Oak Bay Marine Group founder Bob Wright was putting in eight hours a day on the job until a few days before he died.
“This company was his heart and soul. It was what he did. It was what he knew. I knew he wasn’t the type to retire,” Susan Barcham, company director of business administration, said Thursday.
Wright died in hospital Wednesday evening, with his third wife, Yun Kloihofer, at his side. He was 82.
His business legacy is the Oak Bay Marine Group, which had 300 year-round employees — climbing to 900 during peak season — in a string of resorts, marinas and attractions that dotted the British Columbia coast, Oregon and a jewel in the Bahamas.
A strategy to continue operations was already prepared, Barcham said.
“There are trustees in place who will be figuring out the new structure and making sure that people are doing what they have to do to make it business as usual.”
Barcham, who started working as Wright’s executive assistant 14 years ago, said his door was always open. “He loved entrepreneurs and he mentored entrepreneurs.”
Wright also collected nicknames, calling himself the “Teflon man” after a serious heart problem in 2000.
During often testy times as a sport-fishing advocate fighting with Fisheries and Oceans Canada over salmon regulations, he was known as “Mad Dog.”
Despite talking for many years about scaling back working hours, Wright showed up at 10 a.m. and stayed until 6 p.m. He used to take three briefcases to his Beach Drive office, where he started his company 51 years ago.
Born in Regina, Wright grew up in Edmonton, where he began a 16-year career in newspapers that brought him to Victoria to work in different departments at the Victoria Times and the Colonist.
In 1962, Wright left newspapers to launch his successful fishing marina and charter business. He recalled in an 1980 interview that he did “everything from pumping gas to building docks.”
Over the years, Wright took countless people fishing, from local residents to celebrities.
He introduced many, including former Victoria mayor Peter Pollen, to his favourite activity.
Pollen said Wright, a former city of Victoria alderman, was an “entrepreneur of incredible vision and imagination.”
Developer Gordon Denford, former Tourism Victoria president, said Wright “put B.C. on the map.”
Wright was an “outstanding citizen” always ready to support initiatives to promote tourism, Denford said.
Former federal Fisheries minister David Anderson said Wright saw early on that a high-end tourism niche existed for wealthy fishermen ready to fly to Vancouver Island from places such as Chicago and Detroit to spend large amounts of money in B.C.
Anderson credits Wright with playing a key role in taking B.C.’s sport fishing sector from small mom-and-pop operations to one that now plays a key economic role in the province.
During Anderson’s time as fisheries minister, the government imposed a zero mortality policy for coho salmon. Wright opposed it. “He arranged for very substantial protest demonstrations. Part of my job was to expect such things, but Bob was pretty good at articulating the other side.”
Wright was strong-willed, colourful and tempestuous, Anderson said.
Gerry Kristianson, chairman of the sport fishing advisory board, said Wright was a board founder in 1964, before his business took off.
The two travelled to Ottawa dozens of times to advocate for sport fishing.
Wright’s love of fishing led to his operation becoming the largest on the coast, Kristianson said.
Janet Baird, who served on Victoria council and knew Wright for many years, said he was a complicated man.
“His powerful personality demanded loyalty, commitment and hard work. In his relentless pursuit of business opportunities, he would take on all comers,” said Baird.
Wright gave the University of Victoria $11 million in 2007. UVic president David Turpin said Wright’s “spirit, his generosity and his name will live on in the Bob Wright Centre — Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, which symbolizes his love for the ocean and his commitment to providing ongoing support for ocean education and research.”
Controversy and tragedy surrounded killer whales at Wright’s Sealand of the Pacific at the Beach Drive marina location. He arranged hunts to capture the whales for his facility. Wright also mounted a rescue to save an injured killer whale calf off the Island’s west coast. Dubbed Miracle, the little orca was nursed back to health, but died later. As society’s views on captive killer whales changed, Sealand became a target of criticism. In 1991, Sealand whale trainer Keltie Byrne, 20, drowned after slipping into the pool. That year the decision was made to end the whale shows.
Businessman Mel Cooper said that when his downtown B.C. Experience attraction hit tough times, Wright was the first to call to offer his advice, which was welcomed.
Brian Butters, of Vancouver, credits Wright with saving his life 43 years ago. Butters was a young Times reporter when he and two friends went sailing in a too-small boat. Their boat overturned off Oak Bay’s Cattle Point , dumping them in the water as the current began carrying them farther from shore.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as cold in my life. It was just excruciating,” Butters recalled. A speedboat came roaring up to the trio, with Wright alone at the wheel. He pulled them to safety and towed their boat in as well.
Shirley Hunter, friend of Wright and Kloihofer, remembers him as a “creative spark.” Kloihofer “really brought him peace and comfort in these last years,” Hunter said.
BUILDING A LEGACY
A brief history of the Oak Bay Marine Group:
1962: Oak Bay Marina in Victoria begins operation.
1967: Pedder Bay Marina opens in Metchosin with moorage, fuel docks, boat launch, rentals, fishing charters and tackle shop.
1969: The first orca arrives at Wright’s Sealand of the Pacific, which entertains locals and tourists with marine mammals. The death of a whale trainer in 1991 leads to its closure.
1972: Oak Bay Marine Group acquires controlling shares of the Inner Harbour’s Pacific Undersea Gardens, an underwater aquarium and dive theatre.
1978: The MV Marabell welcomes its first fishing guests to Hakai Pass. The classic minesweeper did wartime duty and is rumoured to have sunk a Japanese submarine. Today she spends her time anchored at Langara Island in Haida Gwaii.
1979: The Canadian Princess Resort opens in Ucluelet. Formerly the William J. Stewart, the ship was built in 1932 and served 43 years as a hydrographic survey ship. Shore side accommodations were built.
1980: North Saanich Marina begins operations.
1985: Mariner Square opens in Newport, Oregon. Wax Works, Undersea Gardens and Ripley’s Believe it or Not! are the three attractions on Newport’s historic bay front. The attractions welcome thousands of visitors.
1985: King Salmon Resort in Rivers Inlet comes under the control of Oak Bay Marine Group. In 1998, Oak Bay Marine Group purchased the property.
1988: MV Charlotte Princess goes into service at Langara Island. She began as a light ship, served as a pleasure yacht and was converted into a world-class floating fishing resort ship.
1988: Painter’s Lodge reopens in Campbell River, under the ownership of Oak Bay Marine Group. Originally built in the 1920s by E.P. Painter, the lodge became the summer playground for the Hollywood set and is well known for its spectacular fishing adventures. In 1985, the original lodge burned to the ground and a new lodge was constructed in its place.
1991: Cape Santa Maria Beach Resort joins Oak Bay Marine Group as the company’s first property outside Canada. It has 20 colonial bungalows on four miles of private white, sandy beach along the Caribbean.
1993: MV Salmon Seeker welcomes its first guest in Kano Inlet on Graham Island in Haida Gwaii. The former ice breaker, trading vessel and survey ship has some of the best salmon and halibut fishing in the world.
1994: The Marina Restaurant, at the Oak Bay Marina, reopens under the Oak Bay umbrella.
1998: April Point Resort & Spa on Quadra Island is acquired by Oak Bay Marine Group.
2004: Oak Bay Marine Group acquires Ladysmith Marina.
2004: Oak Bay Marine Group begins constructing the Villas at Cape Santa Maria.
2005: Extensive overhaul of the Ladysmith Marina, including boathouses.
2009: After extensive renovations and updates, Pedder Bay RV Resort & Marina welcomes its first RV to the updated park.