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Ches Penney

Biographical information

As founder and chairman of the Penney Group of Companies and president and CEO of Pennecon, Ches Penney has built one of Newfoundland and Labrador's largest integrated industrial service and construction consortiums - from the ground up. After one term at Memorial University, he founded Penney Construction in 1971. In the 34 years since then, he's expanded his business interests to include over 60 companies in four provinces, employing more than 3,000 people under the Penney Group banner.

Born in Carbonear, Newfoundland, Mr. Penney attributes his success to work, common sense, fair dealings, respect for others and attention to detail. He has also made a point of surrounding himself with people who are highly skilled and motivated, and who, themselves, are entrepreneurs and experts in their respective fields; 30 of them have chosen to partner with him in various business ventures.

In 1997 Mr. Penney sat as a member of the provincial Advisory Council on the Economy. In 2002 he was inducted into the Junior Achievement Newfoundland and Labrador Business Hall of Fame, and in October of that year he accepted the Atlantic 2002 Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

Corporate partnerships are very important to Mr. Penney but so too are community partnerships. He has given substantial donations to support education, healthcare and many local charities. In recognition of his philanthropy, Rotary International named him a Paul Harris Fellow.

Oration honouring Ches Penney
Given by Kjellrun Hestekin, University orator

Chancellor: Folklore and popular culture offer many stories of instant success, from Jack's magic beans or Aladdin's lamp to future movie stars being discovered in soda shops and obscure singers being launched to national idol status. The story we celebrate this morning follows a different trajectory; steady hard work, setbacks, and more hard work. But the tremendous success that is the outcome of this story is no folk tale. And while today we celebrate the individual "hero" of this success story, thousands of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians share in the benefits of this success. Chesley Penney was born in Carbonear in 1932, the eldest of 12 children. His father was a self-taught auto mechanic and young Ches grew up around the garage. In 1948, all of 16 years old and with a brand new Grade 11 certificate in hand, he moved to St. John's to take up a position as a teller with the Bank of Commerce.

The bank quickly became aware of his ability and industry and promoted him to loans officer. In 1955, still in his early 20s, he took charge of a new branch in Grand Falls, becoming the youngest manager in the company. Despite these early successes, he realized that working for the bank would not provide sufficient income for a rapidly growing family. Even the lowest paid mill workers were earning more than he was. In 1958, he resolved to try his hand at private business and invested in a half interest in an auto parts store. A few years later he was ready to expand, but rather than simply enlarge his existing business, he opened a highly successful grocery store. Over the next dozen years he added a car dealership, road and home construction companies and a bowling alley.

As if all this were not enough, Mr. Penney decided to further his education and enrolled as a mature student at Memorial, earning high marks in all his courses. His studies were cut short when business problems arose and his construction company suffered bankruptcy. Other assets were lost trying to save it. But Mr. Penney's self-confidence, determination and work ethic remained strong. He persuaded the bonding agency that held his equipment to let him use it to complete a few small jobs. From that modest new beginning, he rebuilt the road construction company, rising at 3:30 in the morning to inspect work sites or calculate a bid on a new project. Since then, the Penney Group of Companies has evolved into a holding group of over 60 companies including 13 car dealerships, off-shore oil and gas services, ship repair, steel fabrication, marine terminal services, real estate and seafood processing, in all employing over 3,000 people. Mr. Penney's achievements have earned him the respect and admiration of his peers. He has won such prestigious awards as the Junior Achievement Hall of Fame and the Ernst and Young Atlantic Entrepreneur of the Year, in recognition of his "extraordinary work ethic, admirable tenacity" and his record of building businesses "based on trust, honesty and integrity." Mr. Penney recognizes that, like him, competent managers want to own their own businesses. His strategy for dealing with such a large number and variety of companies is to make his senior personnel partners. He encourages them and has been known to pay for training ranging from self-development courses to MBAs.

Mr. Penney's generosity is not limited to his business associates. His charitable work is extensive, although carried out with little fanfare. He has made major donations to the General Hospital Health Foundation and Memorial University. Rotary International named him a Paul Harris Fellow in recognition of his charitable work. The Penney Group continues to quietly support numerous charitable, non-profit and community groups. Other than enjoying a peaceful evening on his boat Friday Night, Mr. Penney shows few signs of slowing down. In fact, on his 60th birthday, he remarked that he figured he had only about 30 really productive years left. Chancellor, in recognition of the success of his first 47 years as an entrepreneur, his contributions to the economy and workforce of the province and his generosity to the community, I present to you for the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, Chesley D. Penney.

Address to convocation

Chancellor, president and vice-chancellor, distinguished guests, graduates and your families, thank you very much.

I am extremely honoured to join you on this special occasion.

I was born in Carbonear in 1932 during the Great Depression. I am the eldest of 12, all born at home without any doctor present and without the benefit of indoor bathrooms.

Sixty-seven years ago when I first started school in Carbonear, I used my first computer. It was a laptop of sorts, or at least it was about the same size. It was a solid state model, no moving parts. As a matter of fact, it was a rectangular sheet of slate with a wooden frame. Like many others, I carried a pencil made of slate, a tiny bottle of water and a little piece of cloth, which, when soaked, served as an eraser. The slate was used for spelling and sums. This changed the following year when I proudly owned my first Caribou scribbler and later on a Caribou exercise book.

Fast-forward to 1948, the year before Confederation with Canada, when I received that highly valued piece of paper issued by, that august body, "The Council of Higher Education." I am referring, of course, to my Grade 11 Certificate.

With my "Certificate of Higher Education" in hand, I applied for a job at the Canadian Bank of Commerce in St. John's and after passing the arithmetic test, I got the job as junior clerk. Actually, I was the messenger and I earned $83 a month and saved much of that for the first few months until I learned how to drink beer. No savings after that! I was lucky with promotions in the bank and after seven years was promoted to become the manager at Grand Falls.

At that time, the town and everything in it, was controlled by the paper company. I soon found out that my bank manager salary was lower than the lowest paid employee in the paper mill pretty tough with a wife, two kids and a rented house. I was forced to take my first big risk I quit my job to strike out on my own. In hindsight it was the decision I made some 50 years ago that forever changed my life and in large measure resulted in me being here today. And for all of the graduates here today, here is one of the first things you will learn as you go out into the world beyond the walls of this institution. You will see that the world is not static and well ordered. The world is an unpredictable place. Like the ocean that surrounds the island on which we live, life is constantly changing. It presents new challenges and opportunities every day. At times the sea is calm, while at other times it will be rough and fraught with peril. Yet, even as you get moved around in strong currents and storms that come out of nowhere, there is much that remains in your control.

You must keep a firm hand on the helm. You must steer the right course, trust your instincts, react quickly to change and take advantage of good weather. The ability to overcome challenge and adversity is what unites the many generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who have come before. Their hard work has provided you with the opportunity to study and learn some of the skills you will need to continue in their tradition of perseverance and commitment to family and place. It is something you must never lose sight of as you chart your own course, be it here or elsewhere in the world.

Memorial has a tremendous history and holds a special place in this province. It is perhaps impossible to measure in a definitive way this university's contribution to the educational, social and economic fabric of Newfoundland and Labrador but we know that it is substantial indeed.

Those who know me would tell you that I am somewhat shy. In fact, the prospect of having to stand in front of you dressed in a long gown and funny hat was enough to cause me great stress. I have a large head, nearly size 8, and today it feels even larger. That said, I must say that I am impressed by the pomp and pageantry that I see here today. Perhaps it was the practical side of me that took over, and quelled my initial misgivings when I learned that some of the rituals that enrich this ceremony date back to the Middle Ages when buildings were damp and cold, so students wore long gowns, not for ceremony, but to stay warm and dry.

Newfoundland and Labrador has achieved a great deal since our forefathers first came to these shores. During my tenure in business here I have seen so much positive change be it in health care, education, and transportation. The general well-being of our communities has reached levels that I could not even contemplate when I started my first business in Grand Falls.

While there are many factors that have contributed to the growth and improvements in our society, I believe this university has played a pivotal role in shaping our province. We have an imperative and a responsibility to give something back, to carry forward and preserve some of the ideals that make this institution so special. The onus is upon us to uphold our principles, pass on our knowledge, contribute to our community, and strive for the betterment of humankind.

There are no hard and fast rules for how we give back to our community. We are all unique, with a different combination of skills, education and interests. But, there are some guiding principles that have helped me respond to challenges and capitalize on opportunities over the years, and I would like to share them with you. First and foremost follow your dreams. In other words, be fearless. Yes, you should listen to your head, and take steps to minimize risk. But please, listen to your heart. If there is something you really want to do, a dream that you long to fulfill, then by all means, go for it. If you fail, pick yourself up and try again. I did. In 1970, my large construction business in Central Newfoundland, employing hundreds of people, failed, due to a combination of a poor economy and my own neglect, mostly the latter. But I started again in the following spring, with little or no money, but I had learned a valuable lesson pay more attention to business and less to partying!

Then there's honesty and personal integrity. Honesty is to say what you mean, and integrity is to mean what you say. You have to work with others in a fair and ethical way. Treat people with dignity and you will earn their respect, their friendship, their loyalty, their cooperation.

You are quickly going to learn, if you haven't already, that you have to work with others to succeed. Partnerships are crucial. I have made a point of surrounding myself with people who are highly skilled and motivated, and who themselves, are entrepreneurs and experts in their respective fields. Some of my partners have gone on to their own independent business successes others have remained as my partners in various new enterprises we have developed. Without them, our companies would not have grown and we would not have accomplished what we have.

If there is one attribute or key trait that I am pleased to expound, it is the sense to quickly recognize talented and industrious people, to engage them, and allow them to exercise their talents. At Penney Group we have strived to seek out the best people, and I am proud to say that nearly all our key people are homegrown, well-educated individuals, who contribute to the bottom line, and who believe in the economic well being of this province and the communities in which they live.

Many of our employees have specialized technical training, undergraduate degrees, and, with the changing times and complexities of business, we have a growing number of post-graduates. Mechanical, electrical, civil and power engineers, naval architects, master mariners, computer scientists, master trades people, lawyers, accountants, and advanced degree holders now complement the growing operations of Penney Group. We need people these people with the drive and ideas to carry us forward in an ever-increasing competitive business environment.

Our group of companies is diverse. We originated in 1970 as a small paving company. Since that time we have grown in many directions. In addition to our involvement in construction and concrete, we are in the shipping and ship repair business. Together with our partner, The J. J. Ugland Group of Norway, we operate the shuttle tankers that transport the oil from Hibernia and Terra Nova to the Whiffen Head Transshipment Port. I point this out because over 90 per cent of the crews on these large vessels are Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and they received their training at Memorial's Marine Institute.

Our Ocean Choice International Inc. is a major seafood processor in this province and also in PEI where we are the largest processor of lobsters.

We have a large and growing presence in providing services to the offshore oil business where our company, Penney Energy is earning an enviable reputation. We are also a major player in the automobile industry in the province. Overall our businesses operate in five Canadian Provinces and our revenues exceed $500 million annually and we employ several thousand people.

I know the last thing you want to do today is answer any tough questions, but I will pose several for you to ponder:
How will you handle the "world of work?"
How will you adjust to the transition you now face as you graduate?
The good news is that there isn't a definitive answer. I can tell you that my success in business is attributable to hard work, common sense, fair dealings, respect for others and paying attention to detail. You may have informal relationships or you may work as part of a disciplined team, but the way you work with others will have a major impact on your own achievements. Learn to delegate chunks of work to other people, empower them to get the job done and trust them to do it right.

A positive attitude will be essential to achieving your goals. In our companies we have capitalized on positive attitudes by seeing solutions where others see problems; opportunities where others see threats; and by embracing change, when those around us resent it.

You should also be confident in yourself and your abilities. Be assertive. You have to believe in yourself at all times, because if you don't, why should anybody else?

I will close by leaving you with a lighthearted illustration of life's lessons, one that has been making the rounds of the e-mails lately. Many of you as graduates have heard it already: A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly, he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full.

They agreed that it was. So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full.

They agreed it was.

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous "yes."

The professor then produced two cans of beer from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed. "Now," said the professor, as the laughter subsided. "I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things your family, your children, your health, your friends, and your favourite passions things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else the small stuff.

If you put the sand into the jar first, he continued, there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner out to dinner. Play a round of golf. There will always be time to clean the house and the car. Take care of the golf balls first, the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the beer represented. The professor smiled. "I'm glad you asked. It goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there's always room for a couple of beers."

In all seriousness, when I consider the many, many accomplishments of this university, the thousands of graduates over the years who have helped build our society, and the legion of distinguished people who have received honorary degrees, I see the very foundations of our society. I see living, breathing history. When I look out at the vibrant young faces in this convocation hall, I see history waiting to be born. I see the future of our province. There is an energy and a light shining from all of you, shining with dazzling brightness, as if to proclaim that our future is in the very best of hands.

Go forward, take charge, make it happen, and above all, multiply!

Thank you.