How did Victoria Harbour Ferry stave off extinction? A reclusive Saanich farmer with an eye for risky business
VICTORIA -- It was about to become another economic victim of the global pandemic, but when the ball was on the goal line, Victoria’s long-standing harbour ferry service was saved. And the person who saved it, might surprise you.
Facing down the worst tourism season in the modern age, Victoria’s iconic pickle boat ferries were on the verge of capsizing.
The company announced late last week that it was folding under the immense pressure of COVID-19, but behind the scenes someone was ready to start bailing them out.
That person was Ian Maxwell, owner of Victoria's Ralmax Group.
“He trusts his gut and he goes with his gut,” Ralmax co-CEO Sage Berryman told CTV News.
Ralmax is the epitome of the heavy marine industry on southern Vancouver Island. It incorporates 11 different businesses, most of which occupy vital Victoria harbour space and employs more than 400 people. The companies include Ellice Recycling, Point Hope Maritime and Salish Sea Industrial Service.
It’s safe to say Maxwell, and the business he built from a modest trucking operation in the 1970s, have an industrial niche, but that didn’t stop him in the timespan of a weekend from jumping into the tourism game.
“You couldn’t make that decision in just days based on financial return,” said Berryman. “This is about good karma and what’s good for a working harbour and the community.”
Described by top-level employees as a reclusive man who loves his Saanich farm and has a knack for taking risks, Maxwell and his Ralmax Group are now 55 per cent owners in Victoria Harbour Ferry.
In peak tourism season, the boat service, which taxis riders between downtown locations, can employ 100 people. It’s unclear this season how many will be retained.
Victoria Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe says the Harbour Ferry service was on the city’s radar as a company that was at risk of shuttering.
She says that at a time when you can walk down any street in the core and see businesses clawing to survive, a move to "buy local" in a big way can serve as a rallying cry to everyone in the city.
“I don’t know all the details of what happened, but we do know the harbour ferries [are] much-loved by locals and visitors so we are very pleased that something could be worked out,” Thornton-Joe said.
Berryman said Maxwell was asked by several media outlets for interviews about the foray away from shipbuilding and industrial recycling and into tourism, but declined because he wanted to ensure he could properly harvest hay on his Saanich farm.