore oil sector with Canship (precursor to Canship-Ugland).
Hynes said there are a lot of people in the province who would not be running businesses today if not for Penney. And Penney continued as a friend and mentor in many cases, long after business partners went their separate ways, he said.
“Every weekend we’d get together boating or whatever. We used to love yarnin’ with each other and debating and having a few swallies and fixing the world. That was our favourite pastime,” Hynes said with a laugh.
“He had a big legacy that we all know about, the public persona. But there’s a lot of other people who quietly today are missing Ches, for sure, because they have so many fond memories and he helped them get where they’re going.”
Rutter Inc. president and CEO Fraser Edison was still a young adult when he worked for Penney in Central, but eventually went into concrete business in St John’s. Penney was into the same business.
“He gave me a lot of direction and help and guidance,” Edison said, noting he would call Penney for his thoughts from time to time. “He enjoyed being an entrepreneur, he enjoyed the work and I think he got a lot of satisfaction out of other people doing the same.”
Penney got into the oil business, getting a foot into Hibernia contracting and not shying from new ventures. The growing Penney Group made “a pure gamble” in one case, in Penney’s own words, spending millions on a port in Bay Bulls harbour.
“He was very, very successful, but he seemed to be close to his roots,” said Noia president and CEO Bob Cadigan.
“I think he thrived on stress,” said Ocean Choice International’s Martin Sullivan, who worked closely with Penney as OCI was moving to capture part of Fisheries Product International around 2007.
Sullivan said Penney was never frazzled, even with the intense public scrutiny brought on with the negotiations around FPI.
“I think he’ll go down in history as one of the greatest contributors to the success of our province that we’ve ever seen,” he said.
In a statement, Memorial University president Gary Kachanoski extended his condolences to the family on behalf of the university community, in particular expressing sympathies to Penney’s wife, MUN board of regents chair Iris Petten.
“His commitment to Memorial as a key driver of progress and prosperity in the province was revealed in many ways; not only through his financial contributions to the university, but through his commitment to our graduates and work-term students,” Kachanoski said, noting Penney’s support for Marine Institute scholarships as well.
Penney was known to make donations without seeking credit. In some instances, contributions still ended up making headlines. In 2008, for example, through a $25,000 donation, he saved a program run by the Canadian Red Cross, offering free loan of lifejackets from five offices across the province.
The YMCA on Ridge Road in St. John’s was named the Ches Penney Family Y, after Penney provided a $1-million donation to the organization (more recently the Penney family has donated another $500,000).
“I think he was really interested in helping people become healthier and supporting family through child care and supporting a location where people could find jobs and start businesses, and his generosity certainly made a huge difference to us,” said Jason Brown, CEO of YMCA Newfoundland and Labrador.
And, as expected by those who knew him best, Penney was a regular visitor to the construction site.
Ches Penney died last Thursday at the age of 84.