Former forest products company CEO Jake Kerr stays in the game

Profile of the owner of the Vancouver Canadians

Jake Kerr | Photo: Rob Kruyt

While attending the University of California, Berkeley, in the mid-1960s, Vancouver native Jake Kerr had some serious incentive to get high grades. The United States was at war in Vietnam, and the government had initiated conscription for young men – including foreign workers and students.

If Kerr’s marks had dipped below a 3.0 grade point average, he would have been in danger of losing his student deferment and getting drafted.

“I’ve never worked harder in my life, and luckily it worked out for me,” said Kerr, who was born in 1944.

He graduated with a master’s degree in business administration in 1967 and was offered a job as a teaching assistant within the business school at the university, so his deferment was extended. Kerr loved San Francisco and its vibrant cultural scene – he lived with members of the rock band Jefferson Airplane at one time – and he had  the chance to work on some cutting-edge advertising campaigns via the university. But his deferment expired and couldn’t be renewed, so Uncle Sam called on him to take a physical.

“I was scared to death because there were all sorts of rumours that if you went down to the San Francisco induction office and passed the physical, they put you on a bus to Fort Ord [a military base on Monterey Bay] and then flew you to Vietnam the next morning,” he said.

Kerr said if he had passed the physical he probably would have fled home to Canada, but as luck turned out he had a childhood bone disease in his knees and he was declared 4-F (unfit for military service).

“It was a huge factor for my friends and me,” said Kerr of that time. “I had a lot of friends who did go to Vietnam, and it was a terrible experience. Everyone was trying to find ways to avoid ... being drafted into the army as a grunt.”

After San Francisco, Kerr headed to New York to work in advertising for about four and a half years, then returned to San Francisco in the early 1970s. He then took a sixth-month leave of absence from his job to come back up to B.C. to help his father, Leslie Kerr, sell Lignum Forest Products LLP, as his dad was hoping to retire.

“It wasn’t until I got up there that I realized the company was in really bad shape,” he said. “And we really couldn’t sell it.”

In 1972 he took the reins of the company, which his father had founded in 1946. When Leslie Kerr died in 1974, his son felt he had an obligation to stay in the family business.

“I honestly didn’t want to do it, and my brother didn’t either,” he said. “And there really weren’t many choices. Once I figured out that my skill set, which is marketing and advertising, had some value, I quite started enjoying the sales side of the business.”

He made a key hire in his first few years running the company in Williams Lake, bringing on veteran sawmill expert John Ailport in 1975. Kerr said it was a match made in heaven.

“He knew how to build sawmills, and I was able to improve the sales and marketing side. And we got to work on financing stuff through the bank. For the first 10 to 15 years, all we really cared about was staying out of the bank, and we did, and it worked. Hiring the right guys is really the key to any business.”

By the ’80s the company was turning a profit and expanding. Kerr said he felt good about the company’s direction. Lignum Forest Products LLP never went public, however.

“I wanted to get out of debt, which we did,” he said. “I was really more interested in being really good at what we were doing, more than just size. I was not interested in being public because of the idea of reporting quarterly to a bunch of guys who probably didn’t have the same long-term interest that I did.”

Starting in the 1990s, Kerr worked some high-level trade talks between Canada and the United States. Softwood lumber, exempt from the North American Free Trade Agreement, was always a contentious issue, he said.

“There is only one thing, and if you talk to anyone with experience on the file who is out here, the whole thing is a put-up job. It’s got nothing to do with forest policy and how we sell our timber even though that’s what the allegations are. It has everything to do with the U.S. trade laws permitting litigation. It’s very much in the U.S. industry’s interest to keep suing the Canadians because their trade laws allow them to impose duties, and we always have to negotiate our way out of them. So it’s a put-up job, and for us, it’s all about finding the cheapest way to get out of the box.”

In the late ’90s, Kerr became a director for the Bank of Nova Scotia, which further allowed him to immerse himself in some large deals. In 2002 he was awarded the Order of Canada, largely for being a lead negotiator on numerous trade talks with the United States. In 2006 Kerr’s brother mentioned the Vancouver Canadians might be for sale. The triple-A Minor League Baseball team, which plays at Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium, became the Toronto Blue Jays’ Northwest League affiliate in 2011. The team was owned by Fred Hermann at the time. Kerr said he was keen to see if he could swing a deal.

“I said, ‘Shit, this might be fun. Let’s go meet Fred Hermann.’ And we did. And Fred was a very unlikely character; he was an old minor-league pitcher who had had a few too many peanuts and popcorn and beer, and sort of looked like the creature that lived under the stadium. He was really a good guy, but he was a really different character. It was without a doubt the toughest negotiation I’d ever had.”

Hermann got the price he wanted, and Kerr set about revitalizing the Canadians. This meant pumping money, with minority owner Jeff Mooney, into renovations at Nat Bailey Stadium. Mooney, who has been president of A&W Food Services of Canada Inc. since 1991, said he and Kerr were motivated by the thought of the city losing its only professional baseball team. At that point, many minor-league franchises in Canada were moving to the U.S.

“One of the things that we both said at the time was that it was clear to us that this was an investment of the heart and not necessarily of the head,” Mooney said. “Because it was about saving baseball in Vancouver.”

In 2014, after more than four decades in the lumber business, Kerr sold his stake in Lignum for $4 million. Looking back on his career, he doesn’t have a lot of regrets and has enjoyed his life path, he said.

“I don’t have anything that I would specifically say, ‘Geez, I wish I would have done this.’ There was a time in my life when I wish I could’ve gone back to San Francisco and got into the advertising business. But this life has turned out to be much more fulfilling, and I think the situation I’m in now is a lot better than what it would have been if I just would have been an ad guy my whole life.”