Driven to succeed

It takes more than luck to make it in business, says Danny Williams; he advises young people to be informed and be prepared to work hard

Bonnie Belec
Published on March 29, 2014

Newfoundland’s political history and quite possibly the strength of its economic prospects might not be what they are today had Danny Williams followed his first love in school.

The ninth premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, former owner of Cable Atlantic and president and CEO of the St. John’s IceCaps, Williams is clearly one of the most successful people to come from this province.

The 64-year-old says while law was his calling and his father’s profession, he had hoped to enter the field of medicine early on in his life.

“My best subjects in school were math and science” he said, sitting in his fifth-floor office in the Paramount Building on Harvey Road.

“I mean, I wanted to be a doctor but I didn’t have the stomach for it,” he says, breaking into laughter.

“That’s the truth of the matter — that’s the God’s truth. I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. I’d be passed out all over the place.”

“My sciences were good, but eventually I went into law because my father was into law. The law gives you an opportunity to do things — it took me places and I met people and got connections. As a lawyer, people want you involved as an adviser or a partner, so it leads to other things,” he said.

Born in St. John’s in the summer of 1949, Danny Williams was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship at the age of 20 and attended Oxford University in England.

At age 23, he says he embarked upon one of the biggest ventures of his life, one that would shape his future endeavours in business.

He says he was only out of law school for about a year when he put together a group of investors to buy a cable company. The group held onto Cable Atlantic until early 2000. when it was sold for almost $200 million, according to reports at the time.

“That application was completed in the early ’70s, so the cable business got me more into the business side of it, but I still had a full law practice,” Williams said.

“I was flat out with court cases. It was a really busy time. So, the practice was my bread and butter and there were side investments into businesses, but the cable company eventually grew into a big business,” he said, smiling confidently.

Williams said it wasn’t easy and being successful takes a lot of hard work.

He says he’s always worked hard and earned his first dollar when he was 11.

“I worked on an oil truck as a helper in the winter, then I worked at a gas station, pumping gas. I sold Christmas trees when I was in university, for pocket money. I was always doing stuff to earn money. I’m just driven, I always was,” he says.

Williams said today’s generation has a different work ethic because there’s more of an entitlement mentality. Parents, now, are a little more affluent and they want to give their children more than they had, he said, and this can affect the children’s motivation.

There’s also more social pressure on today’s generation, he says, with the prevalence of social media and technology.

But if young people want to be successful entrepreneurs, they still have to work hard and read, he says.

“Gather as much information about what you’re doing as you can. I’m an insatiable reader. If I’m doing a project, I’m reading all the time. I don’t mean leisure books — I don’t read leisure books — but I read all the time,” he said.

“There’s also risk and reward, too. You have got to be a bit lucky, but hard work makes luck, and you don’t win them all. Anyone who says they never had a venture fail is lying. The object is keeping the wins ahead of the losses,” he said.

Visions of Galway

Williams’ latest venture that he’s betting on being a winner is the development of 2,000 acres of land in Southlands that borders Mount Pearl, St. John’s and the Trans-Canada Highway.

Recently branded as Galway — in honour of his mother’s maiden name — Williams said he bought the land after seeing an ad in The Telegram about 20 years ago.

He said the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corp. was offering about a dozen parcels of land around the province for sale. The Liberals were in power at the time.

“I went in and got a copy of what they were selling, because I was looking to build a golf course, and found this piece out here and said it was ideal for the golf course and that is exactly what it was for,” he said.

“I bought it all because that is all that was available — they weren’t selling it in pieces. I had to buy it all in one shot,” said Williams.

“It was about $450,000 — it was cheap, but since then I’ve spent $10 million putting (Glendenning Golf Course) out there, and golf courses don’t make any money. First time that golf course made any money was last year, and now it just cost me $4.5 million just to clean up less than 10 per cent of the site, so I’ve got $15 million-plus into that raw land out there now, even though I got the first chunk for a song, basically,” he said.

“When I bought it originally, there was no plan to build that city out there, it was to get a golf course. But a decade later, as the city of St. John’s started to move out — which is basically running out of space, and the city of Mount Pearl is pretty well out of space, it was the next logical place to do something,” he said.

The multi-billion-dollar development is well underway and Williams says he is now working on a joint venture with partners to develop the retail area while the land is also being prepped for the industrial side of the project.

He said the idea is to develop facets of the project concurrently, but the industrial side will be done first, followed closely by retail, and finally residential.

 Another housing development he’s involved in, which provides affordable housing, is Westfield off Blackmarsh Road. Williams said that project involves about 15 acres and will see more than 60 buildings constructed, with four homes per unit.

When it’s all said and done, Williams said, about 250 affordable housing units will be available.

“It’s a nice site up in Gulliver’s Farm in the meadow, up behind the Hydro Building, and it fills a real void for people to get a home in the city who couldn’t otherwise afford to,” he said.