World brims with opportunities, Novopharm creator tells grads

Leslie Dan stood before the graduating class of the Kellogg-Schulich Executive MBA Program on Friday and saw nothing but potential. The potential to innovate, to drive the economic engine of Canada, to create economic opportunities that will lead to growth and jobs. He saw reflections of himself.

Left: Leslie Dan

In 1947, the man who would found Novopharm, Canada’s largest generic pharmaceutical manufacturer, stepped off the boat in Halifax alone and almost penniless, yet “full of excitement, optimism and hope.” Canada appeared to be a land of opportunities, he told his audience.

Determined to go to university, Dan moved to Toronto, worked as a busboy at the Silver Rail restaurant, improved his English and a year and a half later enrolled in pharmacy at the University of Toronto. To support himself, he worked summers in a lumber camp, on a tobacco farm and at resorts. “One university degree is just not enough to advance,” he said, so the young immigrant went on to earn a master’s degree in business administration. Eight years later in 1965, he started his own generic manufacturing company. When he sold Novopharm 35 years later, annual sales were $750 million.

Dan has since founded Viventia Biotech, dedicated to creating more effective medicines for cancer treatment. He was founder of the Canadian Medicine Aid Programme to provide life-saving medicines and other aid to people in developing countries. He also founded the Canadian Drug Manufacturers Association to represent Canadian-owned pharmaceutical manufacturers.

In recognition of his generosity and achievements, Dan has been appointed a Member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario. On Friday, York bestowed an honorary doctorate of laws upon the businessman and philanthropist.

On Oct. 25, Dan told his young audience, the City of Toronto will vote for a new mayor. In pre-election surveys, the public has said it “wants a strong economy, because jobs and employment drive the welfare of our citizens and our nation.” Who will be responsible for driving the economic engine of this country and who will be the creators of economic opportunities? “You,” said Dan. “You are the future James Balsillies, Michael Laziridis, Peter Munks, Seymour Schulichs, Frank Stronachs” – or their senior managers. “You will be the ones who will ensure that our economy remains strong and will keep growing, just as physicians are responsible for the health care of our citizens.”

Right: Dezsö Horváth, dean of York’s Schulich School of Business, with Leslie Dan

“Has it occurred to you that about half of our economic activities today are based on inventions and new corporations that did not exist 50 years ago?” said Dan. There were no computers, no Internet, no Walmarts, no McDonald’s, no tar sand extractions. “Can you imagine what you business executives, working for banks, governments and other organizations will create in our dramatically expanding world?”

The world’s population will increase to 10 billion by 2050. “Can you visualize the many economic opportunities” possible in China, in America, in Europe and in Canada? asked Dan. “You people will have great challenges to respond to.”