Ask the Legends: Leslie Dan

Written by ProfitGuide

Founder and chairman


Mississauga, Ont.

Age: 80


€¢ Arrives in Canada from Hungary in 1947 at the age of 18. Works at a lumber camp, in a tobacco field and as a busboy in a restaurant to earn money for university

€¢ Earns a B.Sc. in pharmacy in 1954 and an MBA in 1959

€¢ Launches Novopharm Ltd. in 1965 to develop, manufacture and market affordable generic pharmaceuticals

€¢ Founds the Canadian Medicine Aid Programme in 1985 to provide aid to the sick in the Third World

€¢ Sells Novopharm to Israel’s Teva Pharmaceuticals in 2000 for an estimated $430 million

€¢ In 2000, he focuses his efforts on Viventia (formerly Novopharm Biotech), which develops drugs used to treat cancer

€¢ In 2008, Canadian Business estimated his net worth as $1.02 billion

Q: How many times did you have to replace your executive team at Novopharm, and did it occur at specific milestones in revenue?

Derek Bullen, President, S.I. Systems Ltd., Calgary

Dan: Usually the good people stay with you for a long time. And for us, some did—15, 20 or 25 years of service was normal. At times, people just had better offers and they left. But generally, we had very little turnover. Staff felt comfortable, they were well-treated and there wasn’t any reason to change. But sometimes you have to make changes. Some people may not be growing with the company, and invariably a certain percentage, maybe 10% or 20%, just fall out.

Q: All of your business ventures have been in the pharmaceutical industry. Do you believe that entrepreneurs should go with what they know?

Jeremy Lichtman, CEO, Lichtman Consulting Inc., Toronto

Dan: No question. They might become involved in one or two other industries, but they shouldn’t go into a business that they do not know thoroughly. Being in business is extremely complex—I don’t care what you do.

Q: Out of all the countries you could have emigrated to, Canada was where you ended up. How has Canada uniquely shaped you as a businessperson?

Marie MacPherson, Saskatoon

Dan: When I was about to come to this country, I could have gone to the States exactly one week later. I decided to come to Canada because when I arrived in 1947, the population was only 10 million. I didn’t know too much about Canada, but I felt it was not as developed as the States, so I would have more opportunities. The United States is not an easy country for entrepreneurs. The dynamics are different, the conditions are different. Certainly some people have done well, but they’re a minority. That was my vision, and it has proven correct.

Q: What was your biggest challenge in bridging the gap between the black-and-white world of a pharmacist and the dynamic, risk-taking world of an entrepreneur?

A. Szonyi, Toronto

Dan: I always wanted to be in manufacturing. Even though I served a 1½-year apprenticeship that allowed me to open a pharmacy, I never really had that intention. The challenge is finding the niche, the opportunity. You see a need, you try to fill it. Of course, if you cannot see the need, you cannot fill it.

Q: Would you suggest focusing on building a strong business before moving into philanthropy, or working it into your business life as soon as you’re able?

Leah Tremain, President and CEO, Tremain Media, Campbell River, B.C.

Dan: You should start giving some of it away, but the question is the proportion. It might be just $1,000 a year if that’s all you can afford. Or it could be $1 million a year, because that’s not a big sum to some people. I certainly think corporations have the obligation to pursue philanthropy, as well as individuals. Once you’re at a certain level, you have to open up and be involved in the community.

Q: I represent a firm founded by immigrants. What would be your advice to overcome mentality and language barriers for an immigrant-founded company like ours that would like to expand, get funding from investors, acquire accounts from Canadian companies and so on?

Katherine Balabanova, Marketing Manager, eFactorLabs Inc., Toronto

Dan: That’s not an obstacle. If you have an idea and you talk to the right people, they’ll grasp it very quickly. Good businesspeople very quickly seize an opportunity. The question is, what is their ultimate goal? Do they want to run away with the company and leave the people who started it behind, or do they look at them equally and openly? That’s really the criteria.

Q: Canada’s biotech sector has expanded greatly thanks in part to a favourable investment climate. Now that the mood has changed and government funding has mostly disappeared, how can the sector survive?

Valerie Johnston, Markham, Ont.

Dan: The answer is that it cannot. If biotech companies are unable to raise funds, it’s very difficult for them to grow. I wouldn’t say this is the end of the biotech industry in Canada, but it is very difficult right now because of the lack of funding. With biotech, you pour more and more money into it in the hope that you will succeed. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t—it’s a high-risk business. It would be advisable if the government injected more money into the sector.

Q: What’s the No. 1 contributor to your success?

Velvet Alcorn, Whitewash & Co., Orangeville, Ont.

Dan: When I started in 1965, generic pharmaceuticals were not very well accepted, and there was a lot of criticism because it was felt that they were not good quality. And, of course, the large companies put up quite a fight. I had the vision, so I pursued it, and eventually generics became one of the largest businesses in pharmaceuticals. I was in the right place, at the right time, with the right resources and the determination to do it. You have to have a feel, an intuition, that what you’re doing is the way the world is going.

Q: How do you stay motivated now that you have sufficient money to cover your lifestyle needs?

Wayne McLeish, CEO, DRN Commerce, Toronto

Dan: If you’re an entrepreneur, you should keep doing what you think you’re good at, based on your age. You have to wind down at a certain age and be less active, or help young people develop their business by financing them, which does not require very much day-to-day involvement. Successful people eventually have to wind down and become involved in a less active way. If they are well off, they should learn to share and give away to less fortunate people or organizations. To me it’s mandatory, because you cannot take it to the grave.

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