The Return of John Risley

By Roger Bill / September 1, 2023

It is hard to read World Energy GH2’s forecasts for the impact of its massive wind-to-hydrogen project and not recall John Risley’s forecasts for the future of Fishery Products International when the Nova Scotia billionaire led the hostile 2001 takeover of the Newfoundland seafood company.

Last week, the Risley-led World Energy GH2 released a 3,000+ page environmental impact assessment report. The table of contents alone is 39 pages. The numbers in the report and accompanying economic assessment are huge. Three hundred and twenty-eight turbines.  Production of 1.8 GW of power (twice the output of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project).  Capital cost of $5.9 billion. A $2.5 billion boost to the province’s GDP. Seventy million dollars in annual local government taxes and $429 million in annual provincial government taxes.

Sounds good? Maybe, but if you don’t have time to read 3,000+ pages of a consultant’s report you might want to try Chapter 8 of a new book called Net Worth.  It is a biography of John Risley and Chapter 8 is called “FPI: Seek and Destroy.” It’s author, Quentin Casey, recalls in the lead-up to the takeover of the FPI Board of Directors Risley assured skeptics that “Nobody has to fear for their jobs” and “There are no cutbacks in our plans.”

Following the takeover FPI closed plants, employees were laid off, and FPI was eventually dismantled. Stung by the criticism that he had lied, Risley dug himself into a deeper hole. He told an interviewer on the mainland, “This is a culture in which people think there’s value in the number of jobs that become eligible for unemployment insurance… What we’re trying to do in Newfoundland, we’re trying to change the culture.”

According to Quentin Casey, Risley apologized for his comments and told one of his partners, Derrick Rowe, “I’m an asshole, Derrick, I f****d-up.”  Yep. The Provincial Fisheries Minister said Risley’s culture comments were, “insulting.” A member of the fisheries union executive called Risley’s remarks, “offensive and arrogant.” A columnist for The Telegram called Risley, “a total nincompoop.”

A Nincompoop Who Knows How To Make a Profit

One shareholder and new board member, Nova Scotia businessman George Armoyan, told biographer Quentin Casey he and Risley both “ended up doing really well on FPI because we made very good money.” In Armoyan’s case, he says he bought shares at $6.50 – $7.00 a share and sold out at $16.00 a share. According to Casey, Armoyan reaped a multi-million-dollar return on his investment. Casey asked Risley about his return and the biographer writes, “’In the end we made money,’ Risley told me.  ‘How much money did we make? Jeepers, it’s so complicated.’”

Here is what is not complicated: In an earlier Shoreline column on Risley and the World Energy GH2 venture, FPI’s former CEO Vic Young was quoted as saying when the 2001 FPI takeover was complete, “God Guard Thee Newfoundland.” The quote was based on memory, but later in an encounter with Vic Young he confirmed the accuracy of the quote. Young also recalled John Risley telling him at the time that “FPI was a good company,” but he wanted “to make it a great company.”

Quentin Casey interviewed Vic Young for the Risley biography. Casey says Young’s comments were “sparse,” but “Young could not fully restrain himself,” and Casey writes, “’All of it was sold off,’ he said.  ‘All of it. That’s how John Risley made FPI a great company – he sold it off and made a fortune.’”

Quentin Casey also recalls that Risley’s takeover of the Board of Directors brought Young’s 15-year career as FPI’s chief executive to an abrupt end. He had built a profitable seafood company out of the ashes of seven failing fish companies. He had built a company with what people called “a heart.” Yet Vic Young, the former head of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, a former Deputy Minister of Treasury Board, later a member of the Board of Directors of the Royal Bank, Chairman of the Royal Commission on Renewing and Strengthening Our Place in Canada, and an Officer of the Order of Canada was out.

Risley’s biographer writes, “One of Risley’s first calls after entering FPI headquarters” was to a friend in Nova Scotia. “Guess what I’m doing,” a jubilant Risley said. “I’m pissing in Vic Young’s toilet.”

If you don’t feel like spending money to read John Risley’s biography, Net Worth, it is available at the A.C Hunter Library in the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre.

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