Newfoundland and Labrador’s blue-blooded business family shares the secret to their historic success
The 82-year-old Patten family matriarch starts the interview with a startling statement. Susan Patten (née Harvey), chair of the Board of A. Harvey Group of Companies, declares she knows very little about the early start of the business her grandfather founded in 1865.
Equally startling was her admission that she — the only child of Reginald Harvey (son of company founder, Alex Harvey) — had always hoped she’d take over the family business, but never knew if she’d be given the opportunity. Then, when her father died in 1957 at age 62, that likelihood became more precarious than ever. Though her family was the majority shareholder, her mother wasn’t interested in running the company and the president’s position passed to fellow shareholder, Herbert Outerbridge.
Susan, a child raised to be seen and not heard, performed the role she’d been cast to play: a Board member without a voice. “Rather, I had a voice,” she says. “I just didn’t know how to use it.”
It’s hard to reconcile this image of corporate wallflower with the reality of what she’s since accomplished: one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women (2013); member of the Order of Canada (2006); inductee, along with her late husband Charles Patten, to the Newfoundland and Labrador Business Hall of Fame (2007); honorary degree recipient (Mount Saint Vincent University, 1997 and Memorial University, 2013); Red Cross N.L. Humanitarian award winner (2004); chair of fundraising appeals for the Canadian Mental Health Foundation and the Salvation Army; and, life member of the Girl Guides (1992).
It’s this latter organization, not the lessons absorbed from her father’s overheard phone conversations, nor the business course she completed in London as a youth, that she says helped her find her voice.
“I credit the Girl Guides for anything I can do now with regards to public speaking or sitting on committees. They taught me everything about being a good Board member. To pay attention. To do your homework. To ask questions. To not be afraid to speak up, even if someone doesn’t want to hear your thoughts,” she says.
Still, there’s strength in reticence too, and Mrs. Patten is a master of understatement.
Returning to the topic at hand, and the specific question of how she and her late husband regained leadership of the company in 1985, she says simply that it was “complicated – it involved shares and it took a while to get them back.”
Pressed further on the years-long legal roller coaster that saw her and Charles Patten contesting the Outerbridge shareholders in London, winning first in the Chancery court, then losing in the Court of Appeal before finally emerging victorious thanks to a nail-biting decision from the chair in the House of Lords, she responds with an “oh” of surprise.
“You know about that, do you?”
Long story short, the Pattens had made a quiet offer to purchase shares from another board member, shares that would have given them control of the company. The Outerbridges heard about the potential deal and countered with a higher offer. The dispute ultimately involved sealed bids from both parties: the Pattens offered $2,175,000; the Outerbridges, $2,100,000 — with a proviso that they would pay $101,000 more than any other bid. The high court disallowed the referential bidding and the Pattens won the day.
Though it was one of the more colourful periods in the company’s history, it wasn’t the only one.
It was a rough and rowdy frontier community that greeted Alexander J.M. Harvey back in 1865. Born in Bermuda and educated in the United States, he was determined – following a brief employ in his father’s Halifax import-export firm – to seek his fortune in the foreign country of Newfoundland. It was 84 years before Newfoundland relinquished its sovereignty; two years before Canada’s Confederation.
Picture his arrival: St. John’s at the time was a decidedly ramshackle establishment. Precariously perched clapboard homes sprouted alongside a hodgepodge of foot paths, cow pastures, vegetable gardens and dirt lanes, all seeming to cling to the sharply sloping hills. Then as now, the hills formed a natural amphitheatre drawing the eye down to the sea. There, the sheltered harbour lay fringed with dozens of wooden finger piers hoisted on stilts, hosting fishing fleets from around the world. The waterfront and its neighbouring streets were the city’s commercial centre; for Alex (Alick) Harvey, they were also a challenge. Could he make his mark in this aggressively competitive environment? Determined to find out, he quickly founded an import-export establishment operating as Alex. J. Harvey & Company. He was 16 years old.
Alick’s youthful vigour and entrepreneurial zeal soon earned him a permanent waterfront berth, space that anchored his marine and fishing interests and buoyed his expansion into the manufacturing sector. Within 10 years, he was trading with Bermuda and the West Indies. A decade after that, his vessels were carrying passengers and freight around Newfoundland. He commissioned (and reportedly helped design) a trio of innovative steel-hulled icebreakers for the seal hunt, ships which he later sold to the Russian government.
Alick was succeeded as president by his sons, Gerald (1929 to 1934) and Reginald (1935 to 1957). The Harvey and Browning bakeries merged to form Browning Harvey in 1935, converting into a Pespi-cola soft drink facility in 1946. And A. Harvey continued to grow, distributing coal and oil, launching commercial container services and a waste management operation as well as crewing, warehousing and dockside services.
Susan Patten says her father had never had a “great vision” for where he wanted to take the company. Instead, she says, “the business meandered along and he took advantage of opportunities as they appeared. Things just evolved. We always had some waterfront property. Then the Furness Withy property became available and we bought that and that’s how we came to own a whole swath (13.8 acres, to be exact) of the waterfront.”
Indeed, A. Harvey has risen so steadily upward and out that it appears to have been celestially blessed by good fortune. It survived the Great Fire of 1892 that saw 12,000 people lose their homes. It has thrived despite two World Wars, the Great Depression and countless recessions. And it has done so with an almost exclusively domestic business model, on an island in the North Atlantic whose population has never exceeded much more than half-a-million souls.
Today, there are two main divisions of A. Harvey Group: A. Harvey & Company Ltd./Harvey’s Oil Ltd. and Browning Harvey Ltd. Together, they bring in more than $100 million annually and employ approximately 450 people. How did they get from there to here? That’s a question many of their less fortunate peers would love to have answered.
How to explain A. Harvey’s success over 150 years in business? Ten separate interviews with various managers drew 10 near-identical responses.
“People,” says Chris Forward, general manager of Harvey’s Oil. “Everybody here is a sales person, regardless of their actual title. Everyone wants to bring in new accounts. There is a sense of ownership here among the employees.”
“People,” affirms John Patten, president of Browning Harvey Ltd. “We describe ourselves as blueblooded, we say that we bleed Pepsi. It’s that dedication and love for the business that has helped our company achieve 75 per cent of market share. It’s because of our staff that we were named 2009 Donald M. Kendall North American bottler of the year.”
“People,” echoes the president of A. Harvey & Co. Ltd., Robert Patten. “They are skilled and they are motivated and they do their jobs exceedingly well. No one is an island. We’re all working together here. That’s how we grew to where we are today.”
But, it’s an employees’ market out there. How does A. Harvey attract and retain such a high quality workforce? And keep them so motivated and engaged that their collective contributions truly do make a positive difference to the bottom line?
According to Fabian Connors (director of Human Resources) and Stephanie Patten-Kibyuk (Human Resources coordinator), a systematic approach is key to their low turnover rate. It starts with what they describe as fair remuneration — not as high as the oil companies, but competitive (salaries at the Browning Harvey bottling plant, for example, are around $32 an hour). The attraction continues with the jobs themselves: full-time permanent positions as opposed to project-based contracts. Plus there’s an official ‘grow and promote from within’ policy, so that careerminded employees have opportunities to advance. They hire as many work term students as possible, provided there’s meaningful work for them to do — and if it works out, there’s a better than average chance that a job offer will be made. They even have tools in place to help people transition to retirement, and they stay in touch after retirement by inviting former staff to company social events.