You can’t miss BMC Seafoods while driving along Highway 1 through Meteghan, NS, in the Acadian district of Clare. Look down the steep slope from Home Hardware toward Meteghan Shore Road, and you’ll see a compound of gleaming red buildings bearing big, colourful signs.
The BMC property holds several massive lobster pounds, a bait office, an air-freight division, a retail seafood shop, and a takeout restaurant. Over 27 years, the company has turned a street previously crowded with crumbling shacks into a multimillion-dollar seafood empire of international reach, transforming the face and economy of the fishing village.
BMC Seafoods ships about four million kilograms of lobster per year to the US, Europe, China, and South Korea, bringing in gross revenues of $65 million.
You also can’t miss BMC founder, president, and owner Cedric Robicheau. He tools around the property in a motorized wheelchair and you’ll need to trot to keep up. He began using a wheelchair after muscular dystrophy complications 23 years ago and directs every aspect of the business he founded in 1996. He’s always on the move.
Customers may see Cedric directing staff in the spotless retail seafood shop on where to place products in the refrigerated display case (lobster, haddock, halibut, flounder, herring, salmon, scallops, oysters and more) or on tidy shelves that hold jars of pickled periwinkles, herring, and bags of dried dulce and dried fish.
Chat with Cedric for a while and the wheelchair fades. You notice his blue eyes, shock of slightly greying brown hair, and racing, restless mind. He is frank and open, sometimes blunt in his observations, quick to smile or chuckle.
He also credits his workers with BMC’s success. “It’s one thing to be a leader, but any leader is nothing without good employees,” he says. “They are the backbone. My staff thinks: ‘If we could only work as fast as Cedric’s mind and eyes!’ I’ll rattle off 10 things for them to do every time we talk.”
Cedric, the son, grandson, and nephew of fishermen, was born in 1964 in Yarmouth — the largest town in Southwest Nova Scotia, some 45 kilometres south of Meteghan — to Thomas and Cerita (Saulnier) Robicheau. His father’s first wife, Blanche Comeau, died giving birth to a baby girl named Vernicia. Thomas’s sister and her husband raised the girl. Thomas, like his three brothers, was a fisherman and often out at sea. Thomas married again to Cerita Saulnier, and they had six children.
“Fishermen back then were poor people,” says Cedric. “Many had families with 12 or 13 kids to feed. We were happy to get an orange as a Christmas present.” While a fishing licence in the region today is valued at over a million dollars, past generations of fishermen subsisted on the margins.
Thomas took over his father Leander’s lobster and ground-fishing licence. His third child, Paulin, bought Thomas’s licence in 1995 and became the third generation of the family to fish out of Meteghan. It’s still Paulin’s home port.
BMC Seafoods exports around four million kg of lobster yearly
A restless mind
School and church seemed a waste of time to young Cedric. “From an early age I just wanted to go out fishing and scallop dragging.” When he was 13, his father said: “If you don’t want to go to church, I’ll teach you the most important rule: ‘Do to others as you want them to do to you.’”
After repeating grades a couple of times, Cedric finished Grade 5 unable to read or write. “I’m pretty sure I had a learning disability,” he recalls. “The principal took me aside one day and said I would be going into Grade 7 Adjusted School for slow learners at Clare District High School, designed to teach us life skills. It was better for me because the skills I had weren’t being used.”
Cedric chuckles. “The new teacher told me: ‘You don’t belong in Grade 5. You have a mustache!’ I was about 13, and I figured she was right, because I wanted to date that teacher!”
Around age 12, Cedric started buying fresh haddock from St. Mary’s Bay Fishery and Us Four Fishery. “I gutted and scaled them and sold the fish door to door,” he says. “My vision of life was that anybody willing to work hard could make a living. I learned that from my parents.”
He started a fish-drying business in his family’s back yard. “Lightly salted haddock and pollock were popular with beer drinkers,” he says. “Dad gave me some of his catch at first, and when he saw me having success, he sold me the fish and used the money to help pay his crew.”
Cedric bought fresh cod heads and sold the coveted tongues and cheeks door to door, and the heads to local mink farms as feed. “That gig ended when the department of fisheries came to my door and said I needed to get a licence and follow regulations.”
That setback aside, his blue eyes brighten with pride. “For a young kid I did quite well. I always had lots of candy for lunch break. I sold candy to the other kids and again made a profit.”
Cedric’s mother Cerita insisted he stay in school until age 16. As soon as that milestone arrived, he dropped out to become the second mate on a scallop dragger.
Driven by ambition
Cedric’s older brother Claredon developed muscle weakness when in Grade 12 that impeded his ability to play school sports. Bloodwork revealed muscular dystrophy (MD). When the entire family was tested, four of the six children showed markers of MD.
Cedric was one of them. In his late teens, he developed weakness and shaking in his legs that progressed gradually. “I was on disability welfare for three years starting in 1993,” he says.
In Yarmouth he took vocational training and improved his reading skills. Then he secured a placement as an activity worker at the Villa Acadienne in Meteghan. Many of the residents of the small care home had no family in the area, and several died in Cedric’s arms.
After a year, MD left him unable to fulfill his duties at the Villa. He used leg braces, then a cane. But his entrepreneurial ambitions only intensified as the illness encroached.
Cedric married at age 20, and in 1988 his son Ryan was born. The life of a fisherman — like his father, grandfather, and three uncles — was no longer an option. But Cedric was determined to find a career that would harness his knowledge and love of the fishery.
In the mid-1990s he began working for a Montreal-based broker, buying from fishermen across southwestern Nova Scotia. After a year, he decided to take the plunge and became a self-employed buyer.
“My MD was pretty bad by then, but I figured, if I can work for that guy, why can’t I work for myself?” In 1996, Cedric founded BMC Seafoods.
The name of the company was supposed to be RMC: R for son Ryan, M for Cedric’s then-wife Maureen, C for Cedric. “We registered the name by phone, and they thought Ryan was ‘Brian,’ so I just let it stand,” he says. “My father, who didn’t have two cents to rub together, managed to lend me $2,500 to buy a used U-Haul. My contacts with local fishermen and my family’s reputation for hard work and honesty helped launch my business.”
One boat agreed to sell Cedric a quota of 500, then 1,000, lobsters. Seeing an intertwined potential market, he also sold herring to fishermen for bait, a major operation for BMC today.
Soon he was selling tractor-trailers full of seafood. “Word got around that I paid my bills on time, and my business kept growing.” From 1995 to 1997, Cedric worked to develop new markets across Nova Scotia.
“In 1999 I landed in the wheelchair,” he says. By 2000, “my buy was so big I had to start selling to the United States. After a while the quality of your product and your way of doing business brings the customers to you.”
As business boomed, Cedric bought, demolished, and replaced derelict buildings along Meteghan Shore Road, adjacent to the Meteghan Wharf and its large fishing fleet.
“I had to buy out 22 bootleggers from 1996 to 2021,” Cedric says. He kept one original building out of nostalgia: a swaybacked little one-storey where visiting fishermen used to bunk.
BMC constructed its first new building in 2001 — a lobster pound (temperature-controlled saltwater tank with aeration) that held 23,000 kilograms of the crustaceans. The company promptly doubled its capacity the following year.
Every two years from 2002 to 2012, BMC built space for 23,000 to 34,000 additional kilograms of lobster. In 2016, the company added a licensed grading room, to sort lobsters into 12 size grades. The company can now hold close to 400,000 lobsters in its pounds.
In 2015, companies based in Maine and Georgia bought out Cedric’s brother-in-law and partner of 15 years. In 2018, BMC spent a million dollars on equipment and facilities, and got licensed to fulfill stringent security requirements so the company could air freight lobsters overseas.
Bait supervisor James Thibodeau, a 13-year BMC employee, says live lobsters stay fresh and meaty for up to three months when kept in temperatures cold enough to make them go dormant. Each lobster is placed in its own mesh tube to protect it from cantankerous tank-mates. Others stay submerged in lobster cars anchored in the ocean.
“We have 68 boats that sell to me, from Meteghan, Cape St. Mary, Sanford, Argyle, Pubnico, Sandy Cove, Freeport, Little River, and as far afield as Cape Breton, the Magdalen Islands, and Newfoundland,” says Cedric. The lobster season in southwest Nova Scotia runs from late November through May, with a particular frenzy of activity during the first six weeks.
“The fishermen are not my employees,” adds Cedric. “They are my harvesters.”
The Shermanator is Cedric’s son Ryan’s lobster boat.
Family, principles, and changes
The two siblings who did not inherit MD (Paulin and Randy) are fishermen. The others had professional careers: George, as a designer and draftsman, and Claudette as a registered nurse. Claredon, who died four years ago at age 63, managed a bank and as a volunteer, cofounded Le Transport de Clare, providing transportation for seniors, wheelchair users, and others with specific needs.
In 2008, Claredon nominated his brother for the Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the Entrepreneurs with Disabilities Network. In April of that year, Cedric received the award. In December 2022, another plaudit came, as he recived the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medal.
The year 2020 saw BMC Seafoods open a retail seafood market and takeout restaurant with outdoor seating. A longtime dream of Cedric’s, it has proved popular with locals and tourists alike.
Cedric credits his parents with the principles that guide his buisness. “A lot of my courage came from dad and mom,” he says. “He went through a lot, losing his first wife. He had to work in the fish plant off season when he couldn’t fish. He lost 280 lobster traps in the Groundhog Day storm (1976), and I saw him struggle to rebuild. My work ethic came from him.”
Son Ryan and his own five-year-old son are Cedric’s delight. Ryan bought his first lobster boat and license from an uncle at age 19, then traded up by serially buying and selling boats. He is now the captain of his own vessel, The Shermanator, with a crew that includes one of his two stepsons, who he hopes will follow in his footsteps. That would make five generations of Meteghan fishermen in the Robicheau family. “The apple doesn’t fall far, you know,” says Cedric.
Ryan was tested and doesn’t have muscular dystrophy, although the disease’s baffling heredity could appear further down his lineage. “I’ve lived with this illness, and so have three siblings,” Cedric observes. “Others can too. Because I’ve been busy and successful, I haven’t spent time dwelling on
His biggest challenge has been losing mobility in his arms over the past three years, necessitating a personal attendant. At age 58, Cedric knows his time is limited, as the life expectancy with MD is in the mid-60s.
“What will I do if I retire?” he says. “I won’t be out riding on a four-wheeler or driving a boat. I want to spend more time with my grandson, and I’d like to travel all around Nova Scotia in a van.”
Whatever this man decides to do next, count on it happening. Nothing has stopped Cedric Robicheau yet.