The Conversation with Peter Dhillon

Peter Dhillon, CEO Richberry Group of Companies

Canada’s largest cranberry grower and first non-U.S chair of Ocean Spray on learning the family tradeand the importance of business ethics

Last year Peter Dhillon, CEO of Richmond-based Richberry Group of Companies, became the first non-American and youngest-ever chairman of Ocean Spray Cranberries. Richberry is the largest Canadian owner and one of the largest shareholders of Ocean Spray, a co-operative owned by 700-odd cranberry growers in North America and Chile. This year Dhillon, a UBC alumnus, celebrated his 50th birthday with a $7.5-million bequest to found the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. The centre—which was expected to open this fall under an interim director—will support the study, teaching and promotion of values-driven business practices locally, nationally and around the world.

Your father was B.C.’s first Sikh RCMP officer. How did your family become cranberry growers?
My father was an immigrant who came to Canada when he was 13 years old. He and his brother lived with their aunt in Burnaby. Their family was still back in India. They basically sold everything to get him here. I remember him telling me that he and his brother after school would have to pick up pop bottles and pop cans, bring them home, try to make money. They used to live on a sawdust floor, so we came from a very humble upbringing. When he finished high school, he couldn’t find a job so he joined the RCMP. Then he was a prison guard at Oakalla and then a sheriff officer in Vancouver.

He was always an entrepreneur on the side. He went from owning apartments to restaurants to gas stations, and invested in California peach and prune farms when the Canadian dollar was higher than the U.S. My parents grew up in the Punjab region, which is called the breadbasket of India, so agriculture was in their DNA. It was my mother who actually spurred my dad to go into cranberries. They scraped together every penny they could and invested with two other shareholders. My dad ran the business to a point that they were doing so well that he retired from policing and went full-time into cranberry farming.

You also have a legal background. After graduating from UBC with a B.A. in history, you got a law degree from the University of Leeds in the U.K. Why did you decide to go that route?
This business partnership that my dad was involved in was breaking up, and one partner wanted to sue another partner. I remember our lawyer telling my dad, ‘You’re getting dragged into this even though it’s not about you.’ My dad didn’t have postsecondary education, was a police officer, but I just felt so vulnerable for him. I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way I’m ever going to let this happen to me.’

At what point did you decide to join the family business?
I was finishing my law degree and setting up my articles in England. We were a small company and doing relatively OK, and my father asked me, ‘Do you want to spend a career in law or do you want to come back and help me grow this business?’ I said, ‘I want to come back because I love the business.’ He said, ‘Then come back now.’ My plan was to come back five years down the road after I practised law, so I ended up leaving a career that I never even began and joining my dad. We were just over 100-plus acres. We’ve really grown it. My parents allowed me to come in and apply my vision to it and supported me so I could do what I did.

What inspired you to launch a centre for business ethics? 
I was having a conversation with a friend about the misbehaviour of the corporate world, especially in 2008 after the credit crisis. When you realize the hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money that was spent to keep some of these businesses afloat, you would think that somebody would have said, ‘We’ve got to start looking at changing behaviour of students as they go through business school.’ You would have thought this idea would have come from Bay Street or Wall Street. It came from a cranberry bog. But I’m a businessperson, and I realize that corporate misbehaviour can have a big impact on all businesses, so I really wanted to do something that was meaningful and I had the opportunity with Sauder to do it. There’s no reason why there can’t be room for compassion and kindness in business. I’m not saying that it’s not there, but it really needs to be more of a pillar than it is today. Not even an elective. It’s got to be mandatory. If we get it right, we can pass it to other business schools around the world and put this program all over the place as a model.

How will it work?
We have an international search going on for a professor to be kind of a skipper of the ship. We’re going to have an advisory board made up of business leaders. The dean may even go outside British Columbia and Canada and look at bringing some international business leaders into this. So it’s a real collaboration of business and the university coming together and putting something forward that will be hopefully meaningful for future business leaders. Whatever the vision is today, it’s going to be completely different 10 years from now. It’s kind of like a farm: I plant the seed, and now I watch the plant grow. •