Businessman, angel, mentor: Brockville’s David Beatty recalls his early days as an investor and gives a glimpse of what’s next

David Beatty

Forty years ago, David Beatty and a group of local investors from Brockville had their eye on a vacant manufacturing plant at the edge of town.

The former Coca-Cola facility had been left empty after the global giant decided to consolidate in the late 1980s. At 65,000 square feet and with nearby train access, the asking price was $5 million. Apparently too rich for most buyers, the plant had sat vacant for some years.

For Beatty and his four colleagues, it seemed like a golden opportunity. And so, they made a lowball bid for $1 million.

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“We put the offer in and there were four or five of us who said we’d throw in a couple hundred thousand, but we didn’t know what we were going to do with it,” Beatty recalls.

Thus was born the “50 Cal” group, after the plant’s address at 50 California Ave. It also marked the beginning of the group’s involvement with Northern Cables, today one of Brockville’s foundational companies.

At first, the group looked to nearby logistics and manufacturing companies such as Wills Transfer and Procter & Gamble to use the facility as warehouse space. Then, in 1996, Brockville power cable manufacturing company BICC Phillips Cables closed its doors and six of its former employees approached Beatty and the 50 Cal group with a plan to start their own company called Northern Cables.

“They said, ‘We have no money and we need a place to manufacture, so will you trade us some working capital and rent for shares of this startup?’” Beatty laughs. “We did, and it’s the most expensive rent anyone’s ever paid.”

The 50 Cal group offered Northern Cables 20,000 square feet plus capital. Soon, the startup doubled its footprint in the warehouse and, within five years, “we were out of the warehouse business and Northern had taken over the building,” Beatty says. 

Today, Northern Cables employs 280 people across two manufacturing plants in Brockville, including the original facility on California Avenue, and another in Cornwall. A recent 80,000-square-foot expansion of one of its plants represents an investment of more than $1 million in equipment alone.

“In my 50-60 years of doing this, Northern Cables has been the most successful startup I’ve seen,” says Beatty.

Now, at age 73, Beatty is the last surviving member of the original five. The 50 Cal group held close to 40 per cent of the shares in Northern Cables at the beginning. Today, those shares have been passed on to children and grandchildren and “if you added it all up across all the kids now, it would be damn close to 40 per cent,” Beatty says.

But while Northern Cables was possibly Beatty’s most lucrative investment, it’s far from the only one. He and the 50 Cal group were supporting startups in Leeds and Grenville as early as the 1980s.

“Ottawa already had Capital Angel Network, Kingston had some organizations,” explains Beatty, who is currently the CEO, chairman and co-owner of family business Canarm Ltd. “But there wasn’t enough deal activity happening in Leeds and Grenville. We wanted to fix that.”

Beatty estimates he has invested $20-30 million in startups in the region, often small startups with “minor successes,” but he says he takes his role in encouraging innovation very seriously — especially as he seeks to support some of Eastern Ontario’s more unique industries.

Beatty says the focus in Eastern Ontario leans towards medical sciences out of Queen’s University and logistics and supply chain industries along the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Even in the vastness of Eastern Ontario, Beatty says startups and new entrepreneurs seem to have no trouble finding him. “Somehow, people come knocking on my door,” he laughs. “Word somehow gets out that David likes investing.”

About 12 years ago, Beatty and his group amalgamated with PARTEQ Innovations, a not-for-profit corporation based out of Queen’s University that was formed to help Queen’s researchers market their new inventions. Together, the groups became what is now known as KNDL, formerly the Southeastern Ontario Angel Network (SOAN).

While many may know Beatty by name and reputation, Scott Runté has worked closely with him. As CEO and adviser with Launch Lab, an innovation centre focused on Eastern Ontario, Runté has collaborated with Beatty as an investor, business owner and friend. He maintains that, even with all of the capital that Beatty has invested into the region, his impact goes far beyond.

“For example, with Northern Cables and their 25-plus years of success, there were times in the first years where they wondered if they’d make it and they’d go back to those investors,” he explains. “The support they got went way beyond the money and instilled that confidence in them as entrepreneurs.”

Propelled by a “huge sense of humility” and “desire to keep paying it forward,” Beatty is a “phenomenal adviser,” Runté says. Beyond investing in local startups and running his own company, Beatty also sits on the board of the St. Lawrence Corridor Economic Development Commission, where he continues to contribute to the region’s economic growth.

Beatty also supported the early stages of Quebec City-based Leclerc moving into a former Procter & Gamble plant in Brockville, establishing another “large anchor company” in the region, says Runté. 

“That, to me, is a fundamental thing. It goes beyond his investing; he’s an active participant in the (St. Lawrence Corridor Economic Development Commission), helping guide us in strategic direction and attract investors,” explains Runté. “And he never turns down a meeting request.

“I’ve called him with a company looking for advice and he’ll always take that phone call,” he continues. “Running an innovation centre, knowing I can reach out to him, strengthens the ecosystem exponentially.”

Of course, Canarm, a global manufacturer and marketer of fans, lighting and related environmental products, has also had an impact on the region. The company was founded by Beatty’s father, Stewart Beatty, and Norm Carson in 1963, and now employs more than 2,000 people both in North America and in manufacturing facilities abroad.

But perhaps Beatty’s most valuable contribution to the region is the confidence he has inspired not only in entrepreneurs, but in other investors across Eastern Ontario, Runté says.

“He leads by example, sometimes by having time to take a meeting or by taking a risk to invest,” says Runté. “He probably hates to hear me say this, but it inspires other angel investors, because if Dave Beatty is willing to invest in something, they think, maybe I should be, too.”

Though he might not have imagined becoming one of the region’s most well-known angel investors or a shareholder in a company as successful as Northern Cables, Beatty is continuing with his goal of supporting Eastern Ontario and leaving it a better place than he found it.

“It gives an opportunity for young people to have an opportunity at success because everybody needs a hand up,” he explains. “So we’ve been very successful, both in my own business and Northern Cables, because we can give some of the return to the next.”

At 73, Beatty is a grandfather and still active at Canarm and KNDL and on the board at Northern Cables. He’s won multiple business, community and management awards for his work, including the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2017 and the Senate of Canada Sesquicentennial Medal in 2019, the same year he was awarded the Lifetime Business Achievement Award from the Brockville District Chamber of Commerce.

He says there aren’t any plans of slowing down — yet.  “I enjoy the interaction and they’ve all just got such great plans,” he laughs. “So as long as I can keep my marbles together, I’ll be here.”

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