When James Richardson founded a grain operation in Kingston, Ont., the United States was still a few years away from civil war, and Canada was likely just a dream in the mind of Sir John A. Over the next century-and-a-half, the company expanded into oil and gas, financial services and real estate — and became the pillar of Corporate Canada known as James Richardson & Sons Ltd. Now based in Winnipeg, the family-owned and -run company marks its 150th anniversary in 2007. Its 52-year-old president and CEO, Hartley Richardson — great-great-grandson of founder James Richardson, and JRSL's seventh family president — spoke to senior associate editor Alex Mlynek about the company's past, present and future.
Canadian Business: Where has the company made its strongest mark on Canada?
Richardson: When we look at the company's history, in many ways it intertwines with the history of Canada. We've been there since the beginning of the country — in the grain business and the pioneering of moving west, in effect almost ahead of the railway, and being involved with the opening up of Western Canada in the late 1800s. In the early 1900s, my grandfather, James A., established Canadian Airways, which was the major national airline of the day. He moved into the investment securities business, developing a company that was Canadian based and Canadian focused, but had offices around the world — basically he was selling Canada to investors around the world. We've been in pipeline construction and opening up the North. We've also been on the leading edge of industries in oil and gas in our home province of Manitoba.
JRSL sold its stake in Richardson Green-shields in 1996. Why open Richardson Financial Group, which includes private equity and wealth management divisions, in 2003?
Like so much of what we've done, it was opportunity driven. My grandfather went into the business in 1926 because he viewed that there was a need: there was an opportunity to provide financial services beyond our grain business to our farm customers. When we came back into the business, it was because we felt with the demographics in Canada, we could take some of the lessons we've learned within our family and share them and build a high-net-worth family wealth management platform that would be very specific.
I guess this speaks to the concept of growth with the country?
Exactly. So much of business, of course, is timing, and we always take a long-term view and approach to our business. That's one of the many advantages in being private.
There are no plans for an IPO, then?
How has being based in Winnipeg shaped the company?
We've been in Winnipeg since the early 1900s, when the company established itself firmly in the grain business. We are very much still in the grain business, and this is the centre of where one needs to be for that business. Being in Winnipeg as opposed to one of the other major cities also allows us to stay focused on the longer term, and be more reflective and look out at where we're going with an unobstructed view.
What part of the business are you most naturally drawn to?
I grew up in the grain business. My first job was working on a farm. And then my summer employment was working in grain elevators at Pioneer Grain. We say in our family that you get grain dust in your blood. It's the business that will be celebrating 150 years, and it's where I started my career. What I appreciate about it is that 150 years later, we're still very committed to it, and we're very excited about it. We see that there's a great future in the business, as it's evolved into being more science-based, where we look to add more value here in Canada rather than just shipping the raw commodities around the world, which is what we've done for many, many years.
You are part of the fifth generation of Richardsons. What is the sixth doing?
There's a much broader age gap in the sixth generation than there was in the fourth, or fifth. We've got family members in their early years at school, and ones who have graduated from university and are looking at careers now. But nobody in the sixth generation is actively working in the business, because we believe they should go out and pursue different work experience outside the business for five years before they consider joining the firm. A number of years ago, we started holding family conferences — we just called it Our Family Conference. We brought together all three generations — the fourth, the fifth and the sixth — and it was a combination of learning and fun: learning about the business, learning about each other, better understanding the responsibility and what it means to be a shareholder, not assuming any or all will want to pursue a career in the business, but getting them to understand the history and what it is the company is doing. We've done it every two years now, for a number of years.
Other than the Conference, what has the family done about succession planning?
It's our belief that if anybody in the sixth generation is considering a career in the business, they need to do it after formal education, after an outside work experience and after having found their own way. Then, if they choose to pursue a career with the company, they will come in if there's a fit and work their way through the organization as anyone else would.
Are there any plans in the near future to move into other industries?
How we're doing that is through Richardson Capital, which has raised two private equity funds — the family is the largest investor in both of our private equity funds. So we have now over a billion dollars of capital to invest in Canadian growth businesses. That really is our growth vehicle, outside of our four core business areas.
Which industries that you've invested in through Richardson Capital have the most potential?
We're looking for Canadian companies that we can help grow — supporting a strong management with ideally some proprietary technology, or core competency that will open that company's opportunities up certainly to North America and ideally a global opportunity. It's a diverse portfolio of companies. There's certainly a focus on energy. About 30% of our first fund, and likely our second, will be focused on energy. We've been involved with coal-bed methane, with a company called BA Energy, which is a merchant upgrader in the oilsands, and oilsands technology is an area that we've had experience in and have a focus on.
What does the company have planned to celebrate the 150th anniversary?
We have a number of events planned under the theme “To thank and to celebrate,” principally all the people involved with the company — active and retired personnel — as well as the communities in which we've done business over 150 years.
Your family has always been private. How has that impacted your business?
We tend to keep a pretty low profile. Sometimes, arguably, maybe too much so, given that a number of the businesses that we're in are actively engaged with customers across the country. But I think a family company entering into its 150th year in business, continuously family owned and operated, is something that is a positive story in a Canadian business context.