My friend died a few weeks ago battling for life the way he lived it: full throttle.
I met Ron in the fall of 1973. I was the editor of the Manitoulin Expositor. I didn’t know anyone in Sudbury and needed an accountant. Someone recommended Ron.
The occasion was the investigation of a fledgling weekly newspaper newly named Northern Life. It was losing a quarter of a million dollars a year and was owned by a couple of fellas who owned a carpet company, The House of Broadloom, in Sudbury. One of the partners was sick of losing money and had offered me a huge discount on some carpet for a building I owned in Little Current if I would take the newspaper off his hands. I was interested.
Ron was in Elliot Lake doing an audit but said he would meet me at the newspaper office on Friday night. After five hours of poring over the books Ron laughed and said, “This is ridiculous.” In fact, it was so funny, he called his friend Rennie Mastin and told him to meet us at the Coulson Hotel for a wee dram. The paper was losing its shirt, hadn’t paid its taxes in months, and didn’t seem able to collect the money it was owed.
As drinks stoked our ambition, I explained to these fellas all I knew about making money in the newspaper business. It wasn’t much. I was 25. By one in the morning we were co-adventurers, modestly inebriated and ready to go. With their participation came others and we were off to the races.
Well, not quite. A month later, I had lost virtually all of the invested capital and things looked bleak. Ron had cleaned up the books and delivered papers with his station wagon, but came up one day to our office at the corner of Elm and Durham and said, “I’m moving to Espanola. You can have my shares. They are worthless.” Ron was not one for sugarcoating.
A week later, the Sudbury Star went on strike and we were working round the clock turning advertisers away. Ron remained my accountant for nearly 40 years.
Before we ran out of money, Ron took me to one of his special bankers to see if we could borrow some money. The day we arrived his friend, the manager, was out so we met with the assistant, a man named Armond. He sat at a desk inside a little oak fence attached to the manager’s office. We had drawn up some beautiful cash flow charts and entered this financial emporium with high hopes.
Armond was used to lending money for buildings, not cash flow businesses like newspapers. No matter how hard we explained, he couldn’t understand where his security would come from. At one point, Ron was beside himself. He stood up in the middle of the branch and said at the top of his voice, “Armond, YOU ARE AN IDIOT!!!” The entire branch froze. Me, too. We collected our papers and decamped as indignantly as possible.
This was my introduction to banking Sudbury-style.
Ron loved business and he loved people, notwithstanding his declarative nature. He was a doer.
I talked to him Saturday mornings when he pretended to work but really did research for playing the stock market: pork bellies, soybeans, tech companies, mining companies, gold bars, shorting the dollar, etc. For many years he built up a chain of restaurants from Toronto to Thunder Bay with his friend Dave Mackay. He used to call early in the morning and say he’d already lost $5,000 in the restaurant business and did I need a little consulting? I immediately asked for a discount on the last audit and 12 free New York steaks.
Where Ron set himself apart was his total commitment and loyalty to his clients. Honesty, integrity, hard work, hard play. I watched Ron carry a file for more than five years for the widow of a former client making an appeal for a wrongful tax decision. He never quit — and in this case he never charged. He won and it gave him great pleasure.
It was never about the money. It was about the adventure and doing the right thing.
I owe many for my good luck building a company beyond our original imagination. It would not have happened without Ron.
I’m going to miss him a great deal.