Oration | Address to Convocation
Entrepreneur Craig Dobbin was born in St. John's and received his early education at St. Bonaventure's
College in St. John's. After a period of employment with P. J. Dobbin Lumber and Building Supplies, Mr.
Dobbin engaged in a short-haul trucking venture and underwater salvage operation until he started
real estate speculation in St. John's in 1963. The venture, later known as Omega Investments Ltd., moved
operations to Ottawa and subsequently established offices in Montreal. During his residence in Ottawa and Montreal, Dobbin became involved in the construction industry.
In the early 1970s Dobbin returned to Newfoundland and established Sealand Helicopters Ltd. in 1976. By 1981 the Dobbin parent companies and subsidiary enterprises were involved in real estate, construction, aviation, marine enterprises and investments throughout eastern Canada.
But it is in the high flight world of helicopters that Mr. Dobbin has made his mark on the world of international business. Mr. Dobbin took Toronto Helicopters, Okanagan Helicopters and British International Helicopters under his wing. In 1999, CHC Helicopters Corporation, with Mr. Dobbin as CEO and chairman, took control of Helicopter Services Group ASA of Norway, making CHC Helicopters the largest provider of global helicopter transportation.
Along with his business success, Mr. Dobbin is chairman of the Ireland Canada University Foundation, located in Dublin, which assists and promotes Canadian studies in Irish universities, and honorary consul of Ireland for Newfoundland and Labrador.
Mr. Dobbin will receive an honorary doctor of laws degree.
Oration honouring Craig Lawrence Dobbin
William Pryse-Phillips, university orator
From its beginnings in the murk of the pond bottom, the dragonfly instinctively ascends, escapes the bounds of water and luminously traverses the domain of air, looking and sounding like a miniaturized Sikorsky helicopter. When Craig Dobbin's commercial diving equipment malfunctioned at the bottom of St. John's Harbour 30 years ago, there was nowhere to go but up, and up he came at a velocity obeying the law of Boyle but with a momentum that carried him sky-high. History repeats itself.
Starting de profundis with the insight in the outfall that there had to be a better way to make a buck, our honorary graduand initiated multiple projects that led to multiple successes, achieved at an accelerating pace as initial ventures into property led to the formation of Omega Investments, to which fulcrum he applied the principle of leverage and, beginning with a single Sikorsky, set out to move the world.
And the world was moved, as one Sealand Helicopter grew into the squadron of 370 now operated by the Canadian Helicopter Corporation, a Newfoundland company and the largest of its type in the world. The dragonfly has neither rotors nor fixed wings, but Craig Dobbin, in creating Air Atlantic and now Touchdown Aviation, has both. His newest creations build aerospace parts and repair aircraft in P.E.I and Gander, while Vector Aerospace, born of the helicopter corporation, enriches our school of business administration through membership of the associates program.
In the creative sphere of business, whether you believe you can or whether you believe you can't, you're absolutely right. One essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail. Life is trying things to see if they work, which involves some risk — if at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you. Craig Dobbin was not immune to such reverses — underwater when his SCUBA gear malfunctioned, on land when his aquaculture facilities burned, in air when the international economy grounded Air Atlantic.
But as Craig Dobbin has always overcome adversity, today I celebrate his return of so much from his business successes to benefit this province and its people. During those years of regular and trusted service, he gave back through Air Atlantic a tithe of the seats purchased for Memorial, disseminating the skills of members of our faculties of music and of physical education even into the terra incognita of central Canada. He was a munificent donor to Memorial's opportunity and anniversary funds. And although his charity began at home, the scholarships that he created for Caribbean students and his support of St. Mary's University and of University College, Dublin, witness his global perspective on the needs of others.
Mr. Chancellor, this determined and forceful man has swashbuckled his way up from harbour bottom through the cadre of those content with the middle ground; has audaciously but honestly circumvented the restrictive yokes imposed upon business by those lacking distance vision; has beguiled Dublin with its own blarney, so that he is now as Irish as his passport; and has infectiously exulted in the life of the land he loves. This loyal, caring, wily, risk-taker is himself one of the foxes of Beachy Cove. Vigorous, visual and venturesome, he has added spice to the space of life as a salmon fisherman, as a friend (indeed, a saviour) of an American president, as a confidant of legislators of multiple persuasions, as a percipient patron of the visual arts and as a visionary who has put aside time for the view. In his support of Irish studies, Craig Dobbin has cherished the past; in business ventures he adorns the present; in philanthropy he has created for the future. He has frequented this university as a parent, an advisor and as a friendly benefactor.
St. Augustine characterized friendship thus: “To talk and to laugh with mutual concessions; to jest and to be solemn; to dissent from each other without offence; to teach each other somewhat, or somewhat to learn; to expect those absent with impatience, and to embrace their return with joy.” Mr. Chancellor, I present to you a friend of the university whose visit we embrace with joy. His enterprises span earth, air and water, but I think his greatest love is for the waters where the salmon may be diverted by his fly. A Blue Charm? No, even blarney has its limits. Thunder and Lightning? Again, no; that's just his management style. Mr. Chancellor, I ask you to create as a silver doctor of laws (honoris causa), our benefactor and exemplar in the arts of getting and of giving back, Craig Laurence Dobbin.
I stand before you today for two reasons. First: To acknowledge the proud completion of your degrees. And second, to talk to you about your next degree.
Next degree? I can see you looking a little perplexed and thinking, “Give me a break, I just barely finished this one.”
But it's true. As you leave here today, whether you like it or not, you begin to work on yet another degree you probably never thought you'd have to face: A degree from the University of Life.
But why is it so important for me to talk to you about this? For one, simple reason. In the university degree you've just completed, you've had guides and mentors, in the form of teachers and professors. But in the degree you begin today, there is no curriculum, there is no road map, there are no guides. Or if there are any, they're not always very easy to find. Exams don't exist either. Or at least, not in the traditional form — the ones you're used to. Instead, exams become obscured. They become known as the trials of life. Trials for which it isn't always possible to get a make-up exam, and you don't often get a second chance.
However, I'm not here to give you a lecture. I'm sure you've had enough of those over the past four years. But rather, I'd like to share with you some of the things I have come to learn over the years; things that have helped me find my way through this maze we call life; things that I have learned through my own experiences; things that I had to learn on my own because I didn't always have the benefit of a guide.
But first, let me tell you what Harry Steele once said: “Life is what happens to you regardless of your plans.” And that's a thought that comes to me when I watch someone walking confidently down the road, only to trip over something in mid-stride. Have you ever noticed how they always stop to look back — amazed — to see what it was that they tripped over? Well, in a strange way, life is like that stumble in the road. I have a few pointers, not all the answers, but a few thoughts, about how to deal with this stumble in the road, and the journey itself — how to deal with the fork in the road that will confront you, or the rain that will soak you on your way and dampen your spirits.
The first of these pointers is a mere three words — dare to dream. You can do anything in life if you set your mind to it. You're in control. It's your destiny. It's your province. We are on the cusp of unparalleled growth in this province. CHC is working in 26 countries around the world and we are often asked why we are headquartered here. I have one standard response — why not? It's a great place to live. The opportunities are as good here; as anywhere else around the world. You can make your future here. You're in charge.
I used to underwater dive for a living at one time. One day I found myself sitting, at the bottom of St. John's Harbour — which is tantamount to being in the middle of a cesspool — with the sudden realization that something had gone wrong with my diving gear. I was out of air, had lead boots and no lifeline. I promised myself that if I got out of this, there would be a better way to make a living. However, it isn't enough to just have a dream, a desire, a vision. You are in charge. You got to pursue it. Like Nike says, “Just do it.”
And that brings me to my next point. A phrase that's become the cornerstone of my life: “Turn adversity into opportunity.”
This is the desire to seek out opportunity where others only see failure. The desired reaction, one may say, to the stumble in the road. Opportunity is not always an easy thing to see. Certainly, not in the fog of adversity. But we should try. Sometimes, these opportunities are hidden, disguised as something else. It's only a question of whether you are open to seeing it. We should think about expansion rather than contraction. For example, if you have adversity within a particular company or situation, make the pie bigger and the problems will be absorbed into the bigger entity.
I never planned to own a helicopter, let alone establish the world's biggest helicopter company. The truth is, I was more interested in fishing, but I had a real problem getting to the best salmon rivers. The solution: I bought myself a really expensive toy — a helicopter. When I realized what I had done and checked my costs, I had two choices: Sell it, or make some money from it. So, I went out and bought another five helicopters and started a company because I was sure there was a good business there. Now, I see some of you shaking your heads and saying, this is not really the way it's done. However, I was sure this was going to work and I was not taking any risks. If you are an entrepreneur in the true sense of the word, you're not taking any risks, you're simply executing a plan of which you are positive of the results. The reality is that I'm not an expert in anything. I subscribe to one business belief — whatever the job, whatever the challenge, somebody out there can do it better than I can. I don't get threatened by people who are better than I. I'm humbled by their abilities. In fact, I should tell you, I haven't signed a cheque or opened my own mail in 25 years! The last time I put out the garbage, I stumbled, spilled the garbage and made a terrific mess! No one asked me to put the garbage out since and so I rest my case.
True entrepreneurs surround themselves with professional managers, that share their vision, and put form around it. Not only can you not do it all by yourself, but it's not necessary and it doesn't make sense. I believe in being a good casting director. People who work together and share together. When a group of people tackle a challenge, or an opportunity, the result is far greater than what an individual entrepreneur can accomplish alone. There is no set formula to become an entrepreneur. There are no special ingredients. The only prerequisites are foresight and a very strong, positive attitude. If you maintain a positive frame of mind, you can turn adversity into opportunity. The true challenge, ladies and gentlemen, is recognizing the opportunity — and then grabbing it.
The third pointer that I would like to offer is: Enjoy yourself. A pretty common saying, you know. But when you look at it below the surface, you'll find something very true. We all know that life is a journey, but we need to actually take the time to enjoy the ride. This means learning to stop at the station once in a while, to get off the train of life and to look around — to take a moment and breath in the air — to take stock of one's situation — and to give yourself a reality check. You will probably find a lot of important things around you, that you may have forgotten. People, or matters, that may need your time. Or in the case of your family and friends — your love, nourishment and devotion.
It is at this station that we need to ask ourselves a few questions. Number one: Have we become too important for others? Are we getting too big for our britches? Check your ego and measure its worth — because, the bigger it is, the less it's worth.
Number two: Are we putting something back into life, or just taking? Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, when you give a portion of your wealth, you don't divide — you double.
Number three: Have we been forthright and honest with people? Don't get too cute with people and you will succeed. The difference between being a success and a flop, is your credibility and we had all better be fastidious about our credibility. Maybe not all of your business ventures will succeed — but you will.
Number four: Are we still learning? Or, have we become impervious to advice and knowledge? I don't need to remind you about the power of knowledge.
Think about it: what's the real value of the Mona Lisa? A few dollars for the wood, not much though — probably too old and chipped. You'd get nothing for the canvas either — too old and stretched. And let's not even talk about the paint, it's 400 years old and is probably all dried up! Yet, put it up today at Christies and it's invaluable! If you bought it for a $100 million — you'd be getting it cheap. You have before you, your own individual, fresh, new canvas.
You are in a pivot point in your life. This graduation is one of the many important milestones you will achieve. Just remember that life is too short to be mediocre. So don't stand in the middle of the road. Why? Because you'll get knocked down from both directions. All the schooling of the past few years, all your time spent at university, has only served to prime the canvas of your life. What each of you do beyond this afternoon, beyond this memorable day of graduating, will become the 'painting' on the canvas you have spent so many years preparing. What will your painting be like at the end of your career? What will your painting be like at the end of your life? Will it be bright? Colourful? Compassionate? Exciting? Will it represent the values you hold dear? Will other people like what they see? More importantly, will you like what you see?
Let me leave with these pointers. One: Dare to dream. Two: Turn adversity into opportunity. Three: Don't forget your reality check. You can do it right here at home in Newfoundland.
But most importantly: Have fun in life — it's a quick trip.