Built from Struggle

DME’s Peter Toombs went from building Prince Edward Island’s first brewery to the unemployment line, but his entrepreneurial drive brought him back

Peter Toombs, founder and president of Diversified Metal Engineering Ltd. (DME), traces his entrepreneurial roots back to the age of 10, when he began selling household goods to his sister.

“I’d find all this stuff in the attic, then put a price tag on it and set up shop,” Toombs recalls, but he admits that the business came crumbling down when he found a chemistry set and started making perfumes. “My parents were concerned about corrosion and explosions.”

While his parents were certainly patient, it’s not surprising that they encouraged such economic experimentation. Toombs’s father, Hillard, was himself an entrepreneur who got his start with only a ninth-grade education, working as a window washer for a pharmacy in a small town; three years later, he owned the business.

Although watching that happen in front of his eyes inspired Toombs, he says that, for the most part, “entrepreneurialism is hard-wired; you either have the drive or you don’t.” And for him, that drive came in the field of engineering, where he charted a course that eventually led to the creation of his own firm. However, the route wasn’t without its ups and downs—many of them extreme.

Through the Years

1971
Begins selling his sister items recovered from his parents’ attic

1984
Graduates with a mechanical engineering degree from New Brunswick University

1986
Opens his first brewery with Charlottetown Metal Products (CMP)

1990
Fails to buy the assets of the then-defunct CMP

1991
Launches DME in his apartment

1992
Sees $600,000 in sales in his first year in business

1997
Wins the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award for the Atlantic provinces

Toombs’s journey began at the University of New Brunswick, one of the top engineering schools in Canada, where he chose to study mechanical engineering because it offered a high potential income. He struggled at first—“I had no idea what I was doing,” he says, “and all but flunked out the first year”—but he recovered, and immediately after graduation he landed a job with Charlottetown Metal Products (CMP), a metal fabrication company owned by Billy Ricks, another noted entrepreneur.

Soon after, Ricks decided to get into the brewing business, building tanks from the metal produced in his own shop, and it was the first pivotal moment in Toombs’s career. “I was only there for a month,” Toombs says, “and he walked into my office with a top-secret file and said, ‘You can’t tell anybody, but we’re going to build a brewery on Prince Edward Island.” For Toombs, it was a personal and professional coup. “My eyes just lit up,” he says. “I had no idea what the size and challenge of the task was going to be, but I was in my early 20s, living on an island without draft beer, and I thought, ‘Holy cow, I’m going to build a brewery?’ Those were exciting times.”

After Ricks and Toombs sobered from the high, they continued opening breweries, but it was a tough business to get into for a company that had previously fabricated metal for food manufacturers. CMP went under in 1990, and that’s when Toombs’s entrepreneurial wheels began spinning. “I saw an opportunity to grab a hold of a business that had a lot of great ideas,” he says, “and thought, ‘I could make a go of this thing.’”

The fates tested his spirits yet again, though, when he tried to buy the company’s assets at auction and was outbid, letting down himself as well as CMP’s former employees.

“It was quite a crash,” says Toombs, who soon after found himself with no job prospects, no income, and nowhere to go but the back of the line at the Employment Insurance office. “I got in that line for the first time in my life,” he says, “and I looked at the situation … and said, ‘I can’t do this.’ I had to find a way to get myself self-employed.” The answer came from Toombs’s accountant, who suggested he start doing field work, fabricating and welding with mobile machines.

Toombs thus launched DME from his apartment in 1991, and for the first time everything fell into place. The company quickly got some contracts and found a shop, and today, with 50 employees, it designs and builds equipment for a variety of applications—from brewing to biotechnology—and it’s expanding into China and India.

Getting there took everything, but Toombs seems to have made peace with the hardships. “You have to have a tolerance for risk, you have to be stubborn, and you have to understand people because they’re your key assets,” he says. “But you also have to have entrepreneurial spirit.”