Special to Focus
After immigrating to Toronto from Kenya in 1975, Navin Chandaria has quietly become one of Canada’s most revered entrepreneurial minds.
He has grown a small fire log company into the dominant producer in North America, received the Confederation Medal from the Governor General of Canada, and is the recipient of several prestigious business awards.
After selling his fire log business in 2006, Chandaria has been using his unique development skills to rebuild failing businesses and help other immigrants to make it in the modern international marketplace — all this while managing several profitable ventures within his company, Conros Corp, a leading manufacturer of consumer products in North America.
For his efforts, Chandaria was recently honoured as a Pioneer for Change at Tiff Bell Lightbox. The event was presented by Skills for Change, a not-for-profit agency specializing in employment success for internationally educated professionals, and CIBC.
He was also the focus of a documentary, A Story of Connectedness, directed by Mars Horodyski, detailing Chandaria’s personal story of immigrating to Canada.
A Q&A with this unique individual. Excerpts:
First off, congratulations on the recognition from Skills for Change. What does this mean to you and why do you think you were selected?
It makes you feel good. I must have been doing the right things. I never worked to get this but it was a good surprise to get. They wanted to have a role model and wanted someone who could inspire the people at Skills For Change who have lost their dignity and lost hope. I wanted to show them that at the end of the tunnel is light. Basically, I want to reinstate hope in these people.
Unfortunately what happens in Canada, being one of the greatest countries in the world, it is so powerful in attracting the best of the best from every area of the world. Who from elsewhere would not want to come to Canada? Everybody feels the inclination to come to Canada, and after about six months or a year they are approved and it’s a new life for them. They give up their job, sell their houses, have a party and pack their bags. They come to Canada.
The quality of people whom Skills for Change are trying to help, I was just blown away. These are the most important resources that we are dumping and throwing away. These are the best of the best of doctors, engineers, architects, accountants and so on. They bring them here — and we cut their legs off and kill them. I think that is the worst thing that Canada could ever do; to damage and take away the real resources of another country.
They bring them over here and we don’t even use them, we basically kill them. These people, they end up driving taxis, working in the grocery store and in the meantime you have destroyed their dignity. They can’t go home now and tell people they are taxi drivers. In talking to some people I was so sad to see this. It doesn’t even end there. After a while their families start breaking up and that is even worse. Suddenly they don’t have what they are used to and suddenly they have lost their dream.
I saw all of this and said, what can I do? There is nothing we can do to change the roles of the institutions of architects, doctors and such because they are too powerful. What I try to do is reinstate hope into their lives.
Talk to us about your own experience as an immigrant to Canada. What brought you here?
I came from Kenya, a country in Africa. Everyone knows the story of Idi Amin. I came here in 1975. I was just married for a year and I packed up a suitcase and came over. I come from an established family who had built business in Africa but I wanted better and I wanted to be in a competitive environment. After Idi Amin, it woke everyone up and we thought about what could happen to us, too. We could build up here and some Idi Amin type of guy comes in and makes you a beggar overnight. That’s not what I wanted.
Also, Kenya is just south of the Sahara, and one of the most important things I realized about watching the desert move south was what was going to happen if you fast-forwarded 80 years and all the water disappeared.
What interested me at that age — and I had the opportunity to go to any country in Europe or America — I thought Canada would be the country that had the most of the two most important resources in the world. One is white gold that is on the ground — that is to say snow — and black gold, that is underground: energy. So it was about water and the energy. As a young boy I realized why places like Jamaica or Mexico were not the breadbasket of the world. It’s all because we have snow and cold weather. In those places it runs through the ground into the sea, but here it freezes and it stays on the ground.
You have seen things change a lot from the time you arrived in the city. How does Toronto now compare to when you first arrived in terms of an environment for small business?
I have never seen a city grow so fast and so well with so many people from different backgrounds and nationalities.
Toronto’s truly a multicultural city. It’s clean, everything is working and it is one of the greatest cities.
The difference about this city is that it is a banking centre, it’s Canada’s main economic city and all the resources you need to succeed are within reach here. What is even more important about business is networking and whom you know. You can’t be sitting in Timbuktu and come to Toronto overnight and walk into so-and-so and ask for a business loan. You need to develop a reputation and a family history.
In that regard, Toronto has everything available so long as you live here for a while and build your network.
Talk to us about Conros. How has it evolved over the years?
Coming from Africa and looking at Canada, a country of cold and snow, I couldn’t think of anything other than manufacturing fire logs. Cleaning the environment was something I knew was going to be a big issue, so innovation was always a factor in the back of our mind. We bought a small fire log company in New Brunswick that was one of 12 competitors. Through new technology we started building a product that would let our product burn five times cleaner than natural wood.
When I got into the fire log business it was a big thing to be macho. Get a chainsaw and cut your own wood and bag it yourself. We offered the convenience of just needing a match and in three minutes you have a burning fire log along with a few minutes of leisure and pleasure.
Always through products innovation and safer products we have got where we are today. Unfortunately in 2006 we sold the company after we had 94 per cent of the Canadian market and 57 per cent of the U.S. market and only one competitor left out of 12… things were changing fast.
Our product was made from sawdust that we are getting for free because sawmills had to dump it. In the last 25 to 30 years most of the plants that were suppliers of sawdust have left Canada for Asia. Another waste product we used was wax and if you look at what happened at the cost of oil, going from $8 a barrel to over $100 a barrel, we saw what was coming.
We know that every business is a cycle and with experience we sold our business in 2006 but we are now involved in so many other businesses. We take businesses that are broken down and give them new life. We use our experience and knowledge of sales, marketing and innovation. In the process we have built several companies up and sold them off. We recognized that entrepreneurs have a certain role to play and they shouldn’t be the same people that go and manage a multi-billion-dollar company. Managing a big company is all politics and that is a different thing. Being an entrepreneur takes a business to a certain size and that job is a totally different animal.
What has given you the greatest satisfaction about your entrepreneurial career?
If you are a painter and you paint the most beautiful painting, it is not about the value but about the art itself. Unfortunately, businesses are measured by the bottom line — but that’s not the way I measure things. If you love what you do and you work hard, you have always succeeded.
Looking down the road, where do you see opportunities for small businesses here to thrive?
When people look at small businesses they look at the small franchise, the small restaurant or the coffee shop, laundromat or other things. I look at a business that I can nurture and see where it can go. Maybe it’s a huge opportunity in North America or around the world. Today our market is not local, it is global. If you aren’t on your toes somebody else somewhere in the world is going to outperform you. You have to be very open minded, look around and be up to date with what is happening all over the world.
— Metroland News Service