Danny Williams built a successful law practice, created a cable television empire, remade a province, launched a successful professional hockey franchise and now he wants to found his own new town on the edge of his St. John’s hometown. Along the way, Danny Williams has learned a few lessons. About business. About politics. About himself.
He was 50 years old and… Now what?
It was the late summer of 2000, and Danny Williams had flown to Jamaica with a friend to weigh his options. He had been a lawyer for close to 30 years. He had helped grow his father’s St. John’s law firm into one of the city’s best known and most successful. He was most proud of — liked to brag about — the “street” law he and his partners sometimes practised, including having successfully defended a number of battered women facing murder charges. He’d had a satisfying legal career, but he needed a new and different challenge. In parallel with his legal practice, Williams had also managed to create — coupling a borrowed $2,500 investment in the early 1970s with a workaholic’s obsessiveness for his whole life — his own cable television empire worth (“count the zeroes”) $250 million. But he’d run out of room to expand those horizons too.
He’d recently tried — and failed — to talk the owners of other family-owned cable providers in Atlantic Canada into combining forces to create a publicly traded regional cable juggernaut that could compete with Bell and Rogers. By the time that scheme failed — “no one wanted to give up control” — Williams had already made the major investments in new digital technology to make his own Cable Atlantic so state of the art “I’d reached the end of that road too.”
Which is when — and perhaps why — the political fork in his career road beckoned. Again. During the 1980s when his family was younger, Williams had said no to an entreaty from then premier Brian Peckford to run in St. John’s East where polls showed he could have won. Later, in the messy middle of the political scandal over the Sprung Greenhouse — a doomed high-tech scheme to grow cucumbers in six days into which Peckford had invested $13 million of taxpayers dollars and much of his own political capital — Williams had quietly approached the premier. “If you’re really in trouble and you need someone to run as an MLA…” But Peckford himself resigned soon after.
Now, in the summer of 2000, the current Tory opposition leader, Ed Byrne, had just announced his own surprise resignation.
Williams consulted his wife and now older children again. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, they agreed they would support him this time if he chose to run for leader. But should he? Would he? Which was why he’d decided to spend a week in Jamaica with a friend — a long-time Liberal, as it turned out — pondering what to do next. “It was my walk in the sand,” he jokes. They talked, he walked on the beach. “One morning, I got up, looked in the mirror and I thought, ‘It’s time to take a shit or get off the pot. It’s time to give back.’”
Politics, in truth, has coursed through Danny Williams’ veins for as long as he can remember.
His father played the political strategist, “a headquarters guy” for both the provincial anti-Smallwood and the federal pro-Diefenbaker Progressive Conservatives; his mother, Teresita, worked in the trenches as the passionate party activist and campaign manager. “One of my earliest memories,” Williams says, “is carrying around signs for (Tory candidates) Jim McGrath, or Bill Marshall, or one of those guys.”
Despite that, Williams insists that while he was growing up he didn’t harbour political ambitions of his own. He was more interested in the law — and success.
After graduating from Memorial University at the precocious age of 19 and spending two years studying law in England as a prestigious Rhodes scholar, Williams enrolled at Dalhousie University’s law school in Halifax in the early 1970s, managing to squeeze what should have been an 18-month Canadian LLB qualifying program into one year. By then, he was married to Maureen, his childhood sweetheart, and “eager to get on” with the business of assuming his rightful place in the Newfoundland legal establishment. Which, fortuitously, was when one of the partners at HR Doane — a then-prominent Halifax accounting firm where Maureen worked as a secretary — approached him with a proposition. The partner was working with a group applying to the CRTC for a cable television licence for a Halifax suburb. Why didn’t Williams put together his own group and apply for a cable television licence in Newfoundland?
“What’s cable television?” Williams asked.
He learned soon enough. With only two over-the-air channels available in his native province, Williams quickly understood “people will pay for choice,” which at that time simply meant adding in a few U.S. Network signals from Bangor, Maine. The problem was that Williams didn’t have any cash of his own to invest. So he borrowed $2,500 and then talked his father into anteing up an equal amount so they could jointly acquire a 4.5 per cent interest in his freshly minted Avalon Cable company. (His father would later sell his shares back to his son for $250,000.)
“I never intended for it to become what it became,” Williams allows today. But he kept buying out the other original investors one by one until he eventually he became sole owner.
After he’d decided to jump into electoral politics, however, he quickly realized it wouldn’t be smart to be “sending out 75,000 bills a month to potential voters.” Williams put the company on the block. Rogers offered “a good deal” — $250 million — and it was done. All of which meant that Danny Williams — “Danny Millions” as he had become known —was able to walk into the political arena so independently wealthy, so beholden to no one, he could easily, and happily, forego his politician’s salary and do, and say, whatever he wanted. By then, Danny Williams knew exactly what he wanted to say and do.
During the months leading up to his anti-climactic official announcement in December 2000 that he would indeed seek the Conservative party leadership (he turned out to be the only candidate for the job), he read voraciously, consulted widely and then wrote, rewrote, revised and polished — “40 to 50 drafts” — the blueprint for what he intended to do as premier.
He understood that the Newfoundland psyche was still haunted by the Upper Churchill energy “giveaways” of the Smallwood era of the fifties and sixties. “We had been blackmailed, extorted, call it what you will, by Quebec, and it was time to right those wrongs.” That was the sine qua non at the top of his to-do list.
On a more hopeful note, of course, there was the promise of offshore oil and gas development. But that too came with fraught negatives: the existing federal-provincial deal meant Ottawa could claw back equalization payments to compensate for whatever gains the province reaped from development of its own resources.
Worse, if and when there was significant production, existing arrangements allowed the multinational companies to vacuum the lion’s of revenues from any offshore income. All of that would need to change if Newfoundland was to ever become the have province Danny Williams envisioned.
By the time Williams finally became premier in 2003, Newfoundland was a fiscal basket case, still reeling from the cod moratorium, saddled with “seriously deteriorating” infrastructure and bleeding its best and brightest young people to better prospects elsewhere. Officials in the department of finance were projecting an unsustainable $840 million operating deficit for 2004, not to forget its conjoined twin: an $11-billion, and growing, provincial debt.
Which may explain why Williams new government invited Price Waterhouse to look under the hood of the province’s treasury: the consultants quickly concluded the province’s pension fund, and the province itself, were both swiftly rolling along the road and over the cliff to bankruptcy. “There were no quick fixes.”
Williams’ own quickest, and most controversial, fix was to slash government spending and ice-in-place public sector wages for two years, while pledging to eliminate 4,000 of those provincial government jobs in the process. On April 1, 2004, 20,000 public sector workers responded by walking off their jobs. Williams’ personal popularity, which had topped 65 per cent at the time of his election, sank to little more than half of that by the time he’d legislated the workers back to work a month later.
Today, Williams insists he had “no choice. We had no money, so we had to stand our ground.”
His advantage as premier, he says, was that “I didn’t need the job. If things didn’t work out, I knew I could always walk away.” But voters eventually came around. Two years later, while campaigning door to door in a bye-election, Williams recalls he met a woman who had strongly opposed his austerity measures. “I was ready to kill you,” she told him, “but now I understand.”
By then, of course, the political ground had shifted to the more Newfoundland-nationalist issue of the Atlantic Accord, the 1985 federal-provincial deal to manage Newfoundland’s offshore oil and gas resources that had effectively handed over the benefits of Newfoundland’s resources to Ottawa. Soon after he was elected, Williams began lobbying, cajoling, haranguing, not to forget insisting Ottawa reopen the deal. He traveled the country to plump for a new accord, enlisted the support of his fellow premiers and opposition politicians, even publicly stomped out of one meeting with Paul Martin when the then-prime minister offered a compromise Williams claimed would cost Newfoundlanders billions of dollars.
Just before Christmas 2004, he ratcheted up the political thermostat to boiling, instructing officials to symbolically remove Canadian flags from provincial buildings. By the time he ordered them back up a month later, Williams had not only won a new deal giving the province 100 per cent of royalties so long as it was a have-not province but he’d also changed the provincial psyche.
His fight with Ottawa, he declared in a speech at the time, had been “about more than money… It was about integrity and dignity and honour, and it was about pride! And those things cannot be bought. I can tell you that I have never been more proud to call myself a Newfoundlander and Labradorian!”
Check one item off his to-do list.
Three years later, he signed deals with the major multinational oil companies that gave Newfoundlanders a much better deal, including an equity position in ongoing and future projects. Checkmark beside that one too.
One year after that — and barely a month after being re-elected premier with an incredible 70 per cent of the popular vote — Williams declared “a very proud day… We received information today from the federal government… that as of today… Newfoundland and Labrador is now a ‘have’ province.”
Two years later, on November 18, 2010, Williams ticked the last, and psychically most important item from his original to-do list: a $6.2-billion deal between Newfoundland’s publicly-owned Nalcor Energy and Nova Scotia’s privately-owned Emera Inc. to develop Labrador’s Muskrat Falls Lower Churchill hydro-electric project and ship its endless supply of electricity to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and on into the electricity-hungry northeastern United States.
“That,” Williams tells me with obvious satisfaction today, was a “slap in the face to Quebec Hydro,” not only for its generations-old snookering of a previous Newfoundland government but also for its more recent attempts to “stall on Muskrat and Gull Island (hydro projects). They tried to block us at every turn, and we were able to finally circumvent them. ‘We can go around you.’” There is a raised mental middle finger in his tone.
Perhaps more significantly, the Atlantic route, he adds, will become a “great Atlantic Canadian project,” a region builder, a game changer. Danny Williams had completed what he set out to do. In the process, he had achieved something unprecedented in Canadian politics. In 2010, a Corporate Research polled showed Newfoundland voter satisfaction with its government at a giddy-making 93 per cent. Williams personal popularity — even after he’d taken heat for traveling to the United States for heart surgery — topped 81 per cent. An Angus Reid national poll declared Williams the most popular politician in the whole country, scoring 20 per cent higher than his closest rival premier.
It would have been easy enough — and more than somewhat tempting — to stick around for another election or two, to reap the rewards of what had become his decade’s investment in politics. Instead, just a week after unveiling his finger-in-the-eye-to-Quebec Muskrat Falls deal , Danny Williams announced he was resigning from politics.
Quitting, it turned out, was the easy part. By the time he’d reached end of the first three months of a vague plan to take life easier — “I was 60 years old, I had four kids, seven grandkids I needed to be around, so I decided I had to take some time, enjoy what I worked so hard to achieve” — Danny Williams admits he was in full-blown “stir crazy.” He still played hockey once a week, golfed “maybe twice a week,” watched TV (“Breaking Bad, Damages, foolish reality TV, anything”), enjoyed his collection of expensive cars, including his white Bentley and his black Maserati Quattroporte (“I like cars”) and read obsessively but selectively (“I don’t read leisurely and I don’t read novels; I’ll read The Economist and Forbes, Maclean’s“), but none of it ultimately scratched his itch for action.
Luckily, it turned out to be easy enough for him to find distractions. Invited to help lure the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose franchise to St. John’s, Williams not only became the renamed — he renamed it — St. John’s IceCaps president, CEO, logo designer and chief cheerleader, but he also helped micromanage a break-even-at-best labour of love into a paying proposition, consistently filling every one of MileOne Centre’s 6,300 seats and corporate boxes.
Within a few months of the IceCaps first-season opening game, Williams was off on yet another track, announcing a grand $5-billion scheme to develop what amounts to a brand new community the size of Gander — complete with its own industrial park, big-box shopping complex, 5,000 private homes, condos, town houses, apartments, even a seniors’ apartment complex all built around a village square with neigbourhood shops, restaurants, pubs, schools, a hospital, recreation complex, walking trails and even a skating pond — on a 2,400-acre plot of what is still mostly hilly rock and bog on the western edge of St. John’s.
Williams had bought the land at auction — he was the only bidder — during his 1990s, pre-premier era, and then built Glendenning, a golf course on one 100-acre corner. After he became premier, of course, the land, along with the rest of his assets, ended up in a blind trust.
Today, thanks in no small measure to St. John’s newfound, Williams-goosed prosperity, the property has become the last best chunk of developable real estate around the city.
Site work for the new community, which will be called Galway, he says, to honour his mother whose maiden name was Galway, was slated to begin this spring with the first lot for sale in 2015 and the first retail spaces to open in 2016.
This latest project, Williams says, is no different than his cable television empire. “It’s incremental. One phase will help finance the next, and the yield won’t come for 25 years.” Twenty five years? Williams will be 65 in August. “For the kids,” he shrugs. Retirement? He laughs. “I’m guessing I’m going to die at my desk.” he says.
Danny Williams, of course, is far from the first entrepreneur to have fantasized about what he would do if he only he had the opportunity to wield political power. But he is one of the few to have done it, one of even fewer who can claim to have smoothly skated from savvy, wealthy businessman to popular, accomplished politician and back with his reputation for both, not just intact but enhanced.
When he first decided to “get off the pot” back in 2000, Williams admits today, he naively assumed he’d spend six or seven years — “max” — in politics, and then move on. He hadn’t taken into account the reality that the Liberal government of the day would hang on as long as possible before finally calling a general election for October 21, 2003.
“That wasn’t in the plan,” he concedes, but the truth is he needed that time to figure out how politics really worked. “When I started, I knew nothing about government,” he says. He learned. “I went in thinking I’d be the general manager” of the business of government, but quickly discovered there was more to being premier than “just running the office. People hold you in esteem because you’re the premier. I remember thinking when I got off that plane in Ottawa (to negotiate the Atlantic Accord), ‘if I fail here, I will have let the people down.’ Everything was on my shoulders. It wasn’t for the greater glory of Danny; there was an esteem for the office and you had to live up to it…. You end up more respectful of the office.”
There were advantages to being an extremely successful businessman-turned-politician, of course. With his “count-the-zeroes” wealth, “I never had to think about fundraising, never had to worry about the next election.” Which gave him the freedom to look beyond the four-year political cycle and think about how a policy decision might play out 10 or 20 years into the future.
“I think of myself as an end-game player,” he tells me. Though he insists he’s happy to have put electoral politics behind him, he’s still sought out for — and still happy to offer — his always quotable comments on matters of interest to Newfoundland. During a recent media event about his new real estate development, for example, Williams was asked for his opinion on a Conference Board of Canada report predicting Newfoundland’s population would decline by tens of thousand of people in the years to come. “In my opinion,” he said while the cameras whirred and editors nervously cleared their throats, “it’s absolute bullshit. That’s the simplest way I can put it.”
When I tell him that the cab driver who drove me from my hotel to his downtown office told me he wished “Danny” would seek the once again vacant job of leader of the PC Party and premier, Williams smiles. “I wasn’t a reluctant bride,” he admits of his own initial run for office. “And I’m glad I did it. But that’s done now. I can’t go back, and I don’t want to go back.”
He leads me to the window, points to a barren, hilly speck of land in the distance. “That’s the future now,” he says.