Wednesday, June 19, 2013

In Conversation With...John Bragg

First published in  The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, June 5, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.


Being shown into John Bragg’s office on the Oxford Frozen Foods property is more like stepping into a living room, inviting and comfortable with a couch and wing chairs, a round, highly polished table used as a desk and wide windows  overlooking two processing plants on either side of the main office building. A large painting on the back wall depicts John as chancellor of Mount Allison University (2005-9) but I’m looking at a simple black and white photo displayed on a table in the opposite corner when John walks into the room.
“The photo is of the little Anglican church in Oxford Junction,” he explains. “It was built in 1874 by the first Bragg who came out from England, for his daughter who lived across the road. His name was John Bragg. He happens to be buried there along with his son Charles, and his son Walter, and his son Elmer, who is my father, and my brother Doug and my nephew Ross. As a family, we maintain the church. I think it’s a great photograph.”
John’s office is located in the middle of the Oxford Frozen Foods property; as the company expanded, it grew up around the main office. OFF is one of two core companies his family runs; the other is the cable company Eastlink. I realize I’m lucky to get this conversation with him; he’s only in this office once or twice a week. He’s a hands-on boss, spending much of his working days where the work actually happens, whether that’s in a blueberry field, a television station or a board room across Canada and around the world.
Yet he remains firmly attached to his family’s deep roots in Collingwood. 
“Coming back to Collingwood for the weekend and walking woodlots or visiting blueberry fields or sitting reading a book seems to me to be better than being in downtown Toronto,” John says. “People who are in downtown Toronto will drive three or four hours to go north to a cottage. I’m asked all the time if I’m going to move to Halifax or Toronto but there’s no way.”
John lives in Collingwood with his wife, Judy, and two of their four children, and four grandchildren. He grew up watching his family work in the woods and the blueberry fields. Although his father, Elmer, was an entrepreneur and businessman, John almost didn’t follow his father’s example. 
“I picked my first blueberries at the age of 15 on some abandoned farmland that [my father] owned. When I finished high school, I’d made enough money to pay my university expenses.”
He graduated from Mount Allison in the early sixties with a degree in commerce. 
“I was offered a job to teach school in Pugwash for 38-hundred dollars a year plus an extra hundred dollars if I coached the basketball team. I had made more money picking blueberries that summer so...”
At the age of 28,  John bought a hayfield in Oxford and started the food company in 1968 then bought the cable television licence in Amherst in 1970.
Although his father died in 1975 without witnessing the growth of the empire that exists today -- “He would have found it very interesting,” John says -- his advice greatly influenced John. It was his father that encouraged him to persist in the fledging cable industry when the steep learning curve was making him reconsider. Now Eastlink services homes from Newfoundland to British Columbia. 
 When he’s not working, John is committed to staying active with golf, cycling and reading. He calls it living the life of a retired person while still working.
I ask if he’s a good golfer. 
“No, I’m not,” he admits with a smile. “I didn’t start until I was 65 so I’m working hard at it. I’m improving.” 
When does this 73-year-old who travels the world for business find time for golf? 
“Quite frankly, it’s an effort to stay young,” he admits. “If you’re going to grow older, you have to stay active. Getting old is only a mental issue. It’s a state of mind. My purpose was to find something I could do and stay active. Most of my holidays are about golf.”
They also are about cycling. John and his wife are avid cyclists (“We don’t race”), often tacking a cycling tour onto the end of a business trip; their most recent one was in Germany after conducting business in Berlin.
He also considers himself an American history buff with a particular interest in the lives of the presidents. 
“Canadian history is important but in the big scheme of things in the world, it’s not as significant as American history,” he says.
It’s not the economic side he’s intrigued by as much as the people.
“Jimmy Carter may not have been the greatest president but he was a peanut farmer. If a peanut farmer could become president, a blueberry farmer could,” John laughs. “It’s just amazing. Harry Trueman drove a mule team, ploughing a field. These people went on to be president and made great decisions.”
Some may question the decision John made to continue living and doing business from rural Nova Scotia but for him it was the best decision.
“I like to tell people I live in a village of 300 people and I sell that as a very positive experience. It’s unique. It gives you something to talk about over dinner,” he says. 
“When I say that my grandchildren live next door and they’re the seventh generation in that village, not many people can say that. I think it says that we’re not disadvantaged by living in rural Nova Scotia. We’re all over the world with our business but coming home to Collingwood, Nova Scotia, is alright.”


4 comments:

  1. Thanks, Deanne. There was so much I had to leave out because of space constraints so I focused on the man behind the business.

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  2. Very interesting story,I've never met John Bragg even though we live less than 20 km from each other,he's 73 I'm 68.

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  3. John Bragg is my age and we were in Collingwood but he lived there, I spent all my summers there. We probably picked blueberries together. I grew up knowing most of his family. I think John had made a great chioce by living in Collingwood, it is a wonderful little valley, a great place to live. I have lived in Toronto, Edmonton Ft. Mac and now retired in Fredericton but I love Collingwood. I visit as my son, Wayne LeBlanc lives there and works for the Bragg industry. I enjoyed reading about Bragg Creek(near Calgary) in AB. which John,s ancesters founded.All in all, without the Bragg industries, our community would be a ghost town. Thank you, Mr. Bragg,for what you have put into our province.

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