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Vol 37  No 15
June 9, 2005


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Oration honouring Ches Penney

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.

Kjellrun Hestekin
University orator

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