Robert E. Radford - My Dad #21

Robert E. Radford



My Dad

I think we all would like to leave this place a better place than how we found it whether through our families, community or work.



By Heidi Legg

We have spent the last year looking for visionaries and asking what defines a visionary. Often it was a conversation with someone that was so enlightening that I knew we had to know more; or it was the name of a person that friends and colleagues would repeat again and again, and of course there are the regulars on the circuit that we already knew about in our community, who have made an enormous impact and difference in their field and in our collective lives. But deep inside of all of us is someone whose voice resonates and carries us through decisions, challenges and crossroads. Perhaps it is a teacher, likely a parent, maybe a sound and generous friend or spouse or sibling? One voice that I rely on a great deal is that of my father. There are certain lines he has given me that I have applied to anything from major stresses to minor decisions. But they work. Two of my favorites are: “If you don’t put ships out to sea, you cannot expect them to come back to port,” and “you will meet the same people going up the ladder of life as you will coming down, so treat everyone the same. You may need help.” Of course they are not only sayings, most of all they are values that families carry on and repeat.

Summer is a time when we all have a chance to lounge and dream and contemplate life and spend lazy afternoons with our extended families. Cousins pile into cars, cottages and boats and grandparents reign over the brood and 40-year-olds regress to their sibling roles, frozen in time as teens. As summer comes to a close and we enter those golden days of late August, it seemed apt to spend time with family in this interview. Meet my Dad.

As someone I personally look to as a visionary, what drives you?

I think we all would like to leave this place a better place than how we found it whether through our families, community or work. I have always strongly valued education for my family, as well as for myself, and even during my professional career I tried to study at least one hour a day.

I spend a lot of time being curious and keeping myself current. I am a newspaper-aholic. As I live in a rather small place on the ocean away from the big centers, I read extensively so that I am completely up to date on what is happening, not only in North America, but also around the world. The electronic age made all this possible. This leads me to a great desire to travel which is also something I truly value. My goal is to visit as many countries as my age and I have been to 67 countries to date and in the next three years I will exceed my age in countries.

Productivity is also an important value. I have been very involved in building structures whether shopping centers, office buildings or subdivisions. And while I value productivity and education, I am not a teacher. I have difficulty teaching.

That’s funny because the reason I chose to interview you today is because when I look around at the visionaries and advice I cull on a daily basis, I often turn to your words.

I am in some ways a shy person; and therefore, I don’t express my opinion unless asked or give my advice unless it is aggressively sought. I do far more listening than talking. Everyone has a story to tell and I am genuinely interested in listening. Quite often I will sit with a person when I travel and I will say to them, ‘We will likely never meet again but I have really enjoyed this past hour because I have learned from you and my life has been enriched by our conversation.’

What do you do with all of this information you amass?

It helps me to be a better person and to be more tolerant of others. One has to be very careful not to become too provincial and put borders around ones thinking whether it be in a small town or a large urban center. We can easily be defined by where we live and I think that is something of which to be aware. Don’t build walls around your thinking.

Remember the person you talk to the most is yourself; so be certain that you have all the facts before forming an opinion or making a decision.

What advice would give to this next generation as you read the news and trends?

Always put your family first and your business ambitions second.

I would also encourage people to either travel or read about other countries. People from different areas of the country and various parts of the world approach a problem from their own environment; and although, they may have the same goals, they may attack the problem in a different way. Not that one way is better than the other. It is just the approach that differs.

I believe a person needs to be hungry to succeed. That does not mean they need to be hungry for food or wealth; but rather have a burning desire within themselves to accomplish something and be the best that they can be. If you don’t have that hunger, you will likely only succeed by accident. Some people do get lucky that way but most people need to have a deep desire and hunger to accomplish something. It does not matter if you want to be the best business person, the best writer, the best doctor or the best athlete, it’s the hunger for that goal that will keep you on your path to achievement and success.

So that sounds like passion? Are they different?

I think people who have been successful had a passion to accomplish something and achieve certain goals but I like to use the word hunger. It is what drove me to do what I have done.

Don’t go through life holding a bag of “If only” regrets. Take control of your destiny and don't surrender it to someone else.

When you were a father of four young children with a law practice and busy household you were willing to take some big risks buying land and buildings. How does one take risks like that?

I always wanted to avoid failure by working harder, smarter and not making impulse decisions. I never wanted to come back to someone and say, 'I’m sorry it didn’t work out the way I said it would.' Because of this, I probably didn’t take enough risks so there is a balance. On the other hand, I never had to come back and tell someone that I was sorry that it did not work out.

I strongly believe that people should not risk their family or the basic financial position of their families in order to take on a business venture. They should always be separated. Working hard in the practice of law gave me the financial base to provide for my family.

I knew what I was doing in the development of office buildings and land. It was my expertise. I also learned from the mistakes that other developers had made so I didn’t have to make those mistakes.

You went and secured early stage money. What did that look like in the very early 70s?

I was personally only willing to guarantee 25% of the risk. I was able to convince the lending institution to take the other 75%. Everyone won.  Back then the lending institutions put more weight on accessing the individual than on the venture. No one wanted to have the stigma of failing so they did everything necessary to make it succeed.

Today, it seems at times that the person representing the financial institution is more concerned with their own career than the project being presented to them; therefore, an experienced entrepreneur will completely avoid this type of person. In Canada the individual local banker has very little authority. There are limits on what this type of banker can do. This creates barriers for the entrepreneur.

Is that holding growth back?

I think people who are hungry know that they have to reach the decision makers. The decision makers are no longer on the local level. So if you are going to work on the local level, you can only find someone to quarterback the project within the financial institution for you. Otherwise, you personally need to take your project to the higher or decision level of a more centralized system.

Today we see a new generation in North America who has so much material wealth or consumer products that make life comfortable. Rather than building capital-based businesses we see many of them entering the domain of social leadership. Emerging markets like India and China appear to have that hunger you describe. How would you encourage North Americans?

I think entrepreneurs who have been successful have in the most part made the world better and, if they have earned extensive financial rewards, they tend during their lifetimes to give back to their community, their university, their hospitals, or their charity which in turn helps those who need help. That should and will drive people who care about social progress.

I was born just before the Second World War and I went through rationing and one had to work very hard to just get by. It instilled in us a very strong sense of responsibility and desire to achieve in whatever field we decided to enter. I certainly value the need of accepting responsibility. I believe it made our countries better both here in Canada and the US.

You cannot educate someone to be an entrepreneur; you can only educate a person to be the best they can be in their field. But the way you can help someone who has the entrepreneurial spirit is to show him or her the opportunities that may be out there and help them overcome some of the barriers. I don’t believe you can turn someone into an entrepreneur, unless they have the entrepreneurial mind set. I draw a distinction between a successful business person and an entrepreneur. There are certain keys to business success. The main one is good health. The second is a good education and third would be to have above average business judgment.

Is there someone who changed your life or stepped up and made a path for you?

In the late 60s and early 70s I met and became very close to a shopping center developer named James Begg and I spent the next forty years developing shopping centers, land and buildings with him.

I often sought out to learn from people who were successful in their field, family lives and about 15 years older.  And I spent a lot of time talking to them about their goals, businesses, lifestyle, and journeys. I have never met a person from whom I have not learned.

How would you like public opinion to change?

I would like to see people become more positive in their thinking and less negative. I found that when we were in various recessions over the past forty years, people were making nine negative decisions for every positive decision. When things were going bad, people thought everything was falling apart instead of working on the more positive things.

In the early 80s and then again in the late 80s, I observed business that needed to change but there was this failure by business owners to recognize what had worked for the past 20 years was no longer working and I watched people spend all the money that they made in those previous 20 years trying to resurrect a business that had had its time.

I have often watched people hit their 40s and things haven’t worked out as well as they thought and they are looking for the gold ring or to hit the home run. They suddenly find this great and wonderful idea. They will quit their jobs, put a second mortgage on their home, put their spouse and kids up for collateral for this great idea in a totally different field without doing the proper research, making the necessary enquiries or seeking advice from the right people who know and who can help.

Forty is the new 30… There are still hopefully many years ahead for career. What would you suggest they have done instead?

Do not put your family and your home assets at risk. Keep them separate. Do extensive research. Talk first to people who know how it’s done. They aren’t going to steal your idea. On the contrary, many successful people are flattered to be asked. Just pick up the phone and ask. Don’t let your spouse sign a personal guarantee.

As I said earlier, I am not a teacher and if this interview helps one person outside of my family to make a more informed decision that they are facing, then from my perspective this interview has fulfilled its purpose.

You have been honored with the Queen’s Counsel, Life Member of the Canadian BAR Association, Life Member of the Law Society of New Brunswick, Past Chairman of the Moncton Hospital and South Eastern Health Corporations Board of Directors, Past President and Life Member of the Moncton Rotary Club. What does this mean to you?

It is of course nice to be recognized by your colleagues and friends, as someone who can or has made a difference. Although I have served in many high profile positions, I am a very private person and have never sought the public spotlight, just the desire to serve where needed.

It is far more important to me to be recognized by my family as a good husband and father that has been there for them and did the best that I could for them. It is your family who will decide whether you have been successful. The earning of money beyond your needs is simply the business community’s way of keeping score. It is the other things of life that are so far more important and rewarding.

Event you are most looking to?

Keeping healthy and visiting more countries than my age

What website do you frequent the most each day?

Globe and Mail, New York Times, London Times, CNN FN

How do you get your news?

iPad, websites, early morning and evening Canadian and US television newscasts

As I mentioned earlier, I live out on the ocean away from most of the action. If I only used one source, then my thinking or understanding could be molded in one direction. It is much easier in this electronic age to keep informed from various sources regardless of where you are located. Let me give you an example:

Last week BHP Billiton, a large international mining company with a head office in Australia and operations all over the world released their annual financial report.

CNNFN headlined the report as follows: “BHP Billiton Annual Profit Declines 30%” - “Revenue tumbles 8.7%”

Toronto Globe and Mail headlined the report with the decision of the BHP Billinton Board of Directors to invest billions more in the Jensen potash project in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Both reports were accurate but if you only read one or even the two headlines, you could be left with two different impressions. Thus the need to do your research and gather as much information, as available before making a decision or coming to a conclusion.

Favorite place in Harvard Square?

Harvard Coop Bookstore