The first-ever Atlantic Dream Festival is nothing anyone on Canada’s East Coast has seen before: A star-studded, high-octane event – involving such international luminaries as Sir Richard Branson and former New Brunswick premier and Canadian ambassador to the United States Frank McKenna – celebrating the hidden entrepreneur in all of us. And you won’t believe who’s behind the curtain, pulling the strings.
He speaks deliberately, almost professorially – every syllable a soft sell of his burgeoning salience – about the risks he’s been willing to take, the challenges he’s been willing to embrace, on his long, arduous road to entrepreneurial wisdom. No, it has not been easy, Brad LeBlanc, co-owner of Dieppe, New Brunswick-based Momentum Group, says sonorously. But that’s just fine, because in the end it’s all about the dreaming. It’s all about the self-confidence every hard knock purchases for posterity. “You know,” he says, cocking his head to the side, jutting his chin just so, on this rainy morning in late June, “I’ve lived a life that’s certainly been outside the box. And I must say I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. At my age, I begin to realize how important it is to stay young at heart, especially when you’re no longer a kid.”
At his age? Young at heart? No longer a kid? But Brad, I protest, you’re only 21. “Yeah, I know,” he giggles. “Pretty cool, eh?”
That’s certainly one word for it. Another might be: Astonishing. Having created his first business at the startlingly tender age of 11 (a disc jockey service for private parties and functions), he is embarking on a project the scope and scale of which Atlantic Canada has never before witnessed. “Think of it like a giant happening not just for entrepreneurs, but for the entrepreneurially minded,” he says. “Think of it like an occasion to remind people that anything really is possible if you work hard and are persistent. Think of it like a place for people of all ages and from every walk of life to discover their hidden potential and unleash the fire within.”
Think of it any way you like. But know this: The inaugural Atlantic Dream Festival (scheduled for October 28-31 at the Moncton Coliseum) is on track to host hundreds of exhibitors, from banks to universities to custom home builders to technology manufacturers, and as many as 15,000 ticket-paying members of the public eager to understand the stuff that dreams are, quite literally, made of. And if they don’t learn their lessons on the convention floor, they’ll have another opportunity elsewhere, thanks to a remarkable line-up of world-class speakers, which includes: former New Brunswick Premier and Canadian Ambassador to the United States Frank McKenna; Kevin O’Leary, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, host of CBC’s “O’Leary Exchange”, and judge on that network’s “Dragon Den”; Canadian summer and winter Olympian Clara Hughes; Farley Flex, music promoter and former “Canadian Idol” judge; and Stuart McLean, host of CBC Radio’s “The Vinyl Café”. Rounding out the list is author and inspirational speaker Martin LaTulippe; Ron Buist, former marketing director for Tim Hortons; and Richard St. John, author of The eight traits successful people have in common.
Still, as if this were not enough firepower to impress the madding crowd, LeBlanc and his compatriots at Momentum Group scored their signature coup by persuading British industrialist, billionaire and humanitarian Sir Richard Branson to headline the entire event. “I wanted Richard for what he stands for, which is fearlessness and ingenuity,” he says. “By participating, he’s lending an enormous amount of credibility to the Festival; he’s building up our brand. And that’s crucially important especially when you consider that this is a big, fat first for our region.”
Yeah, no kidding. But as interesting as the content and personalities associated with this home-grown, East Coast “ideas” conference are, a more intriguing question hovers in the increasingly rarefied Moncton air: How did a motley crew of youthful nobodies from Podunkville, No-Place-You-Care-About, Canada, manage to pull off such an astounding feat of entrepreneurial savoir fair?
“Yaaa. . .hahaha. . .heehaw. . .That’s a really good one.” Tall, ginger-haired, and artfully scruffy, LeBlanc is laughing now like. . .well, like a 21-year-old frat boy, which, of course, he is not. I had merely suggested that with his morning cup of joe, the energetic youngster might not actually need the pack of batteries his equally youthful assistant had just handed him. But just as soon as the joke breaks over the rudely appointed world headquarters of Momentum Group – its clap-board and pill-box architecture, its discount furniture and hand-me-down ambience – it’s over, and the self-titled “Chief Entrepreneurial Officer” is back to business, back to pontificating on the nature of enterprise, dreams and, predictably, himself.
“A lot of people always say you shouldn’t do things that are risky,” he winces dramatically. “Well, you know what I say? When people tell me I have a good idea, I run the other way. When people tell me something can’t or won’t happen, that’s when I get all fired up. There’s a lot of negativity out there. There are a lot of negative people out there. So, you can imagine, I get fired up a lot.”
‘Twas ever thus for the Riverview, New Brunswick native, an only child who once quipped, “It’s a good thing I don’t have any brothers or sisters, because I’d have them all working for me.” As it is, LeBlanc has known only one task-master in his brief life, and that one – the one in his mirror – is quite enough. “To be completely honest,” he says, “I think I’m pretty persistent.”
Certainly, he was persistent enough to launch Bradz DJ Service as a pre-pubescent grade-schooler. “I was 11 years old when the father of one of my friends asked me to set up my karaoke machine and do a little disc-jockey gig for a surprise birthday party,” he once recalled. “After that, I was hooked on business.”
That, and the limelight. Through his teen years, he launched one splashy enterprise after another: Superstar Special Event Planning, Brad LeBlanc Talent Management, Engaging Entertainment (a music event planning and recording operation), No Pressure, Pressure Washing (for vinyl siding). He even qualified for the third round of Canadian Idol as a singer-songwriter in 2004. “I sang a song I wrote myself,” he declared at the time. “Maybe the best part about it, though, was watching them scroll the names of my businesses up the side of the TV screen during the taping.”
Still, businesses come and go. Despite winning the 2004 Teen Entrepreneur of the Year Award in honour of a government-sponsored Atlantic Canada National Teen Day, he began to wonder: What’s next? What’s next for Brad LeBlanc and his irrepressible hope, faith and, of course, dreams?
“The fact is,” he says, “I started working at a fast food restaurant very young and that’s when I decided I didn’t want to be a work horse for the rest of my life. I decided there was just a little bit more to life than that. So I started Engaging Entertainment and all my other businesses, and I made them work. I won a consulting job, doing promos and performing other communications services for the Moncton Wildcats hockey team, and I made that work. I’ve always had a lot of things in the air.”
One of which, in 2009, was Dexter’s Market, an emporium of collectibles and other odds and ends he owns in downtown Moncton. There, he became acquainted with Phil Calvert (now his partner and Momentum’s duly designated “Sales Guru”). Apart from his weekend gig at Dexter’s selling antiques, Calvert also boasted a background in media and event planning. The two quickly hit it off, and in November their new business officially took flight. “Phil and I complement each other perfectly,” LeBlanc says. “We have different skills that combine really well. He’s much more of a straight arrow than me. He keeps things operating so we can, in fact, dream big.”
Since its inception, Momentum’s singular obsession has been hosting and staging the grand event. Its trademark product has become the Atlantic Canadian Entrepreneurship Expo, a fully sponsored series of conventions in major cities across the region. According to the company’s website, “These are designed to motivate, educate, and inspire entrepreneurs from all walks of life. An unbeatable lineup of keynote speakers, a hoppin’ tradeshow, and a networking lunch make up the full-day event. Hundreds of entrepreneurs come together to learn, grow, and share their success. Business relationships are made, new skills are learned, and deals are signed.”
The inaugural expo in Moncton last October was so successful, the boys were inspired to organize five in 2010, one each for Fredericton, Halifax, Charlottetown, Saint John and, again, Moncton. In fact, things have been going so well, with only two left in the calendar to stage, Leblanc is planning eight for next year. And after that? “Let’s just say,” he smiles, “we have other things in the hopper.”
Naturally, even the smallest success comes with a cost. There have been times over the past year when LeBlanc has had to sleep on his office couch, foregoing what others might call a living wage, just to keep the seven-person company liquid. For his part, Calvert still hasn’t replaced the car he sold to top up Momentum’s initially shallow coffers. But what’s also indisputably true is the experience, knowledge and crucial business networks the two have collected in their stunningly rapid ascent through the entrepreneurial food chain. These, they are only now realizing, have become their priceless, competitive advantages in a world where the fondest dream must inevitably shake the hand of the hardest reality.
“I hate being sick. I mean, who likes being sick? You know?” I shrug, as if to acknowledge the obvious; but somehow, I know, there is a point coming. “So, anyway, there I was down with strep throat,” LeBlanc continues. “That must have been, oh, I’ll say six months ago, sometime in January. And I was bored out of my mind, because I’m the sort of person who likes to do a million things at once. So, something was on TV, and someone was telling someone else why he shouldn’t do something. . .You know, a parent telling a child why he shouldn’t start his own business, because he should go to university and yadayadayada. And this triggered a thought. I just knew I had to talk to Phil about it.”
Calvert remembers the ensuing conversation well. “Brad is always coming up with these amazing ideas,” he laughs. “But this one was beyond amazing. It’s fair to say I thought it was nuts, and I told him so.”
Undeterred, LeBlanc pressed his concept on his partner. The world, he insisted, is full of naysayers and no-can-doers. What Atlantic Canada – that perennially undermined, yet richly endowed reservoir of talent and human capital – needs is a reason to celebrate its own innate greatness, and a way to share this broadly, convincingly and compellingly with the rest of the world. In short, it needs a dream festival for people who refuse to accept the mundane, mediocre and status quo in their workplaces, businesses, communities and, most of all, themselves. “So, the question was how we do this not just for Moncton, but for the whole region,” LeBlanc recalls arguing. “I said, hey listen, we’re going to have a dream of a show all about dreams for all kinds of people of all ages and from all backgrounds. So, clearly, we need the biggest dreamer in the world to be a part of this thing, front and centre. Who else but Richard Branson fits that bill?”
Who else, indeed? Other than Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, the 60-year-old South London native is the world’s leading exponent of the art of the possible. Best known now for his “Virgin” brand of just about everything, which interlaces his 360 companies around the planet, he began his first successful business at age 16 with a magazine called Student. Today, he owns airlines, record labels and stores, cell phone providers, and, among many other ventures, a low-orbit shuttle service for high-flying tourists with more money than brains to risk.
He’s also one of the most expensive and hardest-to-get public speakers on six continents, who charges an astronomical $275,000 (USD) per engagement even as his “people” field and reject hundreds of legitimate requests a year. How, Calvert wondered, was his pal going to persuade a man like this that little, old Momentum Group was worth the trouble of an email rejection, let alone serious consideration? “Brad made his case over and over again to me,” he says. “And I still wagged my head. I believe in Brad, but this was just too ambitious. I was convinced we were never going to get Branson. It was just never going to happen.”
Which was, of course, all LeBlanc needed to hear. For weeks he phoned the famed entrepreneur’s various agents just to grease the lines of communication. “I filled out the standard offer sheet and, naturally, it was rejected,” he says. “I filled it out again, and it was rejected again. I filled it out again and again and again – a couple of dozen times. No satisfaction. So I began calling every day, several times a day until they eventually said, ‘please stop phoning us’. They just about hung up on me. Frankly, I would have told me to stop phoning. But then I got this idea.”
LeBlanc promised to stop pestering and hectoring if Branson’s agents would forward one simple, heart-felt missive to the great man, his hero. “That was my deal,” he says. “I had no idea if they would honour it, but they sounded pretty happy to take me up on it, if only to get rid of me once and for all.”
This is what LeBlanc, at his last desperate hour, wrote as he recites today:
“Dear, Richard. . .My name is Brad LeBlanc. I’m a 21-year-old entrepreneur from a place you’ve never heard of, Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada. You, in your life, have accomplished, at least on the surface, it appears everything you’ve ever set your mind to. You’ve never let anything stand in your way. And you’ve had so many people help you, mentors and business people. And you know what it’s like to overcome adversity. And, Richard, you started really, really young. You started your first business magazine when you were in your teens. Then, you started a record label. Then, one day your flight was cancelled, and you started an airline. You do the impossible. This is exactly what I’m trying to do. Richard, I’ve got a lot of people telling me you’ll never come, and I could never get you. I want you to come, and I want you to support dreams in Atlantic Canada, a place that has more people with talent and character than any place in the world. And I want you to come if for no other reason than to support a young entrepreneur. Richard, you are still a young entrepreneur at heart. I’ve phoned your office more than my fair share of times. And I know that this message may or may not actually get to you, but I want you to know that you inspire me every day. And I’m hoping, with every ounce of my being, that you’ll come and inspire all the people I’m trying to inspire. Wishing you all the best in the future, I remain Brad LeBlanc.”
Within days – and after months of seemingly endless, fruitless, even Quixotic, negotiations – the fax rang. It was Branson’s offer. He was in. He’ll be in Moncton. He would headline the first Atlantic Dream Festival on October 28, after all.
LeBlanc and Calvert, laughing ecstatically, suddenly looked at each other.
It was now late April.
In the Life of every entrepreneur, the time comes when he asks the hardest things of himself and his answers raise the ultimate question: For all my gusto, bravado, brilliance, courage and (let’s face it) bluster, have I finally bitten off more than I can chew? That time arrived for LeBlanc and Calvert in the breaking days of May, when the meal Branson served up looked truly enormous, as did the price tag. “After working on this for so long, the idea of getting Sir Richard seemed surreal,” Calvert says. “It was like we were hoping it would happen, but I was certainly preparing myself for the fact that it wouldn’t. And then it did, which was great, except. . .well. . .we had no sponsors and only two weeks to get him a $137,000 deposit.”
Indeed, the dream was growing larger, more complicated and more treacherous than they could have imagined. Momentum’s bank account was nowhere near healthy enough to cover the spread on its owners’ audacious gamble. “In most cases like this, with bigger companies than ours, you have maybe a half-million-dollar line of credit, and off you go. You front your expenses. And you pay yourselves later from the revenues the event generates,” Calvert says. “That was definitely not our situation – not even close.”
There was only one thing to do; the thing they do best. They leveraged every connection they’d ever made to hit up big, juicy benefactors. Thanks to one mutual acquaintance, they scored right out of the gate with Frank McKenna who, apart from his political notoriety, was (and still is) deputy chairman of Toronto-Dominion bank. As LeBlanc recounts, the former New Brunswick premier loved the concept and pushed the bank’s financial services group to approve a $50,000 contribution, which it did and in record time: “From start to finish, I think it was about a week to get the commitment.”
Now, they had both Branson and McKenna on board. And the marquee value the two great men represented proved irresistible to other major corporations and organizations, including Atlantic Lottery and CGA (Certified General Accountants). Yet, even with all this fluid good will in play, it still wasn’t enough to make LeBlanc’s dream a reality. As Calvert explains, “You know, not many companies will hand out cheques before the fact. In T-D’s case, we knew Frank was right behind us, but the bank’s legal department would only agree to pay on October 31, after the event. So, again, we were in this situation where, though we had some money, we still needed more right away. So, now what do we do?”
LeBlanc smiles broadly as he listens to his partner talk. The original purpose of the dream festival was to motivate people to think big, courageous thoughts – to take risks they would not ordinarily entertain. It’s fair to say that as he broke his hump trying to assemble the resources necessary to achieve his objective, he underestimated the degree to which, by his own example, he was already inspiring those around him. “We sat down, Brad and I, and made a list of all the entrepreneurs in Moncton we knew personally, and then we went to see them. There was Terry Malley, who sells ambulances,” Calvert says. “There was Ken LeBlanc and Walter Melanson of Property Guys. There was Darren Leon of Leon’s Furniture. There was Peter Ford of Ford’s Apothecary. There were many, many more. Not everyone said yes, but we were batting 800. They weren’t interested in personal fame or sales or anything like that. They just wanted to buy into something they believed in, something special.”
Adds LeBlanc: “They understood our time crunch because they, themselves, are all entrepreneurs. They’ve all made it, so they understood exactly where we were coming from, whereas with some of the bigger negotiations, it’s been hard to get that point across. But with these local contributors. . .well, it’s been amazing. There were days when we sold someone on the concept at 11:00 am and we came back to pick up the cheque at two in the afternoon. And that’s what is truly inspirational for us. That’s as big a victory to us as getting Richard Branson to be our keynote speaker.”
Leblanc and Calvert shoot sidelong glances at one another. Well, maybe it’s almost as big a victory. After all, even the most tender-hearted investor expects a return, even if it’s a gloriously, marvellously intangible one.
Naturally, they wasted no time sending Sir Richard his fat down payment.
“To be perfectly frank, I wanted a hot-air balloon.” Oh well, I grin, you can’t have everything, recent events notwithstanding. LeBlanc politely ignores me. “I’m a huge fan of guerrilla marketing,” he says. “It’s all about making a big impact, a big splash. But, when we couldn’t get the balloon, we contacted the NASA boutique in Houston and sent for six costume astronaut suits. Then we hired some local high school kids to walk up and down Main Street in Moncton just to create a buzz. One guy even stopped his car to get out and take a picture. It was great – exactly the impact we were trying to make.”
Indeed, the June 24 press conference at the downtown Capitol Theatre, featuring LeBlanc as some ersatz Buzz Aldrin, formally announcing the Atlantic Dream Festival, was one of the best-attended media mash-ups in the city’s history. More than 200 people gathered to hear how a couple of little guys snagged some of the biggest and most influential speakers in the business (at a total cost, incidentally, of some $400,000). In fact, with Branson – as well as national, regional and local sponsors – on board, the roster of remaining motivational archetypes was somewhat less problematic to secure than might be expected. Still, the “pre-show” was an impressive display of entrepreneurial moxie at its best, and a persuasive harbinger of Momentum Group’s October surprise.
Certainly, David Hawkins, the 63-year-old New Brunswick vice-president of Colour, one of Atlantic Canada’s largest and most successful marketing communications firms, seemed gratified. For months, he had played a largely supporting, if no less pivotal, role as Yoda to Leblanc’s Luke Skywalker – helping to arrange important meetings, greasing some crucial wheels, handling public relations, and generally providing sage and cogent advice. “David jumped on board with this idea almost from the start,” LeBlanc enthuses. “I distinctly remember phoning him. He said he thought was a pretty good concept, but he also didn’t know how big it could be. Three days later, he phoned me back and said that he had talked to everyone, everyone! He said, ‘Brad, this is gonna be huge!’”
Hawkins, who is also a local sponsor and who became acquainted with Momentum through its entrepreneurship expos, remembers the conversation similarly. “I thought wow, what a great idea,” he says. “Of course I had some concerns about the cost and the time, particularly how steep they both were. But I have always been happy to help young entrepreneurs, and I knew that in this case, if we could climb those early, steep, high mountains very quickly, this was clearly doable.”
Doable? For LeBlanc, it’s a slam dunk and, despite his occasional trials and even less frequent moments of self-doubt, it always was. “This will become an institution in Atlantic Canada,” he declares with a confidence disproportionate to his years, with the resonance of a player twice his age. “The dream festival touches on all aspects of life. Our six themes at the consumer show portion of the event are: appearance, education, career, lifestyle, travel, and money. Also, we’re setting aside the entire upper bowl of the Moncton Coliseum for university students from across the region. Thanks to our sponsors, they’ll pay only a tiny fraction of the $99 ticket price. This is big. This is huge! And no one has done anything like it here before.”
Still, is it too soon to ask about the future of Brad LeBlanc?
“I’ve got a lot of things on my mind, a lot of things I want to do.”
This is good news, indeed, for the hundreds – even thousands – of people who may soon come to rely on his perspicuity, indefatigable optimism and inexhaustible energy. After all, in the world of dream-weaving, time is a precious commodity.
And next year, Mr. Momentum will be 22.