(Originally published in the May 1, 2009 edition of The Community Press)
How does a 12-year-old kid selling chips out of his backyard in New Aberdeen go on to become one of the top 50 CEOs in Atlantic Canada?
For Ray Merriam, the Glace Bay native who is now the president and CEO of the Fair Trade Community Cafe franchise based out of Truro, the journey has included several successful careers.
Raised by his grandparents in No. 2, Merriam was 12 when he built an attachment to the family coal barn and used an electric frying pan and a 100-foot extension cord to begin making chips and selling them to kids in the neighbourhood.
His chips were so popular, even parents began buying them, but the business soon came to an end when an inspector showed up and told Ray an operation like that wasn’t allowed.
“I was 13 when my grandmother died and I went to New York,” Merriam said. He lived with his uncle and gained experience in the hospitality industry, working in a high-end restaurant in New York City.
After a few years he returned to Glace Bay briefly before he enrolled in a trucking program in Truro at the Commercial Safety College in 1971 at the age of 19. When he completed the program he came back home and drove for the Glace Bay Bus Company.
Merriam moved back to Truro in 1972 and took a tractor trailer course. “Then I got a job with Acadian Lines and I was there for about three years,” he said.
“I bought my first rig in 1977 and ran it for a couple of years before I got into business,” Merriam said. “One of the first businesses I ever owned was an Irving in Shubenacadie East, which we ran for a couple of years.”
Around 1979, Merriam established Ray’s Country Kitchen, Truro’s first mobile chip wagon, and his business aspirations continued to grow.
“I went to my accountant and I told him this idea I had for a trucking company,” Merriam said. “He told me the only problem was that I would need money.”
Merriam started his trucking company anyway. “We actually started the business in the porch of a mobile home. I started off as a freight broker – kind of a middle man – and after about three years, it started to come around and things really started to come along.”
Merriam said he always stuck to a guiding philosophy. “I believe you do what you love and the money will follow,” he said.
Seven years later, the trucking company had 48 trucks, with 60 people on its payroll and a value of $6.5-million.
After 10 years of building the successful business, Merriam says he decided it was time for a career change.
He enrolled in a marketing program at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, and obtained a Diploma in Adult Education from St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish.
“In the early ’90s I bought Success Business College, which is the oldest private business school in the country,” said Merriam, who operated the school for four years.
Having made his mark in the business world, Merriam ran for municipal council in the Municipality of the County of Colchester and was elected by acclimation.
“I served on council there for nine years, and sat on many boards and committees during my time in politics,” Merriam said.
While making his mark in business and politics, Merriam was also involved in several community groups. He founded the Toastmasters club in Truro in 1995 and served as vice-president of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers for three years.
In 2000, Merriam left politics and accepted a marketing position with the Truro Power Centre, a Truro industrial park owned by the Millbrook First Nation.
Merriam was with the band for four years, and was instrumental in working to bring a Wal-Mart to Truro. He said he also worked for eight months to secure a $50-million deal with General Dynamics, a helicopter company.
Merriam’s work with the Truro Power Centre was recognized in 2004 when Progress Magazine named Merriam and his work with the power centre as one of the four companies recognized for excellence in marketing. In 2005, Atlantic Business Magazine named Merriam one of the Top 50 CEOs in Atlantic Canada for his work with the Truro Power Centre.
Having again reached a professional pinnacle, Merriam decided it was time for another challenge.
“My daughter wanted to start a cafe,” he said. “So we put together a business plan and a marketing plan, and we came up with the Fair Trade Community Cafe.”
In just three-and-a-half years, the new company has taken off and now boasts five locations – two in Truro, one in Bible Hill, a kiosk in New Glasgow, and another full store in downtown New Glasgow.
“I went to Florida recently, to a three-day franchise show, where they provided information how to turn your business into a franchise, and that was a valuable experience,” Merriam said. “Our goal is to have 12 stores in Atlantic Canada.”
Among the future locations planned are Antigonish, Fredericton, Moncton – and Sydney – though he said they are still developing a timeline for when the franchise will come to Cape Breton.
Merriam said Fair Trade cafes are made from 98% reclaimed materials. “We employ green building practices, and we’ve been nominated four times now for environmental awards,” he said.
The cafe has partnered with Just Us Coffee Roasters and has become a popular venue for local songwriters, as well as a few up-and-comers who have since made it in the business.
“Charlie Acourt played here, and so did David Myles – he’s getting really big right now,” Merriam said.
Through the many successes he has had since he left Glace Bay, Merriam says he still considers this town his home.
“Glace Bay, I have to say – it’s always there. My oldest son still lives there,” Merriam said. “My heart is there – my roots are there.”