Former Prime Minister pleased with Labrador aboriginal business venture
© Derek Montague
Former Prime Minister Paul Martin (left) and Seamus O’Regan (right) chat during a Labrador North Chamber of Commerce Luncheon, where Martin was the guest speaker.
Paul Martin was in Happy Valley-Goose Bay recently, to help announce details about the official purchase of Universal Helicopters Newfoundland and Labrador (UHNL) LP by Nunatsiavut Group of Companies.
The former Prime Minister was in town on Dec. 9th for the event.
Martin said he felt the announcement was so important, he declined the opportunity to attend Nelson Mandela’s memorial service so he could come to Labrador.
Martin was involved in the purchase of the helicopter company through the Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Entrepreneurship (CAPE) fund.
CAPE, a 50 million dollar fund that was created by 21 different companies and cofounded by Martin, aims to help aboriginals succeed in Canadian business ventures.
“Cape began for precisely the reason that we are here today,” said Martin at the announcement. “It began because we recognized the future of this country depends on indigenous Canadians having the same opportunity Canadians have around the world.
“I’ve got to say…how impressed I am with NGC. The kinds of things that you want to happen have happened in a successful Land Claims agreement.
“The monies that are provided go, certainly, to this generation, but primarily to the generations to follow.”
Universal Helicopters has been around for 50 years and currently has 20 aircraft and employs 40 people.
Clint Davis, Chair of NGC, claims the purchase of Universal Helicopters is one of the largest aboriginal business transactions in all of Canada. But he said that NGC couldn’t release details on how much money was spent in acquiring the helicopter company
“It is a private company, so we’re going to keep the price to ourselves for now…but needless to say it wasn’t a small transaction,” said Davis. “In fact, it’s probably considered one of the largest business acquisitions by any Aboriginal Group in the country right now.”
Davis said the acquisition of Universal Helicopters fits well with the goals of NGC, noting they are looking to be involved in businesses that they can be majority shareholders, employ Labrador Inuit, and turn a decent profit.
“When you enter into any business, there is going to be a level of risk,” said Davis. “(Universal) is a company that has a long history — 50 years. It’s gone through a number of economic cycles and survived. So we’re pretty confident that it’s going to do exceptionally well for the next number of years.”
The deal would not have happened if Harry Steele, who is the majority shareholder of Newfoundland Capital Corporation, refused to sell. The 85-year-old business legend said he would only sell his beloved company if it went to an aboriginal group.
“I had lots of offers for Universal and I never entertained one,” said Steele. “This would go to the Aboriginals or it would not be sold.”
“I was the main, majority shareholder, I was a person in a position to give something back. And I don’t believe in selling something for 10 if it’s only worth five.”
Now that Universal Helicopters is sold to NGC, Steele says he won’t be lingering around and second guessing the leadership of the aboriginal company.
“When I sell a company, that’s it…if they ever want my advice, if it’s any good, I’ll give it to them…and I always do it for free. But I never hang around; when I sell, I go,” said Steele.
The deal also wouldn’t have happened without some tremendous patience at the negotiating table. According to Steele it took at least a year to hammer out the details. Others who were involved in the process agree that it was a difficult sale to work out.
“I thought that operating 20 aircraft in remote, challenging environments was complex…but the complexity of running the operation pales in comparison to the complexity of the (negotiations) process we went through,” said Geoff Goodyear, president and CEO of UHNL LP.
“I think it was a long process, in terms of trying to go through and figure out exactly…the due diligence process,” added Davis.
After the announcement ceremony ended, Paul Martin went to the Royal Canadian Legion, where he spoke at a luncheon hosted by the Labrador North Chamber of Commerce.
The former Prime Minister was interviewed on stage by former television host, and Canadian celebrity Seamus O’Regan. The talk focused, mainly, on the CAPE fund and aboriginal issues in Canada.
Martin also told a story about meeting a young aboriginal boy in Northern Ontario, and how it encouraged him to start the CAPE fund.
During their chat, the boy asked him about his shipping company and what did the former Prime Mister do to become an expert on shipping
Martin informed the boy that he didn’t know anything about shipping when he started the business, but somebody mentored him along the way. The boy than asked Martin if anybody would mentor him someday. Martin said yes.
“(But) deep down I knew the answer (was no),” said Martin.
The boy told Martin that he must have had a lot of money on hand to start up a shipping company himself. The former Prime Minister informed the lad that he had to borrow money from the bank to start the company. The boy than asked Martin if a bank would lend him money someday. Once again, Martin said yes.
“(But) no bank would probably lend him any money.”
Martin said he than released the importance of making sure aboriginal Canadians have the same opportunities for prosperity as anyone else across Canada. That’s why he wanted to help start up the CAPE fund.
Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, Martin never met an aboriginal Canadian until he was in his late teens and working along side some natives on a boat.
“These young guys were every bit as smart, every bit as hard working…but there was no hope,” said Martin.
Martin later spoke about the residential school system and the damage it caused to many aboriginals across Canada. Martin said he was shocked after he learned about — years ago while still in politics — the abuses that occurred in some of these schools.
“I understood why there was no hope,” said Martin.
But Martin feels there is a lot of hope for the future. He feels Canadian businesses have begun putting more emphasis on cooperating with aboriginal groups when it comes to resource development and other ventures.
“I think there’s been a fundamental shift,” said Martin.
“We’re at the tipping point… I’m feeling optimistic.”