John Risley: Learning from your mistakes



As the co-founder of one of the world’s largest seafood suppliers, with a reported personal wealth of nearly $1 billion, you might expect that John Risley has a typical list of qualifications that got him to where he is today—a degree in business or commerce perhaps, or even an MBA.

But instead, Risley has spent his life taking the path less traveled. A Nova Scotia native, after two years as a young student at Dalhousie University he decided that the post-secondary education route wasn’t for him.

“Frankly [I] didn’t know what I was doing there—wasn’t really happy, and was not convinced that what I was doing there was going to help me make money,” he said.

So, he jumped straight into what he hoped would be the money-making stage of his life, only to find that success wouldn’t come too easily. His first venture into the world of real estate was, according to the Globe and Mail, a failure, and when he and his brother-in-law, Colin MacDonald, decided to start selling lobsters in 1976, they had essentially zero knowledge of the seafood industry.

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But Risley recognizes more readily than most that failure is one of the best teachers of all.

“There’s no question that learning by making your own mistakes is the most fabulous learning experience that you can have, because it’s so painful,” he said.

Eventually, he and MacDonald took steps towards creating a competitive advantage for themselves in the industry, gaining the rights to fish not just for lobster, but also premium high-return products like scallops, coldwater shrimp, and Arctic surf clams, to name just a few species. Their company, Clearwater Fine Foods, also now operates in both the North Atlantic Ocean, as well as off the coast of Argentina in some of the world’s most resource-rich waters.

The entrepreneurial spirit that guided Risley towards expanding Clearwater has also led to his other independent ventures in the business world. He currently devotes much of his time to backing Mara Renewables Corp., a company that harvests lipids from algae in order to create biofuel. He’s also co-founder of a major Caribbean telecom company, Columbus Communications, and just last year he was able to sell his startup Ocean Nutrition Canada Ltd. (which sells the Omega 3 ingredients produced by fish oil, often used in dietary supplements) for a reported $540 million.

While he managed to find success through a try-and-fail approach, Risley also cautions that times have changed. Young people today are faced with a very different workforce, one in which qualifications from a university or college program are minimum requirements for entering most fields.

When it comes to completing a formal education, whether through university or in a skilled trade, “I absolutely want to emphasize that it is the right thing to do, almost irregardless of what you want to do in the context of a career,” he said.

He’s also a major advocate of helping young people to foster their own sense of independence, and does what he can to encourage entrepreneurial activity amongst a younger demographic. Risley is heavily involved as chair of the board for the Canadian Youth Business Foundation (CYBF), which provides young entrepreneurs between the ages of 18 and 39 with mentorship, company planning instruction, as well as financing, in order to get their original business ideas off the ground. Risley credits his own mentor, an individual named Malcolm “Mac” Swim, with being a particularly strong influence in his own career early on, and aims to provide the same kind of service to other up-and-comers in the business world.

“Good mentors help you think for yourself, and help you think through prospective solutions and make sure that the decisions are yours and not theirs,” said Risley.

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“I can’t think of anything more beneficial to an entrepreneur than having a good mentor relationship.”

Risley also points out that learning is ongoing, and doesn’t just stop when you get a diploma in your hand. Ever since the 1980s, he has partaken in yearly executive improvement courses in order to continue expanding his knowledge of the business environment and stay ahead of the curve.

Above all, he tells any young entrepreneurs he encounters to “keep an open mind—learn to listen, believe in yourself. Try hard, and then try harder.”

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