John Chisholm – the 2011 Selwyn G. Blaylock Medal winner – spent his career in Nova Scotia, a province he has always called home. In 1964, when Chisholm was just 18, he and his father started Nova Construction. Today, the business is a major Nova Scotia construction and resource development company. It also proudly remains a family business, with John’s son Donald as its new president.
Both Chisholm’s dedication to his province and his direct business approach have gained the respect of his colleagues. In 1998, he was awarded the Mining Society Medal, and in 2007 he was named Outstanding Individual Philanthropist by the Maritime Philanthropy Awards for his involvement in community development.
But Chisholm is quiet about all this. “I hate to get into that side of it,” he says. “We quietly do a lot of stuff for people. That was quite an honour for me at that time, because I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like that.” In 2011, he was awarded an honourary degree from St. Francis Xavier University. With one foot in the business and another in the community, Chisholm is wearing what he jokingly calls his “right-wing socialist cap.”
Chisholm has used his no-nonsense work ethic and direct business approach to build Nova Construction into an active, successful business that has contributed to the industry in a myriad of ways.
Once, frustrated by a seemingly impossible-to-reach highwall in the steep coal seam of a Pictou County coal mine, Chisholm simply designed and built his own highwall auger, an innovation he called the NovaMiner 2000. He had originally approached another businessman for assistance but took matters into his own hands after being told it could not be done.
Nova Construction began in highway construction, but when a contract working on the new Trans-Canada Highway began winding down, they began looking at other ventures. “Everything that we had, we had wheels on it,” chuckles Chisholm. “We were running up and down the road every day. I wanted to get into something more permanent.” In 1978, they opened up the Porcupine Mountain Quarry – idle since 1955 after providing the stone for the Canso Causeway.
And then came coal. Their first mine was Point Aconi in Cape Breton, in 1980, which they managed for five years. In 1984, they purchased an old mine site in Pictou County.
“Back then, the properties weren’t worth very much and coal had gone out of favour,” he recalls. “There was all kinds of infrastructure there, but it was something you’d see in Charles Dickens’ times. Luckily, I was young enough. If it was today, I wouldn’t be buying it. Too many liabilities. But we went in and took the top off, and we reclaimed all the fillers that were left behind and started selling coal to a local power utility.”
Chisholm was hooked on coal. “Every opportunity I saw, I’d buy it or lease it.” Soon, they had several mines going concurrently, small operations that they’d build up into sizeable projects.
“I like to walk on to a project today and within months be selling a product,” says Chisholm.
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