That’s My View

Aaron Fish was a consummate entrepreneur, possessing the qualities of passion, persistence, vision, curiosity, adaptability, long term focus, and of course – a tolerance for risk

A month ago Aaron Fish, whom I had known for over fifty years, died after a stoic battle with cancer. I lost a dear and loyal friend. The country lost the archetype and exemplar of the successful entrepreneur. Montreal’s Jewish community lost a strong and generous supporter.

Sadly, as Aaron died during the Covid pandemic, his passing did not receive the public recognition which his life deserved. Under normal circumstances, his funeral would have been attended by several hundred people, most of whom would have been former employees of the businesses he built. A few years ago, during an interview, Aaron was asked what was his exit strategy from the many businesses in which he was still involved. His response was typical of his sardonic sense of humour. “Paperman” he responded, and so it turned out.

I first met Aaron Fish in 1968 with two of his closest friends, David Stendel and Morty Fruchter. I imagined myself on the stage of Guys and Dolls; the three musketeers were dressed in the most outrageously awful outfits; they were clones, not of Bat Masterson, but of Nicely, Nicely. I didn’t know it at the time, but Aaron was about to “rock the boat”. Aaron had founded Unican Security Systems Ltd., whose mission was to manufacture and market a mechanical pushbutton lock he had developed, but the company was insolvent and needed investors.

At the time, I was a junior member of a shiny new law firm, McCarthy, Monet & Johnston.  Aaron was working with Bruce Kippen, an iconic and flamboyant merchant banker, whose specialty was promoting “junior industrials”. Kippen had recommended Stikeman Elliott, then as now a major force in Montreal’s legal community. Stunned by the fees they were proposing to charge for a small public issue, Aaron returned to see Kippen who now suggested that they use our services.

The file landed on my desk and, to paraphrase Casablanca; that was the start of a beautiful friendship. Shielding my eyes from the glare of their shiny suits, I quickly realized that this was a very bright and determined group, of which Aaron was the clear leader. As this was long before the days of the computer, the prospectus I drafted was a skimpy eight pages long. Disappointed by the apparent indifference of the Quebec Securities Commission, Aaron insisted that we meet with the Chairman. Such a meeting was not an everyday occurrence, but Aaron so impressed the Commissioners by his energy and enthusiasm that the prospectus was approved. The total of the public issue – a staggering $250,000!

A few years later, having run out of cash again, Aaron was once more knocking at my door. With amazing chutzpah, he proposed to Bruce Kippen that Unican raise $1,000,000, at $8 a share, and purchase its two major suppliers, Capitol Industries and Richmond Machine Tool. The minnow was buying two whales. Having launched himself into business at 17, travelling by bicycle to sell keys and locks through the streets of Montreal, Aaron Fish was now running a real business.

“It has always been my view that

Successful entrepreneurs are born, not made”

Aaron Fish

After retiring, Aaron Fish created the largest lock museum in Canada

As one indication of why I describe him as a mensch, two qualities of which are “honour and integrity”, an example will serve. Aaron and his two major supporters, David and Morty, never had a written shareholders’ agreement. At the launching of Unican, they agreed that none of them would sell any shares without the agreement of the other two and only in a financial emergency. None ever sold a single share until the entire company was sold, in 2002, to Kaba S.A., a Swiss conglomerate. (I never sold a single share either; I only wish I had had the wisdom to acquire more over the years!!).

It has always been my view that successful entrepreneurs are born, not made. The rough edges may be smoothed out. The shiny suits may be replaced by good tailoring. The public speaking skills may be improved. However, just as you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, you can’t make an entrepreneur out of someone who was not born with the right genes. Business leaders tend to fall into one of three groups: the artists/entrepreneurs; the artisans/managers; the technocrats, to be avoided like the plague. Aaron Fish was an exemplar of the artist. An essential quality of the entrepreneur is a passion for what he or she does, and a ferocious commitment to that passion. Strange as it may seem to most of us, Aaron’s passion was for keys and locks. Keys of all sizes and shapes. Locks for every conceivable application. Both from every period of history. This led him during his entire business career to collect a huge assortment of keys and locks and, after he retired, to create the finest museum of its kind in Canada.

Aaron’s passion led us, while I was at Unican, on an interesting adventure. Shortly after the victory of the Parti Québécois in 1976, Josh Freed and others wrote The Anglo Guide to Survival in Quebec. Its two most basic rules, which Aaron had clearly decided to adopt, were first, to designate everything either le or la and second, to simplify verb conjugation, so that, for the verb to sell, the corresponding French would be je vend, tu vend, il vend, nous vend, vous vend, ils vend.

We were flying to Paris to meet Aristide Bricard, the fifth of his family to preside over the eponymous leader of the French security industry. Monsieur Bricard was very much of the ancien régime, who spoke the most elegant French and whose manners were impeccable. Whether he spoke English or not, I do not know. For two days, as we tried unsuccessfully to acquire the Bricard firm, we spoke nothing but French. Needless to say, at least in Aaron’s case, we spoke two different languages. His persistence, another entrepreneurial quality, was both admirable and exhausting. To his everlasting credit, M. Bricard neither grimaced nor winced at the torturing of his beloved language. On the flight home, Aaron and I had a wonderful laugh together, which culminated in his admitting that the real purpose of the trip was to visit the Bricard lock and key museum, housed in a marvellous hôtel particulier.

No entrepreneur will succeed without a powerful vision of the future. The vision must encompass a wide-ranging curiosity, adaptability in the face of the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, and a focus on the long-term. With the possible exception of a few of the disrupters in the current field of technology, the overwhelming majority of corporate executives, under pressure from shareholders and market forces, have difficulty seeing beyond the next quarter’s results. They are a very different breed from the entrepreneur.

As an expression of his long-term focus, Aaron Fish, by contrast with almost every senior corporate executive, whose constant references are to “shareholder value”, Aaron always referred to the different stakeholders in Unican in the following order of importance, namely, customers, employees and shareholders. He believed, as I do, that if the customers were getting good service, and the employees, if not overjoyed, were content, the shareholders would inevitably benefit. They did. Any reader who has had to deal with a major bank, a telecom provider or any other major corporation will understand the difference.

Without having a high level of risk tolerance, no entrepreneur will succeed. Risk tolerance necessarily involves innovation, experimentation and acceptance of failure. Aaron Fish’s tolerance of risk was combined with an innate self-confidence and what must have been a complete absence of pain fibers. An example from the 1970s will prove my point. Had this experiment failed, it might have meant the end of Unican. As it succeeded, it made Unican the world leader in the manufacture of keys, an essential though hardly glamourous product.

Keys are made by first punching the shape from a strip of metal, generally a brass alloy. For decades, two or three companies maintained a powerful oligopoly in the supply of the raw material, a brass strip provided in heavy rolls. The traditional production method for the brass strip involved some eleven different operations. Aaron was convinced, against the unanimous advice of the many experts and metallurgists he consulted, that the number of operations could be reduced to seven. This may not sound like a dramatic difference, but it represented a saving of perhaps a penny in the key cost of six or seven cents. Tell any entrepreneur that you can save him or her some 20% of the product’s cost and you will be treated to dinner at Maxim’s in Paris.

“Aaron bet the company on his conviction that

he could improve the manufacturing process – he was right!”

So convinced was Aaron that he was right that he in effect, bet the company. That is accepting risk. The brass mill was developed in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. After many long days and, no doubt, some sleepless nights, endless experimentation, and more than a few failures, the brass mill was a success. Over time, this success led to Unican’s domination of the key industry in North America. To put this in perspective, this occurred during the same period as China was surging to become the world leader in the manufacture of basic products such as keys. To readers of history, The Great Game refers to the battles, largely through espionage and hardly believable characters, between Russia and Great Britain for dominance of the Indian peninsula. For Aaron, The Great Game was the battle with the Chinese for the North American market; he was the winner.

Instinct, rather than technical analysis, plays a major role in the decision-making process of most entrepreneurs. That was certainly the case with Aaron, particularly regarding acquisitions, of which there were many during the years of our association. Over time, a series of financial rules has been developed for assessing acquisitions. Aaron scorned these rules, since he was never particularly interested in the present value of the business to be acquired but, rather, what would be its impact in five or ten years. The result was that I always felt he was overpaying, sometimes significantly, for acquisitions.

The best example, and Unican’s most successful acquisition, was the case of Silca SpA, the European equivalent of the Unican Group in North America. Silca was owned and managed by Massimo Bianchi, an intelligent and charming Italian businessman. He played his cards not merely close to his chest, but inside his impeccable white shirt. He was inscrutable in negotiation, a process which lasted over many months. While I participated actively in the negotiations, Aaron and I had many strenuous disagreements, as I felt he was prepared to pay far too much for Silca, and time was in our favour. Needless to say, Aaron was correct and, five years later; it appeared that Massimo Bianchi had made Unican a huge gift. Aaron’s vision and instinct had seen far into the future, and the acquisition of Silca catapulted Unican into world leadership, especially in the manufacture of keys.

Beyond his love of music, Aaron’s passion was for his family, an extraordinary group which at his death included seven children and twenty grandchildren. The children are all hard-working, intelligent and close-knit; none is a spoiled, entitled child of a financially successful family.

Before starting this article, I met with his widow, Wally, and Chiara, his only child still living in Montreal. Wally described Aaron as modest, frugal, indifferent, even to the end, about what he wore and, perhaps strangely, not a workaholic. During his working life Aaron always travelled economy, worked through the night on frequent overseas flights, and then would go straight to the office.

Aaron was not always easy. As Wally, herself strong-willed, described it, their disagreements were like the meeting of tectonic plates, the resulting volcano exploding lava in all directions. However, by contrast with volcanoes, the molten lava would disappear as quickly as it arose.

Chiara, who became something of Aaron’s business alter ego in recent years, spoke to me as well for her siblings. Increasingly, as she acquired confidence, Aaron would delegate more and more business decisions to Chiara. At the dinner table, there was always an exchange of ideas, with Aaron challenging the children to defend their youthful views, “He would always take the other side of every questions, and Wally would act as moderator”. Chiara described Wally as “more severe”, with Aaron more willing to spoil the children. In this context, spoiling did not mean “more stuff”, but excellent schools and fascinating trips.

Aaron had few rules, but they were strict. “If I catch you smoking or using drugs, I will kill you. You can borrow the car, but if you get a ‘single moving violation’ you are grounded. No boys are allowed upstairs, and if you decide to move in with a boyfriend, it’s at your own expense.”

Unlike the frequently hypocritical corporate mantra, “Our people are our most important asset”, Aaron truly believed it, especially as regards the factory floor workers. There was never any talk of unionization, either in Montreal or elsewhere. A Rocky Mount example proves the point. Aaron wanted to build a daycare centre for the employees, many of whom had young children. However, his good intentions were foiled when the employees, by an overwhelming majority, requested that he improve and pave the parking lot. They would take care of their own children. And so it was.

Although he could be tough on people, especially himself, Aaron Fish was a truly good man – a mensch. So was his passion, carved for all to see in his tombstone with the words, “Under Lock and Key”.

Peter Blaikie is a successful attorney, business executive, opinion leader and world traveller. He has been active in politics, serving as a past president of the Federal Conservative Party. (Then the Progressive Conservative Party) 

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