The Hougen Group of Companies - A Yukon Tradition
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The Hougen Group of Companies - A Yukon Tradition
Rolf Hougen
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The Cable Guy

Originally published in Up Here: Life At the Top of the World, July/August 1998

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By Geoff Johnson

You've built a thriving family of Northern businesses. You've led a national revolution in cable television. You climbed to the top of Canada business scene. So why do you call Whitehorse home? Ask Rolf Hougen.

Rolf Hougen leads the way down the gray-painted wooden steps to the basement of his home in Whitehorse and stands aside to allow his visitor an unobstructed view of the door. There can't be many doors like it in Canadian basements - certainly not in White-horse. Made of solid oak with an arched top and studded with iron, it looks like it belongs in a chateau in the Loire Valley. Prominent political and business figures in Canada have passed through this door into the temperature-controlled environment - precisely 12.2 degrees Celsius - that protects and nurtures racks of vintage red wines from France.

Hougen and his wife Marg have lived in this house a short stroll from his office in downtown Whitehorse for more than 30 years. They raised six children here. The wine cellar is his pride and joy. He selects a bottle, strips the protective foil and extracts the cork with the smooth wrist action of an expert. Which indeed he is. His appreciation and understanding of good wine began long before he took his family to spend a year in France and before he became Honorary French Consul in the Yukon (for which he received the National Order of Merit from France).

Vintners would no doubt hold him up as an example of the much-vaunted health benefits of moderate consumption of red wine. Youthful and vigorous, with a calm and measured demeanour, he has never been in a hospital in his 70 years. When surgery was once suggested to rid him of troublesome tonsils, the very idea was enough to cure him, he recalls.

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But if Hougen is to be held up as an example of anything, it should be for the gritty entrepreneurial courage that helped make him not only a Northern business success story but a national one, too. He went to work straight from school, helping his mother sell Rawleigh home products from a store the size of a cubby hole in downtown Whitehorse. He turned the tiny business into the largest retail operation in the Yukon. He rescued WHTV, a struggling Whitehorse television station that used to fill air time with programs like Rippling Rhythms - the live action of a goldfish bowl backed by elevator music. He built successful car dealerships and a car rental franchise.

Most of all he was the visionary whose determination and drive in the late 1970s led to the launch of the world's first satellite-to-cable broadcasting network. The venture brought mainstream television and radio to the North and banished forever goldfish superbowis, but not before it had led him to the very brink of personal financial disaster. His ultimate success was recognized in the mid1980s when he took the helm of the powerful 170,000- member national Chamber of Commerce - the organization he lobbied in 1957 to include the North and which traditionally chooses its leaders from among Bay Street's corporate heavyweights. Throughout it all, he has defied the odds by refusing to surrender his Northern roots He was born in northern British Columbia, and the Yukon has been his home since he was a boy. As for the wine cellar, it's one of the few concessions to his status as a Canadian business superstar.

Hougen has always been fiercely protective of the Yukon identity. Forty years ago, as president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Trade, he fought against union with British Columbia "We don't want B.C.'s five per cent sales tax, and we won't give up our 30 per cent over proof rum," he declared at the time. These days, Hougen is commonly asked by outsiders how a successful Northern backwater boy - if not quite in those words - managed to resist the siren call of Bay Street. He says Stuart McKay, a founding partner in the satellite-to-cable company, turned to him at a Broadcast Executive Society meeting in Toronto in 1982 and commented: "You must find it very diff icult to go back to Whitehorse now that you spend so much time in Toronto." Says Hougen: "I could only think of the World War II song, the one about keeping 'em down on the farm now that they have seen Paree."

The lure of the North, he says, is simple. From Whitehorse he sees things "from the top of the world looking down." What's more, he gains two hours a day over Torontonians. '1 don't have to drive an hour each way to work." Time and perspective help, but perhaps the secret to Hougen's success lies in the faded pages of The School Daze, the school newspaper he edited and printed. In an article about students' ambitions, he said of his own: "Tell you when I get there." He's not there yet, he says, because he has no intention of retiring. Or maybe it's in his genes.

Rolf Hougen has been in the TV business for over 40 years.
Rolf Hougen has been in the TV business for over 40 years.
In 1906, Berent Hougen, Rolf's Norwegian-born father, was drawn north by tales of Klondike gold
after circling the globe twice aboard merchant clipper ships. The teenage Berent covered the 160 mountainous kilometres from Skagway to
Whitehorse on foot and then built a raft and floated down the Yukon River to Dawson Creek. He was too late. The great promise of riches had already evaporated, sending thousands home empty-
handed and dispirited. But Berent stayed on and found work for himself, eventually starting a family store called Hougens to take over a Rawleigh dealership started earlier by another of his sons, Odin.

In the 194Os Berent worked on the Alaska Highway to augment the family income, leaving his family to run the store in Whitehorse. Most of the customers were US. soldiers working on the highway. The only supplies came in by rail. The town was so short of basic amenities that a wagon went house-to-house selling drinking water.

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After the war the Americans pulled out. The Yukon's population plummeted from 30,000 to 6000, sending the territory into one of its periodic 'bust" periods. The young Rolf worked in the store each day before school, returning afterwards and often staying late into the evening. He took over the business when he was only 19, making arduous trips to eastern Canada - four days each way by train, ship and plane - to buy from wholesalers who didn't always take him seriously because of his youth. In 1952, fire gutted his store. His response was to build an even bigger one and expand the range of merchandise. As the economy picked up again, Hougen's store continued to grow and became famous for its promotions. For years, Santa arrived aboard a Hougen's Santa Special train along with hundreds of children from the nearby community of McCrea. Santa arrived by helicopter one year, landing on Main Street, but the stunt was never repeated because of the risk.

Although he had built a successful family of enterprises, the event that would push Hougen onto the national stage was a scheme he developed in the late 1970s for relaying mainstream broadcast signals to small and remote communities via satellite. At the time filling airtime had been a chronic problem for most small-town stations in television's vacuum land. Nearly two million Canadians living beyond the range of big city transmitters counted themselves fortunate if they could scrounge one or two fuzzy channels out of the haze. By contrast, residents of Canada's 24 largest cities could take their pick of more than a dozen signals. With the disparity, it was hardly surprising that unlicensed satellite earth terminals pirating U.S. satellite signals were popping up like mushrooms after rain.

Hougen had a lot riding on the success of television in Whitehorse. He had helped launch WHTV in the 1950s and took it over in 1965. Besides owning the station, one of his retail stores was also the principal source of TV sets in town. Moving quickly to improve programming and attract customers to his cable system, he installed equipment in Vancouver in the early 1970s and recorded television signals off the air, flying 200 pounds of tapes by air daily to Whitehorse. Much of the stuff was out of date by the time it hit the local broadcast, and shipping costs quickly reached a prohibitive $80,000 a year. On top of that, the Vancouver station where the signals originated was becoming increasingly agitated by the practice.

By this time, Canada had become the first country in the world to launch a non-military geo-stationary communications satellite. It was the opportunity Hougen had been looking for. In March1979, he flew to Ottawa to explain to government officials his idea for a national satellite-based broadcast signal distribution system. It wouldn't interfere with the established broadcasting industry in Canada, he said, but it would bring U.S. signals under Canadian regulatory control.

It was a bold initiative. Locally owned cable businesses, new ones if necessary, would be shown how to file for licences to receive signals via satellite and how to string up the cable.
The modest store at Second Ave. and Wood St. where the Hougen empire started, in a 1944 picture.
The modest store at Second Ave. and Wood St. where the Hougen empire started, in a 1944 picture.

Nothing like it had ever been attempted anywhere in the world, and with the high cost of leasing satellite transponders, alot of people harboured doubts that it could be made to pay. Established cable system owners ridiculed the whole idea. Some owners of illegal dishes were enraged at being forced to give up U.S. signals in favour of Canadian television. The Whitehorse Star reported one as saying: "I will fight this down to the bitter end. I don't intend to let anyone - (then federal communications minister) Francis Fox or anyone - tell me what to watch. This is not the Canadian way. This is what happens in Third World countries." Harold Ballard rained on the parade, too. Fiercely protective of hockey broadcast rights, the curmudgeonly Maple Leafs owner threatened to take an axe to any Maple Leaf Gardens wire that he found carrying his hockey games to viewers in remote Northern communities.

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Hougen recognized the challenge before him was large and that he could not go it alone financially. He crossed the country 10 times in six months, researching and promoting his concept. Broadcasters with deep pockets bought into the venture, which came to be known as Canadian Satellite Communications Inc. (Cancom for short). The first recruit was Ray Peters, head of BCTV, owner of CHAN-TV (Vancouver) and CHEK-TV (Victoria). It was an ironic alliance. Peters had been looking for a showdown with Hougen over the "borrowing" of his signals in Vancouver. The two were joined by Dr. Charles Allard of Allarco Broadcasting Ltd., owner of CITV-TV in Edmonton, and Stuart McKay of Selkirk Broadcasting Ltd., owner of CHCH-TV in Hamilton, Ont. Phillippe de Gaspé Beaubien's Télémédia Communications Ltée, which owned the AM radio station CKAC in Montreal, provided the French-language element by launching TCTV television from the CKAC site.

April 14,1980, Cancom got its licence and Hougen noted in his diary: "Two and a half years of persistence and hard work paid off." The next morning, his phone rang at 7:15. It was the first of a barrage of calls from the media, suppliers and local people that would go on virtually non-stop for nine hours. Not since the first telegraph service reached the territory in 1899 had there been such a sense of anticipation among Yukoners about the future of communications in the North. Headlines in the Whitehorse Star labeled the Cancorn partners "Hougen's Heroes". On April the board elected Hougen chairman and C In its April 29,1980 edition, The Yukon News said Cancom's mandate could rightly be called the single most significant decision ever handed down in the history of the federal broadcast regulation. At 3p.m. on July 1981, government representatives, bankers, porters and the Hougen family gathered Whitehorse to watch as Cancom's four signals appeared on screens for the first tii Champagne corks popped.

A crowd gathers in 1960 to see the store's new addition.
A crowd gathers in 1960 to see the store's new addition.
After Cancom had demonstrated satellite service to MPs and senators in (Ottawa, a handful of community cable syste was licensed to receive Cancom signals. wasn't nearly enough. The company w forking out $1.25 million a year for each four satellite transponders, and had seriously underestimated how long it would take get new cable systems through the cumbersome licensing process. In the spring of 1982 worried a Hougen noted: "It is evident that we will have serious problems if the customers are not on board soon. The licensing process is dreadfully slow."

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The addition of ABC, CBS, NBC and PT brightened Cancom's prospects considerable but debt had reached a point where the ban was insisting that the partners chip in more their own cash. A Cancom board document called the situation "precarious." It wasn't clear how much longer the partners would -could- continue to dip into their own pockets Hougen had more than $5 million of his own money on the line "If the company had failed, would have gone a long way and maybe totally wiped me out, I don't know. But I was very vulnerable," he says.

Hougen held 28 per cent of Cancom's shares at the outset. He sold most of them to meet his commitments to the company. Peters bought some and became the largest shareholder and chairman. In the fall Cancom offered four million common shares at $5 on the open market They sold briskly. "The money came in just in the nick of time," says Peters, now retired. "It was at the point where the original shareholders were close to saying no on the call (for additional investment) and we needed longer-term cash. The underwriting sold out in less than a week as I recall All kinds of people were buying. A complete cross section."

The share issue closed December 29,1983, producing the much-needed cash to pay off bank debts and provide working capital. Hougen, having completed the sale of his shares, sought relaxation by taking a boat to Vancouver Island. He spent four days picking oysters off the beach "and having oyster stew, oyster breakfasts, oyster lunches, raw oysters - you name it. We picked up buckets of oysters on the shore at New Year's midnight."

Almost as gratifying, the established cable industry started to come around. In 1986, the Canadian Cable Television Association added Hougen to its Honour List. In his acceptance speech in Vancouver he said: "I think the cable industry at times considered Cancom the enemy - at other times a friend and associate. As a small cable operator myself, I always knew we were partners in progress. Today, with this presentation, I know t.hat we have finally united in a common purpose to bring greater choice to Canadians everywhere."

It would be 1988 before Cancom would report a profit, but it had turned the corner. It would go on to add dozens of Canadian and American signals, and build North America's most technologically advanced commercial master control centre, converting its entire broadcast network from analog to digital technology at a cost of more than $40 million.

In his modest office on the fourth floor of the Hougen Centre in Whitehorse -where he operates without a private secretary yet somehow keeps his desk free of paper -Hougen acknowledges his achievements quietly, without a hint of a boast.
A young Rolf Hougen contemplates his store's record collection in 1952.  All records were 78s back then.
A young Rolf Hougen contemplates his store's record collection in 1952.
All records were 78s back then.

"People I was at school with were brighter than I and they didn't go anywhere," he says. "I think in my case there was a determination and drive to succeed."

While building his businesses, he worked seven days a week and nights as well, but always managed to make it home for dinner with Marg, whose devotion to raising their children he credits for allowing him to pursue his ventures. He spends a lot of time in the air the year he launched Cancom, for example, he logged 147,857 air miles - and uses it to catch up on paperwork.

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The Chamber of Commerce job took him to Africa, Europe, China and South East Asia and brought him face to face with some of the world's most powerful business figures, including Harry Oppenheimer, the man who brought De Beers to its pre-eminent role in the global diamond business. "I don't know why they reached out to Whitehorse" he says. "I was not certain (1 could accept) because the position placed heavy demands for one thing, and I was concerned about my capabilities for another."

People who know him well know why the chamber reached out to Whitehorse, "Rolf never went past high school, but he has made more of what he started with than anyone else I have ever known," Flo Whyard, a former mayor of Whitehorse and member of the territorial cabinet, told me. At least some credit for that should go to Marg for "running a very tight ship at home" in their 44 years of marriage, she adds.

Inevitably, Hougen has his critics. In November 1979, CBC radio's national Sunday Morning show gave voice to political opponents who felt Hougen, a member of the national PC party, and former federal Tory cabinet minister Erik Nielsen (then the Yukon MP) wielded too much influence in the territory. The two men have been best friends since 1952. Nielsen was best man when Rolf married Marg in 1955, and in 1987 Nielsen's son Erik married Hougen's youngest daughter Maureen. Hougen smiles at the political sniping and says: "I was credited as the mastermind behind Erik's successful election campaigns and nothing happened without our involvement and approval. It was a ridiculous charge, and one which, if true, would in fact be a credit to myself and to Erik, but of course it was in the realm of being a fairy tale."

Rolf and Marg and their clan lined up for a 1969 picture in Haines junction.
Rolf and Marg and their clan lined up for a 1969 picture in Haines junction..
Whyard says some people in Whitehorseresent the local boy who made good. "He knows where to get the best people for his organizations, and he expects a lot of his employees. If you worked for Hougen, you probably did three jobs for one salary. You never got overpaid."

Hougen's positive impact in the Yukon extends far beyond his business interests. He founded the Yul~on Research and Development institute and the Whitehorse Young People's Association. He has been a director of Heritage Yukon and a member of the Yukon Order of Pioneers.

In 1994 he received the Yukon Commissioner's Award for Public Service. Ken McKinnon, a former WHTV manager who became Yukon Commissioner, said of his former boss: "There is not one person in northern Canada who is not a beneficiary of Rolf Hougen's forward-looking attitude."

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And Hougen, who's still on Cancom's board, shows no signs of slowing. That means another bold Hougen business venture in what some Canadians mistakenly think of as the dark and frozen empire of the moose and wolf cannot be ruled out entirely.

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