Net Worth captures John Risley’s public and private business

Posted on July 17, 2023 | By Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments

When he decided to write a book about business tycoon John Risley in 2019, journalist Quentin Casey had no idea how Risley would respond. As Casey describes in his introduction to the now-available Net Worth: John Risley, Clearwater and the Building of a Billion-Dollar Empire, Risley didn’t reply to his initial hails.

Still, he proceeded as best he could: verifying historic details on various business interests and Risley’s personal life, checking public records, reaching out to family, friends and… others who could never be described as friends. Casey pursued it because, frankly, he was surprised more hadn’t already been written about the man, beyond the daily news and a few things like a chapter in Gordon Pitts’ The Codfathers.

Casey is a resident of Mahone Bay, N.S., where he describes Risley as a household name—as he is in all of Nova Scotia. “He’s been in the headlines over decades (…). He’s known for the fisheries, he’s known for lobster… but he’s just done so many other things,” he told Atlantic Business Magazine in a recent interview. He wasn’t fawning; he said it matter-of-fact.

Indeed, the more he researched, the more Casey discovered. “I didn’t comprehend the extent to which he’s just had his fingers in so many pies outside of even Canada,” he said.

One example explored in the book is Risley’s interest in competitive sailing, and his time on the board of New Zealand’s America’s Cup team. It may sound like recreation for the rich, until you get into Risley’s look at team management, costs and revenue sources available to professional sailors.

Casey made a few attempts to connect with Risley at an early stage in the book project. Risley responded first with an email that wasn’t the kind of open arms welcome a would-be biographer would want (I’ll leave the exact detail for book readers to enjoy). Casey continued working. Eventually, Risley agreed to meet. By the time the book was ready, a persistent Casey had completed more than a dozen one-on-one interviews with Risley, including two at Risley’s secluded island home, not far from Chester, N.S.

“I just found he was very direct and open,” the author said.

Was the change, with Risley ultimately engaging with the project, the invitations to his home, an attempt to influence what was printed? Was it about steering the biography in any particular way? Casey doesn’t think so.

Regardless, the writer’s greatest protection against that potential influence was the leg work he continued with on records and interviews, pushing the biography to something beyond anything Risley might have dictated if given the chance. At the time of our interview, Casey said he actually doesn’t know for sure how Risley feels about it all.

In the one-on-one interviews, Casey sensed there were areas the businessman was keen to talk about. Risley’s cadence would change, he lit up, became more energized, when they were talking the ins and outs of a particular business deal. That tended not to be the case when things were personal, when they waded into the details of his divorce or his father’s death (Risley’s father died when Risley was in his mid-teens). There, rather than let it lie, Casey had to “pry a little bit more”.

“The novelist is free; the biographer is tied,” author Virginia Woolf wrote in a piece titled The Art of Biography, carried in the April 1939 edition of The Atlantic. Non-fiction demands some relationship to the existing person. She described biographers as more craftsmen than pure artists. Casey clearly, carefully gathered his materials.

In Atlantic Canada, broadly, biographies and non-fiction sometimes will lean into one particular source, or to paper records for modern events, without taking advantage of the opportunity to interview people involved, while they’re still alive to give interviews. But Casey covered his bases.

Even in covering the best-known of the Risley-related business tales, like the building of Clearwater Seafoods, or the boardroom battles over Fisheries Products International (FPI), he manages to mine some fine details and perspectives. He also gains credibility for being clear on the interviews he didn’t land as well as including outright criticisms of the book project.

He describes, for example, how former FPI lead executive Vic Young declined to walk through everything from the FPI story, based on Casey’s focus on Risley. “It’s too bad you’re messing up such a wonderful story from the wrong angle,” Casey quotes Young as saying, though it wasn’t all Young offered.

One of the particularly valuable chapters covers how Risley’s “greatest business triumph—by far—had nothing to do with lobsters or seafood”; it was the creation of Columbus Communications. Casey benefits there from the input of Risley’s friend and business partner Brendan Paddick but also Jamaican billionaire Michael Lee-Chin. And he doesn’t hesitate to get into the company name, or moments at pitch meetings where Risley pissed off others outright.

Do we get closer, through all of this, to knowing ‘the real John Risley’? It’s “to an extent,” Casey says when asked. He quickly adds: “Even his good friend Hugh Smith, who’s a big business guy in Nova Scotia, said he’s never been able to truly figure the guy out. So, if his best friends can’t totally figure him out, I wouldn’t claim that I could either. I think he’s just like anyone, where he’s just so much more complicated than you’d get from the public persona of who he is and making comments on public policy … There’s just so many sides to someone.”

What does come through, in rare form, is a view of the work of one of the most notable figures in Atlantic business. For Casey, that was really the heart of it all along.

“It’s worth preserving how he’s done everything he’s done,” he said.

“Particularly in Atlantic Canada, I think people have their different opinions on whether what he’s done (in business) is a good thing or a bad thing, but he’s someone whose ideas and efforts have had a big impact and I just think that story should be out there for people to understand.”

Net Worth: John Risley, Clearwater and the Building of a Billion-Dollar Empire is available from Nimbus Publishing.


NOTE: John Risley has a regular column, Devil’s Advocate, that appears in each print issue of Atlantic Business Magazine. That said, he is not a regular at the magazine’s offices; he did not have any input into this piece. —AF

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About our Book Report series

In Book Report, Atlantic Business Magazine is highlighting non-fiction focused on Atlantic Canada and Atlantic Canadians, and from Atlantic Canadian publishers. These short pieces will offer details from upcoming business biographies, Q&As on new releases and in some cases fresh commentary from non-fiction authors on the subjects of their published works.

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