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A Very Good Year

Wine and golf provide an enjoyable blend for Bruce Strongman, who, at 90 years young, recalls a ‘Color’ful past and hopes for a vintage future

It may be the dead of winter, but Rockway Glen Golf Course and Estate Winery owner Bruce Strongman is still getting his swings in, about four days a week—in Sarasota, Florida. “We’ve been coming here for 25 years,” he says from his winter home. The other three days of the week he looks after his investments and checks in with his son Reid, who manages the St. Catharines-based Rockway. As for the combination of selling golf and wine, it’s “the only one that I know of in Canada,” says Strongman, who lives in Burlington with his wife Catherine when the weather is more hospitable. He purchased the 6,914-yard, 18-hole golf course 15 years ago, when a colleague was looking for an investor. Strongman was more than interested.

“I took control as a 60-percent investor. The golf course was actually built on a vineyard. The government paid him $400,000 to stop growing grapes. He pulled all the grapes out and staffed it to build a golf course.”

Seven years ago, Strongman says, “when wine really became part of the area,” he bought his partner out. That’s when his vision of a golf course/winery came to fruition. “We bought an extra 50 acres just across the vineyard; the golf course is on one side, the vineyard on the other,” he says. “But the second year there was a real shortage of grapes in Niagara.”

Not wanting to rely on outside sources for Rockway’s grapes, Strongman looked across the road. “There was a vineyard across the street, 90 acres,” he says. “I asked the fellow if he was willing to sell the vineyard, and he was. “With those 90 acres and 50 acres on the golf course, we have all we need to produce our wines. We’re completely inhouse now.”

Rockway Glen Golf Course and Estate Winery makes more than a dozen different wines.

“The vineyard is the big thing,” Strongman says. “It’s just below the escarpment. In latitude, it’s the same as the south of France and Northern California. We’ve come a long way since we started. We didn’t know much about wine in the beginning. This year we’ll probably have the best wine we’ve ever made.”

The critics agree. The 2010 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition saw the 2007 Chardonnay and 2007 Reserve Baco Noir both win bronze. At the 2010 All- Canadian Wine Championships, Rockway’s 2007 Reserve Cabernet Franc won gold, while the winery’s Fergie Jenkins Signature Series Baco Noir—named for Canada’s only Major Leaguer honoured in Cooperstown—claimed a silver medal the previous year.

The Jenkins line’s creation can be credited in part to Rockway’s golf course, where, for the past 10 years, the club has hosted the Fergie Jenkins Celebrity Golf Classic.

“Everyone we speak to is very enthusiastic about our new Fergie lines,” says Reid Strongman, Rockway’s general manager. “Each year we absolutely love working with Fergie and his committee and I think that this is an exciting venture for us all, especially since a portion of every sale will go back to the Fergie Jenkins Foundation and the Ontario charities that it supports.”

The winery at Rockway now produces close to 200,000 litres of wine per year, says Strongman. The Chardonnay was recently introduced as the winery’s first foray into the LCBO, with more varietals planned. But Strongman says their focus is not on the Ontario government’s outlets, since their wines tend to sell out regardless. With both golfers and wine aficionados visiting Rockway, to the tune of about 25,000 people per year, “we don’t have to be selling ourselves,” Strongman says.

But at 90 years young, there’s much more to Bruce Strongman’s life as a businessman than the golf course he opened 15 years ago. Back in the 1940s, Bruce was working with older brothers Delbert and Morley in their father Arthur’s decorating business and paint store, W.A. Strongman and Sons in Toronto. Seen moping around the shop one day, Bruce was asked by an older acquaintance why he didn’t “seem to be happy.”

“I don’t want to be a painter or a decorator,” young Bruce replied. “I’m interested in marketing.”

However, Bruce said, “I can’t give them better prices selling the products we have.” That was when Bruce approached his father and brothers to see what they thought of making their own paint.

“They went right along with it,” Strongman says. “We started making paint in the basement of our store.”

In 1948, the three brothers bought out dad, and the store was renamed Tonecraft Paint and Varnish.

Selling mainly to contractors, the business flourished and Tonecraft expanded, opening locations in Hamilton and Oshawa. It was around 1960 that the brothers hired “two young chaps in advertising,” who came up with the name “Color Your World.” “It wasn’t a normal name at the time,” Strongman recalls. “Most companies had a person’s name, like Sherwin-Williams. We wanted to make (the name sound like) we’re selling to the people.”

The Color Your World brand was first unveiled in Toronto, at the Dundas Street and Lawrence Avenue intersection, where the company sold “brand name paint (Tonecraft) at half the price.” The low price point was achieved through the creation of their own paint, plus a technique picked up from a firm Strongman had visited in Vancouver, where they purchased “job lots”; in essence, leftover paint.

With unbeatable prices and prime locations, “We were the largest paint store in Canada, right in that first year,” Strongman says. “We decided we’d better move fast and beat the competitors. We pretty much went out and built stores as fast as we could.”

Shortly after the Color Your World brand was established, it was decided that the manufacturing of Tonecraft paint should be partially automated.

“We had 35 people in the filling room,” recalls Strongman. “No one was doing this anywhere in the world.”

With the help of brother-in-law Bill Kenright, who did some legwork and research to find solutions to a few technical hurdles, “we had established an automated filling process, even though we were still really a small company.”

Still in the 1960s, the company continued to innovate, logging the formula of every colour and inputting them into computers. “We just put (the formula) into the computer and sent it to our automated filling line,” Strongman says. “At this point, we were the only company doing this and it took a few years for the other companies to catch up.”

As the cost efficiencies racked up and the customers continued pouring in, Color Your World became “the most profitable paint company in the world,” according to Strongman.

West Coast expansion happened quickly and suddenly for Color Your World. A company with a number of franchisees in British Columbia agreed to sell to the Strongmans for stock in Color Your World. “Rather than fight them for that market, I thought maybe instead we could buy them,” Strongman says. “He wanted $600,000. I said ‘I’ll do this, but I’ll give you stock.’ So I bought them without spending a cent. I bought the Vancouver market. I didn’t want the two of us to have to split the market.” As the number of stores grew, franchising became inevitable. At its peak, Color Your World numbered about 150 stores in Canada, plus another 25 south of the border.

In the 1970s, the company expanded into the wallpaper business, and Strongman’s innovative mind went to work again.

“I stood at our Dundas store and watched the way (wallpaper) was sold,” he says. “The women were busy looking at papers in books and the husbands looked bored. I thought, ‘Why don’t we have a wallpaper gallery that people could come in and look at together, rather than the hours they spend looking through books?’ We put the first gallery right in the Dundas store. Our wallpaper sales skyrocketed.”

In 1984, a year after his first wife Isabelle died, and with Strongman approaching traditional retirement age, he was convinced to sell. He peddled the brand, but not the properties.

“Every store I had, I based their value on 10-times earnings,” he explains. “We separated the property while Color Your World remained a brand. We took the properties and went a third, a third, a third. I let (nephews) Paul and Gerry have the Tonecraft name, and then we started Strongman Investments.” Family has always been important to the Strongmans. While his older brothers are no longer around, Strongman fondly recalls working with them, and there was little of the animosity so often found among siblings. “(My father and brother) never made it a company until I was age 21,” Strongman says. “But they were passive when it came to ideas. They wanted to sell, but I didn’t. They weren’t innovators. We worked as a team. I always got them very involved. (Delbert) was a really good seller, and Morley loved being in the shop. We always got along well and shared everything equally.”

Co-operation and knowing others’ expertise are keys to good business, Strongman says. That’s why he has entrusted the management of his groundskeeping to Peter Workington, the man who pitched the idea for Rockway and invested with Strongman 15 years ago.

“We have probably the best working people in the business. Peter lives right on the course,” Strongman says. “We’re always complimented on the golf course’s conditions. The groundskeeper has the say. I trust him. He tells me; I don’t tell him.” And while he admits there may be “too many golf courses in Niagara” from a business sense, Strongman is amazed by the growth of the wine industry here.

“Niagara College is doing a great job with regards to research. They’re bringing a lot to the table. The quality of wine coming out of Niagara is getting pretty doggone good. “I think the most important thing when making anything—be it paint or wine—is to make the very best that you can make.