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Meet the Cranberry King: Peter Dhillon

By Petrina D'souza Darpan, 24 Sep, 2015
  • Meet the Cranberry King: Peter Dhillon

 

From being the CEO of Richberry Group of Companies and the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Ocean Spray Cranberries Ltd. to being well-known for his philanthropic activities and charity work, Peter Dhillon’s work ethics and beliefs make him a true achiever in every possible way. He shares with DARPAN his success story and talks about the two biggest achievements in his life.

 

Peter Dhillon – he needs no introduction as his work speaks for himself. Richberry Group of Companies CEO, Dhillon, was recently in the news for his partnership with the University of British Columbia (UBC) to establish the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics at the Sauder School of Business. Sauder and Dhillon have together committed $7.5 million in funding toward the partnership, which will support the study, teaching and promotion of values-driven business practices locally, nationally and around the world.

The Richberry Group of Companies was founded by Dhillon’s parents, Harbhajan Dhillon and the late Rashpal Dhillon. In 1978, Dhillon’s parents went into a partnership on a cranberry farm, and then in 1985 they decided to go on their own starting with a small operation. Today, the company comprises of several cranberry operations, which combined, are one of Ocean Spray Cranberries largest shareholders and suppliers.  
 

Dhillon started getting training on the know-how of the business right from the age of 11. “My mom would drive me to work to our farms. I would drive by our neighbours’ homes and they would be sleeping at 6 in the morning. During summer, I would always be envious of them as they get to enjoy their summer and I have to go to work,” he recalls, “I did not realize until later on in my life that what my father was tying to instilin me was a strong work ethic.”

In the process he learned a lot of values from his father, which are still rooted in him. “He taught me to never take anything for granted and always work hard. He said that you have to be good to be lucky. He taught me the importance of giving back to community, through time and donating capital.”

It was probably this learning experience that encouraged him to choose the business over a law career during his college years. Dhillon graduated from the UBC where he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in History. He continued his education in the UK with a LL.B. with honours from the University of Leeds. At the age of 27, he had a choice to either practise law or join the family business. Dhillon picked business.

When he joined, it was a small company. Together, he and his parents started to build it. “I was fortunate for the things that I learned from my mother and father to continue to grow our company. It began from there, today we are the largest Canadian producer of cranberry and largest Canadian shareholder of a multinational company Ocean Spray,” says Dhillon proudly.

It has always been an upward climb for this cranberry king. The loss of his father 12 years ago – who was his inspiration, mentor and motivator – was the toughest moment for him. “I wish I had more time with him,” shares Dhillon, while reminiscing the beautiful moments spent with his father. “When I look back, some of the most memorable moments I had were with my father while I was a kid. I had a wonderful relationship with my father, we were best friends. I always wanted to make my father proud. Even today, I have a painting of him and I talk to him, and everyday I say to him, ‘Please make me do good things today’.”
 

Dhillon is currently Chairman of the Board of Directors of Ocean Spray Cranberries Ltd. – the youngest and first Canadian to hold the position.

In 2003, he was elected to the board; in 2014 he became the Chairman of the board. “What makes it special for me is that I was the first non-American to become the chairman. Being an American company, there were a number of American chairmen before me. So to become the first non-American and Canadian, it really shows me that my board doesn’t distinguish what your nationality is. They look at who can lead the organization into the future. Being the youngest was confidence in my ability that I can lead the company into the future. Also my past experience sitting on many boards gave my board the confidence that I was ready at a young age to be chairman,” expresses the young achiever.

He calls this honour as one out of the two best achievements in his life so far. “It was something I used to look up to; it was a wow factor for me. These were important people and I never thought that it would be something I would do,” says Dhillon, who won DARPAN’s Extraordinary Achievement Awards for Corporate Engagement last year.

The other biggest achievement was getting the Order of British Columbia. In 2009, he received the Order of British Columbia in recognition of his achievements and services. “Not that it was expected but it was appreciated that some of the things that I did and do were recognised. I look at those who receive the Order of British Columbia as role models for the rest of the society. If I can do that, it’s great.”

Dhillon has also held many other board positions including: Vice Chairman, British Columbia Ferry Corporation; Board Director, Canada Customs and Revenue Agency; Board Director, Vancouver Airport Authority; Board Governor, Simon Fraser University; Board Director, Seacor Environmental; Chairman of the Audit Committee, Vancouver 2010 Organizing Committee Board; and Board Director, Canwel Building Materials, among many others.
 

He is also well-known for his philanthropic activities and charity work – a value that he learnt from his parents. “My dad’s business partner, Jack Bell, taught my father and me about the importance of giving back. My parents were both instrumental in givingback, not just here but in India as well. It’s been something that I have watched my parents do,” says Dhillon, who is interested in creating awareness on idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis – the disease that killed his father. “There is very little known about the disease. The disease kills more people than breast cancer. I want to create more awareness about it and try to see how we help better deal with it.”

One of the examples of his philanthropic work is the establishment of the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics. The idea came to Dhillon’s mind two and half years ago while talking about it with his friend, Herb Baum, who he was visiting in Florida. “We spoke about what had happened on the financial collapse of the world wide economy. If things were worse, I was concerned what would happen. It was because of the misbehaviour of corporate America. We realized somebody had to so something and the way to get this change was probably through education,” he explains.

He then started having conversations with the UBC two years ago about this vision. “When I was working with the UBC, it surprised me there wasn’t really anything out there [education on business ethics]. I felt that there was a real need that it happened and the UBC, Sauder Business School and myself put this programme together.” It will be the first centre at a Canadian business school to take a comprehensive approach to the study, teaching and promotion of business ethics.

The UBC alumnus has a deep connection with the university for two reasons. One – it is his alma mater, two – when his grandfather passed away, Dhillon’s father started giving back to the UBC. “He started a scholarship for students from India who come to Canada to be educated,” says Dhillon, adding, “I really believe in the institution. I believe it’s a wonderfulplace and you can do so much for the society. I am a big fan of the university.”
 

In 2006, the Dhillon family gave the UBC a 2006 gift of $2 million toward two initiatives at the university named in remembrance of Dhillon’s father. The gift established the Rashpal Dhillon Fund in Idiopathic Pulmonary Research and Rashpal Dhillon Track and Field Oval, which opened on the UBC campus in 2010.

The successful businessman wants people from his community to be more involved in contributing towards society. “The South Asian community has done extremely well. A lot of people from our community have nice homes and nice cars. I’m proud that my communityhas become so successful. What I like to see is our community starting to think about giving back to society a little more.”

Ask him how he balances work and other related activities, and Dhillon says, “By being better organized and delegating. One of the things that I have learned recently is to make sure that in my company I have the right people in the right places and I trust them. I let them do what they are supposed to do.” Beyond work life, the 50 year old is passionate about biking (an interest he lately developed), and fitness (he works out five to six days a week). He has done the GranFondo ride from Downtown to Whistler before and wishes to do it again this year. “There was a point when I would put exercise and health secondary and business first. Then I realised that health is first priority, if I can look after that I can look after everything,” points out the fit CEO.

Looking at the values and work ethics Dhillon believes in, he definitely is an inspirational figure for new businessmen and youngsters. He advises new and upcoming businessmen to be persistent and never give up. As for youngsters, he says, “Do what you love; if you don’t love it, don’t do it!”

“If somebody comes up to you and asks who do you want to be in your next life, if you can’t say yourself, then you need to make changes, because the answer should be I want to come back as me,” sums up Dhillon.


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