Car­bon­ear-born busi­ness­man dies

Few able to say full reach of New­found­land and Labrador busi­ness icon

The Compass - - FRONT PAGE - BY ASHLEY FITZ­PATRICK TC ME­DIA

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.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

Ches Pen­ney died last Thurs­day at the age of 84.

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