BizLondon cover story on Adam Rice -- Against All Odds

Published in Business London, October, 2016        

           Lunch time could never come soon enough for Adam Rice. Working at an office job downtown, he watched the clock incessantly all morning. Waiting. Waiting. Counting the minutes until he could leave the office, change from his suit and tie to sweatpants and hoodie, then double back downtown, hoping no one would recognize him.

            Wearing his disguise, he would cycle through a growing network of drug dealers, desperate for his daily fix of Oxycontin. He’d take some immediately and save some for later, ducking into washrooms wherever he went to quench his thirst for more. When he couldn’t get Oxycontin or when it stopped giving him the high he needed, he added alcohol to the mix.

            Then valium. Then cocaine. He needed it and went to extraordinary measures to get it.

           “I was spending $700 to $800 a month on Oxycontin, just to maintain things,” he says. “I was engaged at the time, leading two lives. I would wait for my fiancé to fall asleep, then go out to buy drugs at night. I would drive to Toronto for drugs when I couldn’t get what I needed in London.”

            For a while he fooled the people in his life. For a while, he was the ultimate multitasker, juggling two identities, one of whom was taking ever greater risks, brushing ever closer to death.

            Every addict’s story is unique and yet so predictable. Inevitably, Rice, then 27, crashed. “I couldn’t handle it. I told my parents. I told my fiancé. I needed help.”

            Late in 2012, he went to the Homewood Health Centre in Guelph. His 35-day stay was covered by insurance, and he quit everything, cold turkey, with the help of doctors and therapists.

            “They told me to change everything in my life, to create a new life with new habits,” he recalls.

            Simple. And damn near impossible.

            Adam Rice is 31 today and running a promising start-up tech company with a high school buddy, Andrew Mackness. It’s a nifty concept that aggregates Fintech lenders across the country, giving consumers a way of securing a loan quickly and easily, bypassing traditional banks and payday loan shops. Known as LoanConnect, it’s the Trivago of consumer loans, the first of many products Rice’s fledgling company, Asset Direct of Canada Inc., plans to release in the coming months and years.

            But for all his early success, the business is something of a footnote to his personal story – a harrowing, exhausting and death-defying tale that begins officially in 2009, but arguably has roots going back to his pre-teen years.

            When he was in grade 8, he travelled with his family – he has a younger brother and sister -- on a nine-month trip around the world, visiting 30 countries and spending extended time in Nepal.

            “I looked at the people in Nepal who were building homes out of mud, with kids who had nothing but were so happy. I never forgot that, how happy they were with nothing, compared to kids back home.”

            After high school – Central then Lucas – he spent three years at Huron College before giving in to his first love: travel. He went to China and started teaching English and Western culture. He also completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Hong Kong and earned his degree.

            “Then I met a guy from Germany, and we decided to start a company together.” It was a precursor to the aggregating service he runs today. In China, it focused on real estate. There is no single MLS-style listing of properties for sale. There are dozens. So Rice and his partner built a site that brought them together. And they worked with brokers to streamline the listing and sales process.

            It wasn’t going to be his forever business, and he never intended to stay in China long term. But he never got the chance to plan his next step.

            In 2011, he was riding his motorcycle through remote Southern China when he was hit and thrown from the bike. He had severe internal injuries. The only good news that day was that he had health insurance. However, the hospital did not have the O negative blood he needed. It was three hours away.

            “I didn’t have three hours,” Rice says. “I remember lying on the gurney and calling my mom, saying, ‘Sorry mom, I’m not sure I’m going to make it.’ They decided to filter the O positive blood they had because it was the only option. But they knew it would make me sick, and it did.”

            The surgery was successful in the sense that he didn’t die. But it was ham-handed otherwise and left him with much more muscle and nerve damage than was necessary to remove his spleen and repair his other internal injuries. The nerve damage, in particular, was a serious issue that would haunt him for years.

            “My dad flew over right away and was there with me for about two weeks. The pain was bad, like my stomach was on fire. That’s when I started taking Oxycontin, to manage the pain.”

            By the beginning of 2012, he was living with his mother and slowly recovering. Whatever progress he made recovering from his original injuries seemed to be offset by intense, ongoing nerve pain. In addition to Oxycontin, he was getting injections at St. Joseph’s pain management clinic.

            “I was getting hooked on the meds, and I was depressed. I had been in China, running this business, enjoying life. And now I was just trying to manage pain. I couldn’t do much of anything. I would watch the clock for the moment I could take my meds. For a while, I stayed on the schedule, but then I started to do it earlier. And once I started doing that, it turned into a major addiction. I couldn’t stop.”

            With the pain somewhat under control but his addiction metastasizing at an alarming rate, he began his double life – suit and tie to work, sweatpants and hoodie to buy drugs.

            When he emerged from his five weeks of treatment, he had a brief period of sobriety. But it slipped away one weekend at his family’s cottage, drowned in a bottle of whiskey and the illusory bravado a few months of recovery had created.

            “I decided I could handle things myself and I went up to the cottage with the whiskey to prove it. Within three weeks, I was right back to where I had been, only much worse this time. I was using everything I could get my hands on. My family was calling Homewood because they thought I was going to die. My sister picked me up to take me back to Homewood, but I remember she took my pulse when she saw me. I was in rough shape. I was seeing things crawling on my body. I thought I was on a cruise ship. The doctor at Homewood said I was lucky to be alive. My legs below my knees were blue and I needed a catheter.”

            The next plan was a long-term placement at Turning Point back in London. He lived there for seven months and started seeing a psychiatrist every day. She turned out to be Dr. Mary Bruckschwaiger. “She was very busy, way too busy to see me every day, but before she became a psychiatrist, she had been a medical doctor, and she had delivered me as a baby. Total coincidence. So she made time for me.”

            Despite the efforts of everyone involved, he relapsed again. It happened while he was still at Turning Point, proving – as though there’s any doubt – that addicts can fight through any obstacles to get what they crave.

            At this point, perhaps the only thing that could stop him finally stepped in. His body said, “Enough.”

            Standing outside the Apple Store in Masonville Place, he suffered a full clonic seizure. Still insured, he went to a detox centre in Waterloo, where he had another seizure. With bleeding on his brain, he was shuttled by ambulance to a Hamilton hospital where he spent two weeks, most of which he does not remember.

            From the bad joke department: Doctors diagnosed him with a brain injury and prescribed…narcotics.

            After two weeks in Hamilton, he hit absolute bottom, the last chance he was ever going to get. He spent six weeks locked up at the London Health Sciences psychiatric ward, meeting with a doctor and social worker every day. From there it was on to the Thames Valley Addiction Centre in 2013. He also began attending meetings in a 12-step program.

            “I attended 180 meetings in 90 days, and I connected with a friend I had in high school who became my sponsor. That finally worked. I’ve been sober now for three years. I’m very lucky for all the support I had. Very luck and grateful.”

            His sponsor, who remains anonymous, had looked up to Rice in high school and had been through his own hellish cycle of alcohol and drug addiction. “I saw him at a meeting, and we went for coffee. I was very happy to become his sponsor. He was ready to make a change.”

            Rice continues going to 12-step meetings. In fact, he enjoys them so much, they’re often the highlight of his day or week. He’s also sponsoring others.

            Two years ago, he returned to Western full-time for two semesters to earn a post-grad diploma in communication and management. He’s in the process now of parlaying that into an MBA from a school in Australia, studying by correspondence and taking regular, supervised exams in London.

            The idea for a loan aggregator business came when he was sitting in a dental chair and wondering how people without insurance paid for expensive procedures and products. He spent most of the summer of 2015 talking to home renovators and figuring out how to create a lending website renovators would recommend to their clients who wanted to finance their home improvements.

            LoanConnect is paid by lenders, much the way mortgage brokers are paid by mortgage lenders. Customers do not pay a fee, and the renovator or other business that refers a borrower to the site gets a $50 payment. LoanConnect receives about 50 loan applications per day and continues to add new lenders and products to its site.

            Parent company Asset Direct is located in a bright, third-floor office in the Horton Street Goodwill building, home to many a small business. “Without the support of Goodwill – the loans and office space – I wouldn’t have been able to get this business off the ground,” Rice says. He and Mackness share the office and banter back and forth during the day. The long-time friend knows all about Rice’s struggles and is supportive.

            The least surprising part of Rice’s story is that his relationship with his fiancé ended during his darkest drug days. He has since reconnected with a high school friend, Jessica Theilade. Together, they are providing kinship care for a youngster named Ryder, who will turn two in December.

            “We want to adopt him,” Rice says, eyeing a picture of Jessica and Ryder on his desk. “We’re going through the CAS process, and that is our goal.”

            Like the reformed smoker or annoying weight-loss friend who talks of little else but his changed life, the sober drug addict can veer into cliché at any moment. The refreshing part of Rice’s story is that he never does.

            He is genuinely thankful to the army of people who have supported him, put up with him and, quite literally, saved his life multiple times in the last five years. Not least his parents, Linda and Rob, and his siblings. He is genuinely worried about people he sees every day downtown who are struggling with addiction but do not have the insurance policies and resources to land them in private clinics and treatment centres.

            He can’t say enough about Goodwill for helping him launch his company. Ditto for Western’s Propel entrepreneurship accelerator, where he spent this past summer nurturing and growing his business.

            He may not yet realize how difficult it is to adopt a child in CAS care, particularly for someone with his recent history of addiction. But he genuinely believes young Ryder arrived in his life for a reason, that he can help give the boy a life he might not otherwise enjoy.

            He is committed to growing his business, working with Mackness to expand their quiver of services. And yet, it’s never going to be the most important thing in his life. He has the perspective of someone driving home from a funeral who promises to make some changes in his life. Rice is thankful the funeral isn’t his own, and he’s making the changes so many of us consider but never implement.