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Chapter 6: Million-dollar Nightmare

“We’re up to our ears in work all of a sudden,” Keith says. “The first shipment of plants came in from the Pacific Coast, I went and got them from Niagara yesterday. I got the last lot of seed. We’re waiting on the stuff coming in from Europe. We were down at the show yesterday afternoon and that’s our last half-day off until November.”

The show is the one at the International Centre near the airport, one of two held in Toronto in March. Keith doesn’t have a booth there, he and Carolyn attend to see what the trends are and socialize with horticultural friends and acquaintances, who are many. The more prestigious show is Canada Blooms at the Metro Convention Centre downtown, by the lake. It features show gardens displaying the work of leading landscape designers and a large marketplace where growers and garden product purveyors can peddle their wares. Keith attended in 1998, the first Canada Blooms, but did not find it to his taste. Canada Blooms amazes and attracts because of all the trees and plants that have been forced into bloom ahead of their season, while grey snow still blankets the ground outside. Keith, who allows his plants to set their own timetable, doesn’t fit in.

“I’m not in that show. You don’t see the interesting people like me there.”

Keith’s a well-known character in the business – he’s opinionated, he swims against the tide and he suffered dramatic misfortune, although the details of that are not generally known as Keith is not inclined to talk about his problems.

The trouble started in 1988, when the real estate market bubbled and agents were going door to door looking for promising development sites. Keith’s 25 acres on Steeles Ave..in Brampton was one such, even though half adjoined the Credit River and was subject to conservation authority rules.

The guy came in and offered me, I forget, a million five. I said, ‘No, no, no, I have no intention of selling this thing, I own it, I don’t need to sell it, I don’t want to sell it.’ So he went away.

“And he came back in what, a month or six weeks. Two million. I said ‘I toldya I don’t want to sell, don’t bother me anymore, I don’t need to sell this place.’ Okay, he goes away. Two months or something, Two million five. And every time he came in, $500,000.more.”

Carolyn chips in. “One day he came in and he put it up a million. He put it up 500,000 and he said, ‘Well, how about another 500,000?’ ”

“And I kept on, no, no, no,” Keith recalls. “So finally he gives an offer.” Keith sighs and emphasizes each word. “Five. And. A. Half. Million. Dollars. And I’m telling this guy, ‘You’re crazy, this property is not worth that much.’ And I’m asking myself, what am I doing? If this idiot wants to pay me five and a half million dollars for this farm, am I being stubborn or foolish or something? So finally, I said, ‘Okay.' ”

“Write it up,” Carolyn says.

“I said, ‘If you mean five and a half million I’ll sign it, that’s it.’ And we had a deal.”

That was February, 1989. Keith was 60 years old, suddenly flush with money and full of plans.

The buyer wanted vacant possession and Keith arranged for an 18-month close so he could find another property and move. It was a pity that Keith’s lawyer was away when the final offer came in. The man’s partners looked the agreement over and said it looked fine.

“Technically it was a good agreement,” Carolyn says. “But they didn’t say, ‘Keith why are you putting an 18-month close on it, you should close now and we’ll arrange for you to lease back for 18 months.”

Keith found two properties – 12 acres on the Guelph Line of Hnorthighway 401, with a house that he and Carolyn moved into, and 17 acres on Derry Road in Campbellville for the garden centre.

“Can you imagine winning the lottery?” Keith laughs. “Throw the car away, drive it over the bank, leave it in the river – I was going to buy anything I wanted! The bank manager said, ‘I’ve got to hand it to you, you’ve sold at five million five and and you’ve bought two other farms for less than a million dollars – it was like he was patting me on the back saying, ‘Jeez, I wish I was this smart, I could do this.' ”

The Campbellville property had a little house that his son Stan moved into – he was going to manage the nursery.

“Because we had this money,” Carolyn says.

“We had five million dollars.” “We could hire somebody, we could pay somebody and maybe we could have a day off. We were going to have - an eight-hour day.”

“I’d never had a day off in my life,” Keith says. “I work seven days a week, all my life. Just like any other farmer. In agriculture that’s the norm.”

Like farmers everywhere, Keith conveys truth through exaggeration. There are have been vacations, there have been trips, there have days off. But the truth is, they have been few and far between.

Then came September, 1990. The real estate bubble burst and the developers backed out of the deal. “The whole thing was gone down over the cliff,” Keith says. Eighteen months earlier, he’d owned his land, his business and his equipment and had no debt. Now he owned three farms. The one on the Guelph Line they had moved to, the Campbellville property that was being prepared for the nursery operation – ground levelled, water lines put in, poly houses put up – and the Brampton one that came back to him.

Including financing and other costs, they owed close to $1 million. Interest rates were soaring. The $5.5 million that was the premise for the huge upheaval was nowhere to be had. There was even a dispute over the $100,000 down-payment: the developer demanded it back. Why? Because he could. That was another mistake – the money had been left with the real estate company.and the Squires were caught in the middle, with the developer threatening court action.

“If my lawyer had had it, he’d say. ‘You can go jump in the lake, we’ve got the $100,000, it’s in my account, goodbye’,” Keith says. “I said to the lawyer, ‘What can they do?” He said, ‘They can tie it up for years.’ So we wouldn’t even have been able to sell the property.”

Keith reckons he would have won had they gone to court but, in desperate need of cash, he agreed to split the money and so just $50,000 of the deposit was returned. Meanwhile the bank – with the friendly bank manager who’d had nothing but kind words for Keith’s business acumen a few months earlier – was threatening to foreclose on the Guelph Line property where the Squires had been living for a year.

“The bank wouldn’t stay with me, the bank disowned me and sent me up the street to a guy that charged 23 per cent interest,” Keith recalls. “I went back to the bank manager and said, ‘You know, he wants 23 per cent interest.” He says, ‘Well, I can’t help you, we’ve been told to close the thing down’.”

“Keith had had his account there for 30-plus years and the bank wouldn’t help him,” Carolyn says.

“Since they opened the darn thing,” Keith says. “I worked in the flower shop when they opened the shopping centre, the Brampton Mall. It didn’t mean a thing. I said, ‘How could anyone pay 23 per cent interest?’ He said, ‘Nobody could pay 23 per cent interest - I can’t pay that, you can’t pay that, nobody can pay that.’ ”

Keith calculates his interest payments were $42,000 that year. He sold the Guelph line property off at a $100,000 loss and struggled to hold things together. “Every time we made a payment, we were further behind.”

“It just evaporated. it just went so fast,” Carolyn says.

What a nightmare. “It was worse than a nightmare.”

The Squires weren’t alone. The Canadian recession of the early 1990s was triggered in part by a deliberate Bank of Canada policy to raise interest rates as a way of controlling inflation. Then things got out of control. Unemployment soared over 10 per cent, bankruptcies reached record levels, incomes and personal spending fell.

Keith Squires owed money left and right. But bankruptcy was not an option he was prepared to consider. He’d been in the nursery business for close to half a century and had a reputation as someone who embodied the old values where a man’s word is his bond. If he went under, his suppliers - the business associates he’s had for decades and cared about - would go to the back of the line behind the banks and other secured creditors.

“I owed them money. None of these of these guys were putting me into bankruptcy,” he says.

“No,” Carolyn laughs, “after they didn’t get paid in six, seven, eight months, they didn’t even bother sending us a bill. We weren’t even worth spending a postage stamp on.”

“If I had gone into bankruptcy, I would have lost everything and then where would I start?”

“He would have lost all the plants,” Carolyn says.

“I would have lost all the plants.”

The plants that he’d collected and tested and introduced over the years. In a bankruptcy, the plants would be an “asset.” A few knowledgeable people would appreciate their worth. But the collection won’t survive Keith, and as long as Keith is here, it is his raison d’etre. It’s why he carries on working into his eighties, seeding, dividing, propagating, tending and caring, in an organic cycle that repeats year after year.

Keith and Carolyn struggled under the crushing burden of 23 per cent interest payments, owing $560,000 on the Campbellville property and $335,000 on the Guelph Line property, plus financing costs at every turn, as when the bank changed $3,600 to change the mortgage over to the mortgage property company that was going to charge 23 per cent. The $3,600 got added to the mortgage.

“We were getting further and further in the hole,” Keith recalls. “No matter how much we tried to pay off of it, there was no hope of catching up with it - we couldn’t possibly make that much money.”

Help came after a year, in the form of Stuart, a retired property developer who was looking for an investment. “He went into the bank, then he happened to mention to the manager he was looking for some place to invest the money into,” Carolyn recalls. “The bank manager mentioned us to him, he said, ‘Gee, you could invest in the Squires’.”

“So he came down the street to see what the heck the manager was talking about.” Keith handed over the mortgage papers and remembers Stuart swearing under his breath as he went through them. “He was absolutely aghast because he’s used to buying and selling properties and whatnot, he couldn’t believe that they were charging me that much.”

Stuart took over the amount owing as a private loan at 16 per cent, a rate that went down over time as the bank rate went down. The loss from the Guelph Line sale had been added to the amount owing. Eventually Stuart was able to sell the Brampton farm to a property developer but they had no use for it right away so they let Keith stay there if he paid the taxes – a couple of thousand dollars a year. Then the developer got the zoning changed from agricultural and the taxes went up to $9,000 a year, as well as the taxes on the Campbellville property.

“That put me out on the street, I had to leave.”

At the same time, the Credit River Conservation Authority got busy. Back in the ‘50s, after buying the property, young Keith placed the house, the barn and the bulb storage building at the edge of the valley – because the fields, after all, were where crops grew and money was made, that land there was worth something so don’t mess it up with a building. The valley, however… “if there’s anything more useless than a valley, I’d like to know what it is,” Keith likes to say.

The conservation authority saw things differently. If the developer wanted to change the zoning, the buildings would have to go.

“The developer said, ‘You might as well take them,’ they were just going to put a ball to them, level the whole thing or whatever, they can’t stay here, we’ll just burn them.” Keith was having to move to Campbellville and so the buildings went too.

His son and family were living in the house on the Campbellville property so the Squires erected the bulb storage building as an office and moved in. The Brampton house, home for 40 years, was carefully dismantled, each post and beam and piece of panelling carefully numbered. To this day, it remains stored in the basement of the bulb storage building in the hope that the Niagara Escarpment Commission will allow a second house on the property. So far, the answer has been no.

Eventually, in 2000, the developer who bought the Brampton property sold it to a Polish Catholic congregation. It took Keith and Carolyn 17 years to pay off the mortage. December, 2006, was the last payment.

“I just paid off a million-dollar debt,” Keith told me, his eyes shining, when we chatted over dinner just before Christmas, discussing the plans for this book. Months later, Carolyn told me she still woke up in a cold sweat, worrying about whether she’d put enough money in the bank to cover the mortgage payment.

Chapter 7: Wake Up