Jeremy Dickson grew up surrounded by the beauty and ruggedness of Quetico country, and White Otter Park with more than 4,800-square miles of northwestern Ontario shoreline, cliffs, marshlands, portage and hiking trails.
"I love being in the bush, this is what I know," the 32 year old entrepreneurial award winner says.
Jeremy can remember his father, Bud, who started Canoe Canada in 1974 coming home regaling stories of canoe excursions, fly-in fishing adventures, bear and moose hunting expeditions.
He cannot remember when he first officially began as an employee, but the family-run business has always been a part of his life and in his blood.
At the tender age of three, Jeremy could be found counting $20 and $100-dollar bills his father brought home after a week's worth of work, with pleasure.
"I always had a mind for business."
"My Grade One teacher said I was great in math as long as there was a dollar sign ahead of it."
Dickson began as janitorial help, cleaning kitchen pots and washing out toilet bowls, learning the business from the ground up.
While in high school, summer vacations were spent on canoe excursions for weeks at a time with visitors as far away as Europe. He found interaction between people intriguing, especially in business.
"This is probably why I was attracted to labour relations. Working with people is so interesting."
After his OAC graduation he enrolled at Brock University in the business administration program. Truth be told, his grades were less than attractive. Jeremy is the kind of person who didn't really care about marks, that is until he met his future wife, Amanda Hickey. She has spent seven years in university as an occupational therapist and brought focus to Jeremy's life. In the last year his undergraduate marks were stellar, but not without some challenges.
Amanda and Jeremy had bought a house in London, Ontario where he wanted to go to Western University to study contract law, but during the transition he had heard that two managers quit Canoe Canada leaving the company straining for leadership. His father was also ill, too sick to travel. With consent from the professors, Jeremy spent time traveling to trade shows on behalf of the business while still showing up for class and exams. After graduation he came home to Atikokan to help his father for the summer. Amanda went for the visit.
It was then his uncle, Jim Clark, the other half-owner of the business, offered to sell his share to Jeremy. Jeremy never expected to come home and work at the family business, but it really was a natural progression. He talked it over with Amanda.
"It took me a while to get the financing. It was quite a bit of money when I didn't have anything."
Roynat Capital, a business branch of Scotiabank gave him a $1.5 million loan. It was a big debt for a 24-year old.
"Really though, what is the difference between $100,000 and $1 million, right."
It has been eight years since Jeremy purchased half of Canoe Canada that has four outdoor tourism businesses under its umbrella. Tip Top Lodge on Sanford Lake located 35 km north of Atikokan is a fly-in four star resort hailed by the Globe and Mail as one of the North's premier tourism resorts with Carribean Style coloured waters, white sandy beach, and high speed wireless Internet.
Canoe Canada also owns 14 outpost cabins for a more rustic adventure. The only way in is by float plane since there are no roads.
Canoe Canada runs about 900-people a year to the outpost cabins. Some 2,000 to 3,000 paddlers, mostly Americans enjoy canoing through the northwest.
While the tourism industry is experiencing a tough slump from United States, Jeremy says his numbers are 17 per cent higher.
He attributes this to their careful attention to detail.
"We have over 50 buildings to maintain and I will not stand for a leaky faucet."
Quality control is important and personal visitation with the guests means a lot.
"We get a lot of referrals and repeat business."
Repeat business is at 78 per cent with another six to eight per cent from referrals.
But Dickson is not resting on his laurels. He wants to play a larger part in diversifying Atikokan, bringing youth back into his community. Smart kids grew up there, he says.
Out of his last year in high school, there are eight PhDs with the rest having a master's degree.
He would sure like to attract more of them back home.