Businessman Gary Keenan: Real Wealth (Christmas 2018)
Gary Keenan: Christmas Memories
“Christmas was chaotic – how could it not be with 13 kids – but it was also wonderful with a large family. There was such a build up. Music was a big thing in our house. Jim played piano, two of my sisters played piano, some of us played guitar. So there was always a lot of singing at Christmas, and we used to sing at midnight mass.
Preparations for Christmas lasted several days. It was a lot different than it is now. It wasn’t as hectic like it is today. Nobody was looking for Cabbage Patch Kids or the latest toy. We got a lot of homemade things. We’d get clothes for Christmas and maybe one or two toys. On Christmas Eve we’d go to midnight mass, and we always had supper early because you had to fast for eight hours before communion.
Everybody was dressed in their finery. The girls would be in dresses and the boys with new haircuts and bowties. Many of us were altar boys so our garments would have to be washed and pressed, and we’d have red boys on them for Christmas. Some of the family would be singing with the choir at mass.
When we got home we’d have a chicken dinner – not turkey. We’d have to have tow chickens to feed everybody, but we’d also have potatoes and carrots and squash and dressing. By the time we got to bed, it’d be 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. and then we’d be getting everybody up – or trying to get everybody up – at 5 or 6 in the morning. We’d open the gifts and then would spend the rest of the day preparing for Christmas dinner.
One of my favourite parts of Christmas was going to Stewart and Stewart’s Hardware Store. The toy display was on the upper floor landing. It was magical. I honestly expected to open one of their closet doors and see Santa there with his elves. They had all kinds of toys. There were no big box stores back then, so they became a big supplier of toys for a lot of families in the valley. It was just a wonderful, magical place at Christmastime.”
Gary Keenan: Giving Back
“When we (K-Line Construction) roll into these communities that are without power, the people are extremely happy to see you come in there. I kinda liken it to when towns and cities were liberated during the war. People are genuinely happy to see you. We get cards and letters of thanks, we get emails from people that are saying at how appreciated they are. These are big jobs, and the companies, yes they pay us, but the people benefit, but the work is also financially rewarding, and they allow us to be philanthropic. We make donations to a lot of hospitals, some in the US where we’ve worked. I have a special fondness for the IWK, and we helped meet one child’s wish in this area, as well. When the jobs are more lucrative and provide beyond the day-to-day operations costs, we tend to give more.
My good friend Paul Nugent and I have done some mission trips. We grew up in Bath together. He was a teacher in Korea working on international projects and invited me over to visit. One of the first projects we worked on was in Sierra Leone in Africa. Paul scouted out a village that we wanted to build a school for. When we went back to build it, the village had burned, so we found another community to build the school. We went to Vietnam and looked for kids to sponsor to go school. When that didn’t reach the level of success we wanted, two years later we went to Cambodia, and found students to sponsor. Some of those have graduated high school and college. Some have government jobs or work at higher-end hotels. It’s wonderful to help change lives. That kind of work can have an impact on generations.”
Gary Keenan: Art Lover
“I first started collecting art about 25 years ago. For me it’s not about buying an investment. The first piece I purchased was a seaside painting of a dark and stormy night by an unknown artist at one of Tim Isaac’s Auctions in Saint John. I paid $185. It spoke to me. The day I bought that piece, there was a lady there and she asked me why I was interested in that piece in particular. I didn’t have a good answer then. She told me that when you buy art, you are only keepers of this art for a period of time, buying it from the last keeper. She told me to hang it and enjoy it, and someday someone else will get to enjoy it. She’s right. We will pass these on as we only preserve them for the next generation. In that first painting, there’s just enough light in it to see the background and a cliff. When I first saw it I thought, I’ve seen some of those days. I can honestly say I appreciate those days. I don’t dislike them, but appreciate them for what they were. I have a lot of marine art, actually. I have nine or ten of EJ Russell’s paintings of the Saint John Harbour. Maybe I was a sailor in another life, but really, I’m quite intimidated by the water.”
“Maybe you are drawn to marine art because you are a person who’s been able to ride the waves?” I offered.
“Maybe. There have been a few storms, and a bit of fog. Collecting art may be the only hobby that I have. It doesn’t take up a lot of time, but it is relaxing to go to auctions on Saturdays. You end meeting a lot of eclectic people there, and Tim was always an engaging auctioneer. I really enjoyed him. He died this summer of cancer. We had been friends for 25 years.”
Gary Keenan: Business Advice
“Perseverance is one thing you need to be in business. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it. So you need to have perseverance. I’d also pass along the advice given to me by Harrison McCain – to hire people that are smarter than you and to surround yourself with good people. I was fortunate that a lot of my friends were senior to me and I talked to some of those people before I started in business. Find people with more experience and who are already in business and talk to them. Ask them questions. It doesn’t have to be the same business and you want to get into, just any business. Be prepared to endure hardships. There is no way you are going to escape hardship in business. Failure doesn’t last forever, nor does success. If you aren’t ready for success when it comes, it probably won’t last.”
Tom Rivington on Gary Keenan and f6
Left to Right: Melissa Robinson (Best Western Liverpool NS), Jack Robinson (BW Liverpool), Dan McLaughlin (Eagle Telecom), Mike Richard (F6 Networks), Trina Jones (Hampton Inn, Fredericton), Avery White (granddaughter), Sean Jones (CFO), Vicki Keenan (spouse), Gary Keenan, Anthony Keenan (K-Line Construction), Eric Morin (F6 Networks), Tom Rivington (kneeling, F6 Networks), Amanda Keenan (K-Line Construction), Eileen Cullen (sister) Courtney Keenan (K-Line Construction), Kendall Wright (K-Line Construction), Mark Keenan (K-Line Construction) Courtenay Brennan (daughter-in-law), Stuart Kinney (Counsel), Natasha Culberson (Controller).
What were your first impressions?
The first time I met Gary Keenan was in 1996. He interviewed me for a job. We met at the coffee shop by the Exhibition Grounds in Fredericton. He was looking for someone to help him manage his business, K-Line Construction. At the time I was unemployed and I needed a job.
Gary is a down to earth guy. At the time he was a wealthy man, but he showed up for our interview in work clothes. He’s never been shy about putting on boots and going to work. He still does that. When there’s a storm, he’s out with power line crews doing repairs.
You rarely see him driving a new car. He does have one now, a Ford Taurus, but that was because his last car had over 600,000 km on it. Gary isn’t a man to waste money, and he doesn’t buy a new car until he needs one.
He’s taught me a lot about being a good leader; that you get paid the same for marching as you do for fighting, so if a box needs to be picked up, you pick up the box, whether you’re the CEO or the owner, or in admin.
What makes him a good leader?
Gary leads by example and he’s not afraid to surround himself with people smarter than he is. He talked about that in his (Ernst and Young Award) speech.
He’s taught me to do the same – to find smarter people. The real reason he’s such a down to earth person is that he came from a family of 13. His family struggled. They weren’t even close to middle class growing up. He knows what it’s like to struggle, so if he can empower someone to get out of that struggle, he will. He knows what it’s like, and never wants to slip back into that. To be successful, you have to be a person who stands up for yourself and others. He does that. You have to be convincing. You can’t give up, and you can’t let other people bring you down. You expect a certain level of perfection – and you work to make things right.
There’s a reason that most K-Line’s workforce is long-term employees. He wants the product to be good, delivered to a certain standard, and done economically. We instill that same ethic in f6 employees. We expect attention to detail, that you are proud of the product or service you are delivering. Whether it’s line work, construction, network engineering, splicing, sales, the people employed across all the companies are expected to have an attention to detail – because that’s the kind of person he is. If you do something with a lack of care, he points that out.
He also treats you as his equal. As the CEO of F6 Networks, he leaves me alone and trusts me to make the right decisions for the company. He doesn’t give you this trust, you’ve earned it through respect and taking responsibility. Across all the companies that Gary invests in there is an understanding, work together if you can, improve the overall development of all the associated companies. Raise all ships.
Why did employees want to put F6 Networks and Gary Keenan’s name forward for the Ernst and Young Award?
The award is interesting. Stuart Kinney put the nomination package together. It named F6 Networks and Gary as its head, but to me, it was more about recognizing 36 years of work in the telecom business and the entrepreneurial spirit he possesses. He’s achieved a lot over the years.
At the dinner that night, I was watching him and the rest of the room. Initially, I was a little surprised when he won, because these awards generally go to young people who work in ‘sexy’ industries. I was so proud they recognized him. Seeing Gary stand up and accept that award felt so good. It was recognition for a lot of work he’s done, but it also recognized me, and all of his employees. If he wins, we all win.
When we needed high-speed Internet in 2000, that’s when Gary let me find my way. I wanted to start a wireless internet company, so Gary said okay, go do that. When we sold that to Barrett Xplore, I suggested we start getting into dark fibre, so he said go do that.
Sure, it’s me and my team doing the day to day grind, but in the background is this amazing support in Gary, with his background of 30 plus years of building businesses, telecom outside plant and balancing risk and reward. He’s the guy I call. We have monthly board meetings where significant business is decided. He puts people in charge, let’s you do your thing, but he still keeps an eye on things. He’s successful because he allows employees to achieve their dreams, too.
How has that approach allowed you to grow and succeed as a CEO?
It’s my job to execute the strategy I’ve sold to the board. He gives me almost autonomous control. We’ve always agreed on everything, well almost everything.
That earlier quote – where you’re paid the same for marching as for fighting – I expect everybody to row the oars; in the same direction, everybody is pulling for the company. We all have our responsibilities, but it’s a team effort.
Gary made me a business person. He doesn’t just build and buy, he keeps things and keeps building them. I’ve inherited that mindset. I like to manage people the same way – let them succeed or fail, and if they fail, let them learn from their mistakes.
I don’t know where I would be today without Gary. I was struggling as a person, I couldn’t find my way. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. As a business student, throughout university, I thought I wanted to be a stockbroker. After school, I struggled to find a job that gave me satisfaction. I felt lost after university. I didn’t know I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and now I own a piece of the company, but I earned that piece. Not sure where I would be today if I had not met him that night at Tim Hortons.
What do you think is Gary Keenan’s greatest accomplishment?
He’s employed a hell of a lot of people. I’ve worked for him for 23 years. Never once did I wonder if I’d get paid next week. He, directly and indirectly, has created thousands of jobs and allowed people to prosper. He’s had some of the same employees for 30 years. He’s provided stability to families. He’s also invested millions of dollars into the New Brunswick economy. He’s helped the province immensely. The impacts and effects of Gary Keenan are tremendous.
Gary Keenan’s Acceptance Speech at the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Technology
“Never be afraid to hire someone smarter than you.” Harrison McCain told me that one night when I was fifteen hitchhiking to the next town to see my girlfriend.
Thank you to Ernst & Young, the individual or individuals that nominated me, the panel of judges, nominees, entrepreneurs, and guests.
Growing up in a small farming community and being one of thirteen in an Irish Catholic family teaches you a lot of things. It teaches you about values and strong morals. It teaches you work ethic. It teaches you respect and appreciation for everyone. These teachings have been a foundation of my success and I have carried those strong values and morals with me throughout my career.
What many of you don’t know is that the winter of 80/81 I was stocking shelves at the local grocery store. That spring I bought a bucket truck and hired two men to go to work. Today we employ over 350 people across several subsidiaries from multiple construction companies, engineering and architecture firms, real estate, hotels and f6 Networks Canada’s largest open access long-haul, dark-fibre carrier that is privately owned.
Since 2008 we have invested $30 million building a 2000km fibre optic network from the borders of Quebec and Maine to the subsea cable landing station here in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Our network connects the majority of universities and community colleges across NB and into NS. There is more data flowing through our pipes than any other network in Atlantic Canada and we are just getting started. We have plans for expansion into Ontario, central and western Canada to continue building our vision of a sovereign pan Canadian data network.
Do you remember what Harrison McCain said? “Never be afraid to hire someone smarter than you.”
That is exactly what I have done over my career and I owe a tremendous amount of my success to those people and I owe many people a thank you.
To my parents, thank you for raising me to be the man I am today. For giving me the drive and encouragement to be successful. For teaching me work ethic and the importance of family, friends, and community.
To my employees, thank you from the bottom of my heart for getting up every day to work tirelessly to make my dreams become reality. Absolutely nothing can be done without each and every one of you.
To Pat Goguen, you have been a friend, confidant, and accountant since the beginning. Your knowledge, patience, and desire to see me succeed have helped along every step of this incredible journey.
To Tom Rivington not only my business partner but my friend. Together we started Aernet Wireless Atlantic Canada’s first wireless high-speed internet provider before it was successfully acquired. And now we are partners in f6 networks. Tom’s passion for technology and his entrepreneurial spirit sold me on the idea of f6 networks. Your hard work and enthusiasm is infectious and cannot go unrecognized. Thank you
To my good friend, confidant, and mentor Gerry Pond. From Gerry’s days at NBTel, we developed a friendship that I hold very dear today. Our casual chats always carried within them a valuable lesson that I was able to apply to my business.
To all my associates whether it is my CFO Sean Jones or Stuart Kinney our in-house counsel or Dan McLaughlin and Kendall Wright in our engineering departments, I owe a great deal of my success to you. If were to list everyone, I would have to name all 350 plus staff across our group of companies. I know I used the word “staff” but I consider them all my associates.
I’d like to thank my children who now all work at K-Line. Thank you for the countless times that we had plans to go away only to be canceled at the last minute for work. Thank you for your understanding and lifelong commitment to our success.
Most deserving of my thanks and praises. To the girl I was hitchhiking to go see, thank you. Thank you for being my wife, thank you for giving me, three beautiful children. Thank you for being the foundation of our family. You have given me the ability to accomplish all of this by always being supportive, understanding and loving. Thank you for the many nights I was away working on the road while you were home raising our family. They say behind every successful man is a tired woman. Tonight all I can do is say I love you and thank you.
I don’t know what the future holds for f6 but I do know that it will be interesting, intimidating, challenging and most importantly exciting. The landscape in our industry is changing and we will be there to fully embrace and steer the future. I remember well when NB Tel was the world leader in telecommunications, and tonight with my team with our ambitions & dreams, we are poised to be that new leader.
Thank you to everyone once again.
Tina Harding: Fighting Like a Girl
Photos and letters sent to Tina from three little girls whose photo gave Tina courage. They, too, are fighting cancer.
Jack McAfee: No Regrets