Business icon Harry Steele, who died on Friday, built an empire on instinct and savvy investments

He was a fisherman’s son, sailor, media mogul, hotelier, captain of industry and, in 2001, he was named one of Canada’s most powerful businessmen by Canadian Business Magazine.

Harry Steele died Friday at the age of 92.

Born into a fishing family in Musgrave Harbor in 1929, Steele began his rise out of the harsh life of colonial Newfoundland’s rural economy with a college education partially funded by the province’s first premier, Joey Smallwood.

Immediately after the province joined Canada in 1949, the Smallwood government passed legislation permitting Memorial College to become a degree-granting university.

Smallwood lured high school graduates to campus with a $300 scholarship, to study education and be the teachers of this first generation of independent Newfoundlanders.

Steele headed to St. John’s, his college career aided by the Smallwood scholarship and what little extra money he earned as a member of the University Naval Training Division – a military-style program reservist.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1953, but decided he didn’t want to be a teacher.

Instead, he joined the Navy, serving more than 20 years and retiring in 1974 from his last posting in Gander.

The hotel was the first acquisition

By then he was already a millionaire, thanks to the investments he had made in the stock market, and had already begun to build a business empire.

The Albatross Hotel in Gander was one of Steele’s first acquisitions, a takeover from bankruptcy that proved to be a smart move for Steele and a long-term investment.

The Albatross is still part of Steele’s group of companies.

He also saw an opportunity in Eastern Provincial Airways, a regional airline that appeared to be losing money.

He began buying shares of the company in the 1970s, thinking that demand for seats on flights to Labrador would take off as the provincial government announced plans to develop hydroelectric projects there worth $3. billions of dollars.

Steele eventually became EPA’s largest shareholder and later sold the company to Canadian Pacific Airlines, making a tidy $20 million profit.

Hard, but good heart

It was at the EPA that Derek Hiscock met Harry Steele.

The young accountant had been hired to help manage the airline’s finances.

It was there that he learned that while Steele could be a tough businessman, he could be generous.

One of Hiscock’s jobs with the EPA was to collect money owed by customers who failed to pay their bills.

As Hiscock recounts, he focused on some of the very old customer accounts and he decided to put pressure on some of them.

One of them, he told SaltWire, was the Smallwood Foundation, the group formed to help print and publish the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, the passion project of Smallwood.

Smallwood had the encyclopedias printed in Toronto and shipped them to Newfoundland.

At that time, Hiscock recalls, it didn’t matter to him which name was associated with a delinquent account. If they had money for Steele’s company, Hiscock was going to get it.

“One day he (Steele) came and sat in the office. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, what did I do now?’

“And he was like, ‘Derek, you’re doing a great job. I know you’re trying to reduce those debts and that’s good work too, but there’s one in particular there, for the Smallwood Foundation.

“Smallwood had his encyclopedias made in Toronto and had no way of getting them back…had no money. “So,” he said, “I’d like you to write that one.”

It could have been how Steele had repaid Smallwood for that college scholarship years before.

Still, Hiscock was surprised.

“I felt like he was tough,” he said.

“And he was tough, he could be tough. But there was a human side to him,” Hiscock said, noting, “There were other donations to several charities that no one ever heard of.

Held on the radio

Hiscock then became managing director of Steele’s Newfoundland Capital Corporation, managing CNC’s business interests in Newfoundland and Labrador.

This publicly traded company became a media powerhouse in the 1980s and 1990s, owning a multitude of community newspapers in Newfoundland and Labrador and the Daily News in Halifax, and buying VOCM radio in St. John’s as well as several other stations in Atlantic Canada and across Canada.

Steele sold his newspapers in the late 1990s but kept the radio.

By the time NewCap sold to Stingray Digital Group in November 2018, the shares were worth millions.

Stingray paid $523 million for NewCap stock, with most of the money going to members of the Steele family, who owned about 87% of the outstanding shares and 93% of the voting rights in NCC.

Steele, however, still a savvy businessman, saw an opportunity in the digital radio space and bought $25 million worth of Stingray stock.

Retired in Gander

The sale of NCC’s printing and publishing assets in 2002 allowed Steele to step back from the day-to-day work of running the business. He retired to his home in Gander.

Still, there was a part of his business empire that he still likes to check on regularly.

Until about three or four years ago, Steele always stopped by the Albatross when he was in Gander, for a coffee break or dinner, or to talk about the business.

“He always dropped in to check. . . and make sure our guests were taken care of,” said hotel manager Rex Avery.

He also wanted to make sure staff were taken care of, Avery told SaltWire.

“Whenever he could do something for the staff, he did it.”

A great mentor

Of all the employees who have worked for and with Steele, Avery is probably one of the oldest. He has been with the Albatross for 43 years.

During that time, he says, he learned a lot from the boss, not just in business meetings but during after-work visits with Mr and Mrs Steele at their home in Gander.

One of the things he admired about the man, Avery said, was his pride in his hometown of Musgrave Harbor and his rural Newfoundland roots.

“He was a very proud Newfoundlander,” Avery said. “Among the things he said he would never sell were his house in Musgrave Harbor and his house in Gander, and the Albatross Hotel.

He said it was hard to find the words to sum up the business and life lessons.

“To me, he was just a great mentor. He taught me a lot about business,” said Avery, who was just 21 when he signed with Steele.

He says one of the most memorable pieces of advice Steele gave him was, “Always be the first person to show up to work in the morning and be the last person to get home.”

And hire the right people.

“He used to say, ‘I’m probably not the smartest guy, but I know how to hire the smartest people’.”

Avery said what she misses the most are those daily visits and the conversations.

“For the past 10 or 15 years, I’ve spent a lot of time with Mr. Steele,” he said. “A lot of it was for business. But a lot of it was personal. I got to know his life growing up around the bay and how he built his businesses.

“I just enjoyed the time spent with him.”

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