Emerging Entrepeneur Winner: Davis Yung

Davis Yung Fresh Direct Produce Ltd. If there is such a thing as the Canadian dream, Davis Yung would be the first to tell you he’s living it. Twenty-one years ago, the Hong Kong émigré was shuffling through Grade 12 orientation at King Edward high school and settling into life as a home-stay student. Today, on a hot July afternoon, the 38-year-old Yung wanders with pride through the warehouse headquarters of Fresh Direct Produce Ltd., the multimillion-dollar business he built from the ground up. “I always find it very amazing to look back,” the affable Yung observes in a quiet boardroom setting, while a steady stream of fruits and vegetables from across the globe moves in and out of the large temperature-controlled storerooms nearby. “I’m so privileged and lucky to be where I am today. I just came here to learn English. It’s hard to believe that I’m actually running a business here.” Last year the company pulled in $34 million in revenues – “and we’re growing 20 to 30 per cent every year,” says Yung, who clearly hit the ground running when he started the company in 2003 with a staff of 10 (today he employs more than 80). By the time this magazine hits the stands, Fresh Direct will be leaving its initial home on Natal Avenue and settling into new digs, a 55,000-square-foot site on Malcolm Avenue.

Yung is the first to admit he entered the produce industry by chance. In the early ’90s he was a disillusioned financial analyst working for the UBC hospital when a friend with family connections to Van-Whole Produce Ltd. suggested he try a career change – and it took. Over the next decade, Yung would work his way up at Van-Whole Produce from sales co-ordinator to import buyer, sales manager and, eventually, sales and marketing director. “It was a great learning experience,” he recalls. “My previous boss told me, ‘Everyone needs to eat, and it’s a healthy industry. You’re doing something good for yourself and for the community.’ And it’s recession proof: no matter how the economy is, people will still eat produce. And in Canada, especially on the West Coast, we eat quite healthy and all these things are contributing to really a stable industry.” When the Jim Pattison Group scooped up Van-Whole and his boss retired, Yung spent a year consulting in the industry before taking the plunge with Fresh Direct. It was a gutsy move for a youngster in a long-standing and competitive local industry. “We are a young company but we are very proactive, I would say, versus a lot of the big players in the market,” asserts Yung. “They’re kind of settled and they’re happy where they are. And also they’ve got a lot of existing business – they don’t need to be as hungry as we are. We have to fight for every little inch of market share that we can get and every little order that we can get. That’s what drives us to be better.” A passion for the merchandise also helps. “I’m living as a produce guy,” says Yung with a laugh. “It’s exciting just to see the product. . . . Fruits and vegetables have every single colour you can name: purple, green, orange, yellow. And they are all vibrant. I have a 1½ year-old and a 3½ year-old, and when they see the produce, their eyes pop out. I look at an orange and I find it amazing.” The juiced-up Yung, now a Canadian citizen, vows his current success is just the beginning: “Our goal is to be a global company. Right now we’re importing globally from 15 countries, but at the end of the day we would like to export globally.” He gives a winning smile and confesses, “Sometimes you don’t want to tell people about these dreams, because they’re always so far out. It’s not very realistic, but it’s that dream or vision that drives you.” AND THE JUDGES SAY… “With society’s return to ‘green,’ the timing here couldn’t be better”