High command

High command

He may have stepped back from day-to-day operations, but Ken Rowe is still very much at the helm of IMP Group International Inc.

When he was named one of Atlantic Business Magazine’s inaugural CEO Hall of Fame inductees in 2005, Ken Rowe was very much the man in charge at IMP Group International Inc., the globegirdling aerospace-defence-aviation-real estate-healthcare-call-centre conglomerate he’d created 38 years before.

Despite the fact he was already 70 years old (having “sidestepped” his company’s 65-and-out retirement policy), and despite the fact his three middle-aged children—all key corporate managers appointed through “their own merits”—were prepared to take the helm of the privately-owned business, Rowe, the ex-British naval officer, showed no sign he was ready to abandon ship.

“I like running businesses,” he told the magazine’s Eleanor Beaton with a laugh. “I never want to retire.”

Fast forward to 2018. Ken Rowe is now nudging 83. In answer to my own first question (whether he still feels that way), Rowe faxed back from his Florida winter home in no-nonsense, handwritten block letters: “YES, I AM STILL VERY INTERESTED & INVOLVED IN MY BUSINESS INTERESTS.”

He is, but let’s circle back to that.

Ken Rowe more than earned his place in Atlantic Business’s CEO Hall of Fame. In 1967, three years after landing in Nova Scotia to head up the North American interests of the Great Grimsby Coal Salt & Tanning Co. Ltd., 32-year-old Rowe mortgaged the family home, started a business called Industrial Marine Products Ltd. and set out to create what is now a Nova Scotia-based international enterprise with close to 4,000 employees and nearly a $1-billion-a-year in revenues.

Although Rowe insists “I seldom look back,” he acknowledges creating “a successful, diversified organization,” with half its employees still based in Nova Scotia “does give me some sense of pride and humility.”

Not that Rowe is resting on those laurels—even now. While he is less involved in day-to-day company operations (and he and his wife Dorothy escape winters in their $7.6-million, Gulf Coast Florida home), Rowe still works two-to-three hours a day, “depending on the activity level in my priority areas,” and travels “wherever I am needed.” As he told the Globe and Mail in 2013, “the buck stops at my desk.”

Of course not every decision works out as hoped. Rowe admits, for example, he was “disappointed” when the company had to suspend the operations of CanJet and lay off “hundreds of good employees” in 2015. “Making it a successful business eluded us,” he allows, then adds intriguingly, “Perhaps we will work at it again sometime in the future.”

Rowe, who personally ranks 79th on Canadian Business’s “richest list” with a net worth of $1.8 billion and growing, also still continues to sniff out new investment possibilities. Last year, reports allnovascotia.com, he placed “a bet believed to be in the multiple millions,” on Truro Herbal Company, one of Nova Scotia’s leading cannabis companies, in advance of this year’s legalization.

And Rowe continues to speak out on issues too. “We all seem to be living in a fool’s paradise in Nova Scotia,” Rowe told a 2014 fundraising breakfast audience of provincial politicians and business leaders. Immigration, he said, will not be the panacea many expect. “It’s all right bringing immigrants in, but you should [create some of] the jobs first.”

IMP itself now attempts to train and promote from within. The next generation IMP leader, in fact, will almost certainly come from within. Rowe in 2009 handed over the “more time-consuming role of CEO” to veteran IMP executive Stephen Plummer, assuming the title of executive chairman “which allowed me to be involved where I wanted to be and also allowed me to have some down time.” Although Rowe’s daughter Julie recently took early retirement after 30 years with the company (she remains on the board), sons Kirk and Stephen are both in line to succeed Plummer. When Plummer retires “sometime in the near future,” Rowe says, “his replacement will be decided by the board of directors.”

As for Rowe himself? He’ll continue to be wherever IMP’s buck stops. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

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