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ALL ABOUT BUSINESS: The transformative legacy of business founders

George Karaphillis, Dean of Cape Breton University's Shannon School of Business


Nobel Industries Limited was a thriving ammunition business in the 19th century and operated until 1926. Although it ceased as a business nearly 100 years ago, the name Nobel is very much alive and well today: everyone has heard of the Nobel prizes. Alfred Nobel founded Nobel Industries Limited in 1870 and he knew the business would not last forever: he wanted to be remembered in a positive way and made sure his fortune created a bequest that funds the annual Nobel prizes to leading scientists and peacemakers in eternity. Remarkably, everyone knows of the Nobel prizes although very few know of Nobel Industries.

In another example, The Montreal Star was a thriving newspaper business when I first arrived in Canada, with the highest circulation of any English newspaper in Montreal. It closed in 1979 in the wake of an eight-month pressmen's strike. However, John Wilson McConnell, its long-reigning publisher, had exited the business years earlier and used the proceeds to build the McConnell Foundation. Although the Montreal Star is no more, the McConnell Foundation now has more than $300 million in assets and gives out many scholarships and grants to community initiatives and social enterprises across Canada every year. Mr. McConnell’s legacy of business acumen is alive and well in the work of the McConnell Foundation every day, forever in the future.

Closer to home, Sydney Engineering and Drydock Limited was operating a bustling shipyard for more than a century but it came to an end a few years ago. However, its legacy goes on forever because of the foresight of Bruce Rossetti, its last transformative president. Rossetti was a professional engineer and a philanthropist. At a posthumous Cape Breton Hall of Fame Award ceremony a few years ago, the late Fr. Greg MacLeod recounted how Bruce signed off on the first mortgage bank loan of New Dawn, to build their first community housing units in Sydney, among many other acts of giving. Mr. Rossetti knew first-hand the impact of higher education and Fr. Greg also spoke about the plan by Bruce and wife Dorothy to bequest their estate to fund university scholarships in perpetuity.

I recently attended a presentation at Cape Breton University and I realized that every year 50 (yes, 50) Cape Breton students attending Cape Breton University each receive a $2,000 Rossetti scholarship. Sydney Engineering and Drydock is no longer, but what a legacy it has left with so many substantial scholarships given to deserving young people right here in our community every year. Bruce Rossetti’s business and community foresight is alive and well with every scholarship going to support a young person working hard to gain a higher education and transform their lives and the community around them.

One cannot stop thinking of the transformative power of business and the good it can create in the community over the long-term. Economic trends and disruptive markets affect business fortunes and corporate entities typically do not last for more than 50 years. However, the legacy of a business and its founders can go on forever, with some foresight and good planning. In the long-term game of business, what matters most is what the founder does with the profits from the business. Mr. Rossetti obviously did the most with the profits of the Sydney Engineering and Drydock company. Cape Breton is known for its long-term orientation and so is its business community. It is no accident that the motto of Cape Breton University is "Perseverance will Triumph," reflecting Cape Breton’s spirit of striving over the long-term. Bequests and foundations can extend the legacy of Cape Breton business leaders into perpetuity, and the community will be so much better, every year.

All About Business is a monthly column on challenges and opportunities for the Cape Breton business community, written by faculty of the Shannon School of Business, Cape Breton University. Today’s contributor, George Karaphillis, is the Dean of the Shannon School of Business.

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