Entrepreneur of the Year

While the rest of us enjoy our annual 
holidays and look forward to cashing in our pensions, the empire builders are out there putting it all on the line, building businesses. And here in B.C. we’ve got more than our share of inspirational success stories.

There are those who worked their way up from the bottom, such as Dan On, founder of Dan-D Foods Ltd., who was just grateful to land a job as a janitor when he emigrated from Vietnam in 1979. Today he oversees a food processing empire that employs 500 people worldwide. 

Then there are the mavericks who cut out from the herd to forge their own path, such as Entrepreneur of the Year Chad Wasilenkoff. Disillusioned by an industry that meekly followed the reigning “market wisdom,” he left the brokerage business to do his own investment research. The upshot: he unearthed an undervalued asset that would become the world’s largest supplier of specialty paper. 

For a jolt of inspiration, turn the page for details of these and other winners of this year’s Pacific Region Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year competition.


Chad Wasilenkoff

CEO, Fortress Paper Ltd.

Perched above the McDonald’s restaurant at Lonsdale Quay, the offices of Fortress Paper are separated from the throng of commuters and shoppers below by a metal gate. Atop an unassuming stairway sits the office of 38-year-old Chad Wasilenkoff, who oversaw the production and sale of $198.3-million worth of specialty paper last year.

The low-key premises match Wasilenkoff, a straight shooter who recalls gathering golf balls at Silver Springs Golf & Country Club in Calgary when he was 10, banding together other kids to help him and then deploying the earnings in the then-lucrative trade in Atari video games and consoles. Trading in BMX bikes, cars and artwork followed. By high school, Wasilenkoff was an honours student despite being absent more than 70 per cent of the time amassing what he describes as “a small little nest egg.”

After graduating from UBC in 1996 with a BA in urban geography and economics, Wasilenkoff worked as an investment adviser and financial planner at Canaccord. Duped like so many other investors by the Bre-X scandal, then the dot-com bubble, Wasilenkoff vowed henceforth to do his own research rather than rely on analysts’ investment reports.

“It forced me to do that much more research, dig that much deeper, work that much harder to try and do it on my own,” he says. When he left Canaccord in 2001, he was determined to eschew investment trends. “Whatever’s hot I have no interest in. Find me something that everyone hates, they don’t want to invest in, they’re shying away from,” he says.

Buying cheap meant limited risk, but he saw opportunities in acquiring poorly performing private companies and taking them public. The change in valuation by going public and the funding available through the public markets opened doors that led to good returns in the long term.

Wasilenkoff cycled through gold and uranium before finally, in 2006, encountering an opportunity to buy two struggling specialty paper mills from Mercer International Inc., in Dresden, Germany, and Landqart, Switzerland. The price was two to three times earnings before interest, taxes and amortization, at a time when similar properties were selling at nine times EBITDA.

“They had strong profiles, great reputations,” he recalls. “What they needed was a more focused management team and some of the growth capital.” Wasilenkoff took the mills public under the Fortress banner in 2007, a move that garnered the cash needed to upgrade the Dresden mill to produce special non-woven wallpaper. Upgrades to the Swiss mill that are scheduled for completion in November this year will equip it to handle a new counterfeit-resistant substrate for the Swiss franc and transform the Swiss mill into the world’s biggest banknote producer.

The recent acquisition of a kraft paper mill in Thurso, Quebec, for $1.2 million, follows a similar model. Fortress will retrofit the mill to produce cellulose-based rayon fabric, which is projected to add more than $200 million to Fortress’s annual profits.

Aside from Fortress, Wasilenkoff maintains interests in real estate, community newspapers and fibreglass-reinforced plastic.

As one judge who backed Wasilenkoff’s nomination for Entrepreneur of the Year noted, “From selling used golf balls as a kid to salvaging paper mills . . . Chad is a true entrepreneur with a vision that equates to success and profits.” – Peter Mitham

What was your
first real job?

Working construction as a student at UBC for Nu-Tech Roofing & Waterproofing Ltd.

What was your first big break in your current business?

Closing on the first two paper mills gave us a good asset base to start to build the company from. And given that one of the businesses was a producer of banknotes, we got instant credibility. People would take meetings and we were able to expand the business

Who was your role model/mentor?

Warren Buffett

If I wasn’t doing this, I’d like to be . . . golfing

the judges say:

From selling used golf balls as a kid to salvaging paper mills across the country, Chad is a true entrepreneur with a vision that equates to success and profits


Karen Flavelle

President and CEO, Purdy’s Chocolates

When Karen Flavelle took over Purdy’s from her father, Charles Flavelle, in 1997, selling chocolates was a commodity business, with predictable assortments sold by the pound. Putting her marketing expertise to use, she put her customers first. “We try to understand what occasion the customer is looking for and what price point they’re looking for and then create something that fits that need,” she explains. She introduced lean manufacturing and launched an aggressive growth campaign; today Purdy’s has 900 employees and 58 stores, and is opening its first downtown Toronto store this fall. – David Jordan

Dan On

President and CEO, Dan-D Foods Ltd.

When he arrived in Canada from Vietnam in 1979 at age 18, Dan On had no ambition of founding a global food processing and distribution empire. “I just struggled to make a living in Canada and do my best,” he recalls. Happy to land a job as a janitor, he just wanted to be the best janitor he could be. But when his boss retired in 1989 and closed the food importing business, On seized the opportunity. Today Dan-D Foods employs 500 people worldwide and processes, packages and distributes more than 2,000 products from a 67,000-square-foot facility in Richmond. 
– David Jordan

What was your 
first real job?

Selling lumber to sawmills in Quebec and New Brunswick

What was your first big break in your current business?

Transforming from a trading company to a harvesting company

Who was your role model/mentor?

I thought I was the smartest kid! I read a lot about people’s success stories – they never agreed with me. I thought I was lucky. I was very vulnerable because of my optimism

If I wasn’t doing this, I’d like to be . . .

travelling with my wife, playing golf, skiing, hiking. Those are my passions