Three years ago Blair McKeil sold his majority stake in McKeil Marine but with no intention of pursuing a life of leisure.
I caught up with the charismatic businessman and entrepreneur at the office for his new venture Breakwater Investments.
“It’s in a converted body shop Kathy, I think you’ll like it.”
McKeil never does anything halfway. There’s no grease or shop towels in the office, just a Ferrari, McLaren, Lamborghini, Maserati, Porsche, Cadillac, Roll Royce or two and some muscle and vintage cars.
McKeil loves cars, most of the ones in the “office” are his, but some belong to friends.
“Anytime you want to borrow one just ask,” McKeil says as he shows me around.
That casual generosity is the real thing. Blair and his wife Kathy quietly support many charities. A donation of $1-million to the McNally House Hospice was recently made after the sale of the marine business.
Here in the converted body shop, the McKeil’s host or lend the space for fund raising events, and have parties for family and friends.
“As much as we have some stuff, our greatest joy comes from the ability to share and care about what is going on around us,” McKeil says.
While McKeil is still a minority shareholder in McKeil Marine, he is moving forward with new ventures.
Travel down to the foot of Hillyard Street where it meets Hamilton Harbour and the new offices of Heddle Shipyards come in to view. In the building that used to house McKeil Marine (their head office moved to Burlington), Rick Heddle and Blair McKeil have partnered in expanding the Hamilton based business. They have bought or leased shipyards in Port Weller, Thunder Bay, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
“We’re taking what I would call closed shops and revitalizing them and a community at the same time, and creating jobs for highly skilled workers,” McKeil says.
The languishing shipyards are being upgraded McKeil says, and new projects launched to make them sustainable in what is a seasonal and cyclical business.
“Heddle is doing a lot of work with the Coast Guard, with ferries and private ship owners. We need business to fill in the times when a shipyard isn’t busy.”
The decision to sell McKeil Marine came when McKeil saw the company growing at a pace that needed more investment. The new majority owner, private equity firm TorQuest Partners, has the funds to expand the business, he says.
“McKeil Marine is growing. I’ll bet they have bought six new ships since I sold, high value, high spec, and just one ship costs $30-million dollars.”
So McKeil is charting a new path after the sale of the business his dad Evans McKeil started in 1956. The businesses are marine based, with shipyards, and marine transportation and now the addition of property development on land assembled close to water.
In Port Dover, McKeil now owns the old Harry Gamble shipyards.
I discovered this sprawling monument to marine ingenuity a couple of years ago while poking around Port Dover. Giant engines, propellers and anchors were encroaching on a road near the Lynn River, more boat parts stretched as far as the eye could see.
“My dad bought engine parts from Harry in the 50’s. Old Harry kept everything. But he knew where everything was, even in his ’90’s. Probably when you had nothing you hung on to everything,: McKeil says.
The Gamble business, started in 1919, Harry was a shipbuilder, fabricator and rebuilt diesel engines. Now the yard is being cleaned out, and McKeil sees it as a perfect spot for condominiums.
“It’s an ideal location, centre of town, with 600 foot frontage on the river. I guess I’m taking a gamble on Gamble’s.”
But the pace of moving such a project through municipal approvals is not for a guy used to acting fast on opportunities. He’s hired a firm to do that work.
“I’m not good at politicking,” he says.
The McKeils recently moved from their home in Niagara to a house on the lake in Burlington, where McKeil says he enjoys “watching our boats go by.”
“I’m going to be 60 this year, so an old dog learning new tricks is interesting, especially a junkyard dog.”