Ex-MP Joe Preston returns to his roots by Terry Carroll
A graceful exit can be particularly difficult for an elected official at the provincial or federal level. When do you leave? How do you leave? Who will replace you? What will you do when you are out of politics? The jokes about politicians’ lives are endless, but the reality is that successful politicians at this level become their jobs. There’s always another legislative session, committee meeting, ribbon to cut, event to attend, constituent waiting to bend your ear, or election to prepare for.
Joe Preston served as the federal Member of Parliament for Elgin Middlesex London for eleven-and-a- half years. Before the ten-year mark, he thought a lot about the fact that the “best before date” for politicians comes at around a decade on the job. On June 28, 2014 at the Masonic Centre, he announced that he would not be running in the 2015 federal election. Since Joe can be a pretty witty guy, there were a lot of laughs that night. But there were also tears, some of them shed by Joe.
Joe puts it this way, “I knew it was the best job I was ever going to have. I can’t tell you how much I struggled.” He understood two things for sure. One was that if a new person were to be elected from the same party, “everyone still naturally turns to the old MP – it can be hurtful to the new guy.”
The other was that he had to personally create separation from the job. To accomplish this, he needed to get out of Dodge. Following the October 14, 2015 election, won by fellow Conservative and former office staffer Karen Vecchio, Joe and his wife, Geri, went on a cruise and then spent five or six weeks in Florida. It was a cold turkey break, “almost too much,” Joe says in retrospect.
When he came back to this area, he still wasn’t sure what to do next. During his time as MP, Joe had continued as franchise co-owner / partner with Marcy Pearse at Wendy’s and Jeff Wood at Boston Pizza in St. Thomas. When he returned from Florida, he showed up at the restaurants with his typical “What can I do?” attitude. Marcy and Jeff each said, politely, “Not much.” They were getting along just fine without him.
Joe has always been successful as a volunteer, as well as in business. Prior to entering the federal arena, he did a lot of work with United Way, the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Development Board and Youth Employment Counselling Centre among others.
Since leaving as MP, Joe’s become involved with Farmtown Canada, the St. Thomas & District Chamber of Commerce, the Great Lakes International Air Show, Port Stanley Festival Theatre, the National Council of the Conservative Party of Canada and the local United Way.
Over the years, Joe has acted as a mentor to entrepreneurs and business owners, both formally through organizations such as the Small Business Enterprise Centre and Summer Company for youth, and informally by assisting business owners, at no charge, in areas like sales, customer service, business plans and financing.
Stephanie Brown was one of the people who approached him, post-Ottawa. She wanted his perspective on her idea – a consulting and coaching business for beauty parlours. Joe had trouble understanding how that business could make money, and he asked Stephanie if she had any other ideas. Nine years ago, she had a granola business, she said, and she still had the recipe.
For years, Joe’s been saying, only partly as a joke, “Food is my life.” He instantly connected with the granola idea.
Joe had developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the shooting on Parliament Hill. Like many people with PTSD, he first tried to soldier on. When that didn’t work, he sought counselling. He’s getting better, although fireworks are still an issue. Since leaving Parliament, Joe has also gone through the enormous stress of separating from his wife.
Stephanie is open about the fact that she has mental health issues. She and Joe found common ground in discussions and conversations about their struggles. They became life partners as well as business partners in a company they call Living Alive Granola. Joe ran the numbers, and the break-even point was about 500 bags a week. He and Stephanie bake, mix and package over 600 bags weekly for sale through farmers’ markets, retail outlets, and livingalivegranola.ca.
Their two flavours, Maple Walnut and Honey Almond, sell for $10 a bag. Ingredients include Palmer’s dark maple syrup from near Port Stanley, Clovermead’s Summer Blossom Honey from the Aylmer area, local oats and many other ingredients.
One upside for Joe, not a person of slight build, is that the physical work of producing granola has helped him lose 50 pounds. One downside is that he hates getting up at 6 a.m. He’s never been a morning person. So he’s looking at mechanizing and standardizing some of the processes so he and Stephanie don’t have to do it all.
They’ve hired their first employee through Leads St. Thomas, an employment service for people with disabilities and those who are highly vulnerable. And the company sets aside 10 cents per bag for local mental health projects. Joe’s business and community involvement continue.
by Terry Carroll