Leslie Dan: on "the noble, ancient profession" and the art of giving

The billionaire philanthropist and drug pioneer on "the noble, ancient profession" of pharmacy—and the art of giving

“I was born in Budapest. I came to Canada in 1947, when I was 18, arriving in Toronto all alone. I survived the war using false identity papers.

Canada was a young country, so I thought I could find more opportunities here. I was overwhelmed. But I also thought the sky's the limit, and I was filled with hope and optimism.

First, I had to worry about making a living. So for a year and a half, I worked to get the money I needed to study pharmacy at university–as a bus boy in a restaurant, in a lumber camp, in a tobacco field. I also had to go back to high school, Harbord Collegiate in downtown Toronto. I could speak a little English, but when it came to writing and reading books, that was a higher level of education I needed to acquire.

Pharmacy is a noble, ancient profession. It's a clean one too–pharmacies are always well-organized. A high standard of ethics is also required.

While studying at the University of Toronto, I became attracted to the manufacturing end of pharmacy. I have to admit I didn't like retail, although I did work as a retail pharmacist for more than a year in order to get my licence.

I met my first wife, Judith, by word of mouth. I lived in a fraternity house at university and heard about her from friends there. We were married in 1958 and were together for 37 years, until she died in 1995. I married my second wife, Anna, a year or so later.

My first business, back in the '50s, was an unusual operation–it was sending medical parcels overseas. Many newcomers to Canada from Europe–Poland, Czechoslovakia–received requests from relatives back home to send medicines. There was a huge demand for certain types of drugs–like ones to treat tuberculosis. A lot of people got sick with TB during the war, and there was still a lot of it around, even in the 1950s.

In 1960, I got into distribution of over-the-counter drugs. It helped me understand the business, which came in handy running Novopharm.

When I started Novopharm, in 1965, I thought there was a great need, and opportunity, to provide less expensive, generic medicines. This was helped by legislation passed in 1969 that made it possible to manufacture products under licence and pay a royalty to the patent holder.

There is a need for both brand-name drugs and cheaper generic drugs. Brand drugs should be given protection, but it should be for a reasonable period of time, not an excessive period.

In Novopharm's first year, I sold $165,000 worth of medicines. When I sold my company, in 2000, sales at Novopharm were $750 million, and it employed 3,000 people in three countries–Canada, the United States and Hungary.

As a businessman, you have to have certain qualities–first, you have to have vision, you have to be able to see into the future for at least the next two or three years. Still, it was all a matter of taking one step at a time.

A smart businessman also has to attract good people to work with, so you must develop the management skills to do that. You have to let them do the job, and deliver on the responsibilities they have undertaken.

The reason for selling Novopharm in 2000 was that the firm had grown very large, and there was a need to show continuity for the future. You realize we are all mortal beings, and sooner or later you have to plan for when you're no longer here. There was also the debacle of the Eaton family losing Eaton's. I came to the conclusion that if you want succession, you must plan it very carefully.

Big businesses owned by families often have problems when it comes to succession–think of the Eatons, the Steinbergs. There are some exceptions–Jean Coutu, for example. His sons are very competent in managing that business. But you must think very hard about whether or not your children can survive in a very competitive field. Big businesses require very special skills. Not everyone is cut out to manage larger corporations.

There were several companies interested in acquiring Novopharm, but I settled on Teva, based in Israel, because it was a very competent, stable organization. It was a good strategic fit for both partners.

My efforts are now focused on a biotech company called Viventia [formerly Novopharm Biotech]. Every age has its opportunity, and the future of medicine now is biotechnology. The origins of Viventia, which is involved in cancer research, is that my son, a neurosurgeon who also has a PhD in science, was interested in better cancer medicines. He started the company in 1990 and carried on for 12 years; eventually he left the company, but we're still pursuing what he started. Now my daughter Andrea is involved.

Viventia is a completely different business than Novopharm. The only similarity is that they are both businesses. With biotechnology, you start from a zero base; you have to cut your own path because there is no precedent. You must experiment constantly to find out what is the best way to manufacture a product that works. With generic drugs, it's a matter of copying an existing drug as efficiently as possible.

At Viventia, we decided that one of the best ways to treat cancer is to use the body's own immune system, such as antibodies, to target specific cancer cells. In the past 12 years, we've sunk $120 million into Viventia, but things now look very promising. We're working on treatments for head, neck and bladder cancer. Of course, if you're successful, everyone is cheering you. If you fail, everyone says you're a dumb boy. But I can see success. I can see it in my mind's eye.

In 1985, Novopharm started the Canadian Medicine Aid program. The purpose is to send drugs to the Third World. Every year, we send out shipments worth millions of dollars to doctors, pharmacists, nurses and charities working in developing countries.

I am also helping to finance the construction of a new faculty of pharmacy building at the University of Toronto. It should be ready in early September. It will allow the university to double the number of pharmacists–from 120 to 240–it graduates each year. Right now, there's a huge shortage of pharmacists.

I supported the new faculty because I wanted to leave some sort of legacy behind. It's certainly a far cry from my first year in pharmacy at U of T–I never believed one day a school would be named after me.

While I worked hard to build my business, at some level, it's a matter of chance to become as fortunate as me. So if you are that fortunate, you have to share it.”

Timeline: Leslie Dan
Toronto, ON
Born Nov. 26, 1929, in Budapest, Hungary
Pharmacist, generic drug maker, philanthropist

1947: Arrives in Canada with $10. Completes high school to prepare for pharmacy studies at the University of Toronto. Graduates in 1954.

1954: Completes pharmacy residency; studies MBA at night. Also starts business translating, filling and shipping foreign prescriptions.

1965: After starting drug distribution business in 1961, establishes Novopharm Ltd. with the idea of producing cheaper pharmaceuticals.

1995: Novopharm marks 30th anniversary, buys Wampole Canada; Novopharm Biotech (now Viventia Biotech) unit goes public.

2000: Sells Novopharm to Israel's Teva Pharmaceuticals for an estimated $430 million. Puts efforts into developing cancer drugs at Viventia.