This article first appeared in Canadian Business magazine.
King of the Valley
Ron Derrickson rules with an Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove
Fly over B.C.’s Okanagan Lake and you look down on a valley of surpassing beauty. The sensibility of the place seems more European than Canadian, with its many wineries and upscale ski resorts. Such amenities attract new residents and the valley’s swelling population has ignited a sizzling real estate market, now among the most expensive in the country.
The real estate boom has created a lot of wealth and more than a few millionaires in the Okanagan. But no one has had a more dramatic and unlikely rise to riches and influence than local boy Ron Derrickson. His eponymously-named RMD Group of Companies consists of some 20 companies with properties including mobile home parks, a family theme park, a marina, apartments, dozens of leased industrial and commercial properties, substantial tracts of prime undeveloped land, and other residential and recreational developments including a brand-new executive golf course. All told, if sold lock, stock and barrel, Derrickson’s holdings could ring in at an estimated $100 million.
Pretty good for a guy with a Grade 8 education.
Ron Derrickson, 59, did graduate from the Business School of Hard Knocks. Must have been some school because Derrickson possesses the acumen and shrewdness to match the business wherewithal of any MBA or CEO. Rather than hindering him, he’s managed to exploit his First Nations (read income tax-free) status to maximum advantage.
Along the way, he has locked horns with politicians from the local to federal levels, been six-time chief of the Westbank Indian band, been the subject of numerous formal inquiries and a royal commission, won the largest libel suit ever in Canada and was badly beaten in a bloody murder attempt by a hired hitman. He’s a yacht skipper and former North American speedboat champion.
Today, Derrickson just laughs about most of it. He runs his business empire from a suite of small offices overlooking his Old McDonald’s Farm theme park. His jet black hair is slicked straight back and his heavy gold jewelery and diamond-encrusted ring look good against his copper-coloured skin. He presents as a man in full, without artifice, brimming with confidence and a practical “Let’s get at it” air. Derrickson laughs easily at his own jokes and others’. He tells a good story and is possessed of exceptional people skills. His emotional intelligence is way off the scale: A manager walks out of the office next to his. He looks at her and asks, “What’s wrong?” “Nothing,” she avers. “Yes, there is,” he says, “What is it?” “Well,” she says, and spills out her story.
Derrickson concurs. “One of my greatest strengths has been my ability to read people,” he says. “I can look at someone and tell if he’s lying.” Derrickson is direct with people, speaks bluntly and to the point always, and suffers no bullshit. This directness has earned the enmity of many in the valley.
Derrickson was born dirt poor, living in a tar paper shack. He and his brother became the first Indian babies to be born at Kelowna General Hospital. His father, Ted, was a farmer, and so Ron worked the land from a young age. (The family name was Tousawasket - pronounced chu-cha-wasket - but an Indian agent chose the Anglo name Derrickson out of a hat.) He and his brother attended school in Kelowna, again the first Indians to do so. The school dealt him his first experience with racism. “It was terrible, just horrible,” he says of the bullying, emphatically, now more than a half-century later. His parents pulled them out of the Kelowna school and sent them to a residential school in the Okanogan Valley across the line in Washington State.
Dropping out of school in grade nine, Derrickson picked onions and other farmwork before packing his bags and heading to Vancouver. He tried his luck at different low-paying service jobs before becoming a welder. He enjoyed the work and was good at it, working inside massive $10 million turbines and earning union wages.
Knowing the inherent value of land from his farming background, Derrickson returned to the Okanagan and bought a ranch, land that the Westbank shopping mall now sits on. Later he bought another, running a total of 700 head of cattle. “You know I worked very hard,” he says earnestly, “My wife left me because of my work. She expected me home at five and I got up at 4 in the morning and I wouldn’t be home till 11 o’clock at night. With the cattle business it was a 7-day a week operation. Those cows have to be fed…at 6:00 and they want to eat again at 6 in the evening. And I had two ranches to look after and an hour and a half drive between ranches.” He learned to artificially inseminate his cattle and turned that into a business. “Try handling 40 cows in heat” he said once, “and you’ll find out what work is.”
Derrickson steadily accumulated property on the reserve. Normally, Indian reserve land is owned by the band. But the Westbank Band, established in 1963, is an offshoot of the Okanagan Indians and its members were granted Certificates of Possession by the federal government. Individual band members can own, sell and purchase the Certificates. So the land was cheap; it was Indian property that whites couldn’t own and in the early 80’s an intractable recession gripped the B.C. economy.
“There’s no magic in what I’ve done,” says Derrickson. “I knew what my course was and I never wavered.” He adds, “I’m not no deep intellectual. I bought a little piece of land and got some income from it and bought another.” He purchased his last property some 20 years ago. In 1986 the Coquihalla Highway opened, providing a direct connection from Vancouver to the Interior. Land values soared. In the meantime, Derrickson pursued low-cost developments that provided a steady cash flow.
With his increasing wealth, Derrickson bought a speedboat and joined the racing circuit. He recalls driving 87,000 miles in 8 ½ months to compete. He returned to the business world after taking 126 wins and the North American championship.
In 1976 Derrickson became the elected chief of the Westbank Indian band, winning five consecutive two-year terms. His motivation to run for chief stemmed from a realization that “there were some things that needed to be done.” He moved quickly to put the books in order and raised the ire of some when he took a tough stance re-negotiating leases on Indian land. A few trailer park owners responded by taking out a contract on his life. In August 1982, when he answered the door at his home, a stranger struck him in the head with a sharp-edged steel bar. A second blow severed arteries in his wrist, spraying blood. Struck again and again, Derrickson finally managed to break free and smash open a gun cabinet to reach a handgun. He shot the assailant before collapsing. Derrickson ended up in hospital with 248 stitches and his would-be assassin with a bullet wound and in prison.
Under his leadership the Westbank band’s fortunes soared from squalor to one of the wealthiest reserves in Canada, an “entrepreneurial hothouse” with 12 profitable tribe businesses Derrickson helped to develop. But internal dissension from band members and their rumours of financial malfeasance saw Derrickson the subject of 17 separate Indian Affair inquiries, Justice department investigations and RCMP probes. (An independent audit found, according to the chartered accountant, “All the allegations proved false. Everything was clean, everything documented.”)
Derrickson was defeated in the 1986 band election and then became the focus of a 20-month royal commission into his band activities. His business dried up, staff walked out on him and banks cut off his line of credit. A low-point in his life, the damage to his reputation reportedly caused him to consider taking his own life. The investigation cleared Derrickson of any wrong-doing and he subsequently sued his detractors, winning (at the time) the largest libel settlement in Canada.
Derrickson has never been a stranger to the courts. The Kelowna Court Registry names him in 34 Supreme and Civil court actions and five disputed traffic tickets. He is known for his litigious nature. Says Lyle Brewer, a specialist in First Nations land management and development, “He is unmerciful if someone tries to screw him. He won’t take any crap. They’ll feel his wrath...” As for his traffic tickets, Derrickson says, “I always fight my speeding tickets.” Once in court to deal with two of them, he struck a deal with the judge to plead to one if the other were dismissed.
In 1998 after a 12-year absence he was re-elected chief for a final term. He soon negotiated a tough deal with provincial and federal governments for native logging rights, signed a self-government treaty with the federal government, banned a local TV station’s news crews from the reserve, fought tooth and nail against a unionizing effort and proposed the reserve as a tax-free zone like the Bahamas or Grand Caymans.
With his remaining substantial tracts of prime undeveloped land, Derrickson today is a lightning rod for developers. Its the reason he says he doesn’t like to dine out locally, complaining that people always pitch him with deals. But deals there are aplenty. He’s just struck a deal with property developer Rykon to develop 98 acres of land around his new golf course. And a hush-hush deal sees him bringing a major new auto dealership to the valley.
Derrickson now takes more time to enjoy the good life. He lives alone but keeps a housekeeper/cook and a handyman to look after his lakefront home and property. He’s having the lakefront home re-modeled, including a $50,000 custom kitchen and a touchless carwash added to his 3-car garage.” His home reportedly features a wine cellar, horse stables, a 30-meter covered dock, a tennis court, a collection of first-edition books signed by their authors (including Hemingway) and some 500-year old Ming vases.
Pretty good for a guy with a Grade 8 education.