It was a journey of life for the small Sikh family of a husband, wife and an infant boy of 18 months. A very long one which demanded a very high spirit of endeavor and sacrifice through all the seven oceans. The year was 1924. Leaving India they were in search of their new home, a new land of hope crossing the great oceans of uncertainty. They started off Calcutta on a cargo ship to Hong Kong. Their dream destination was Vancouver in Canada.It was all British Empire then spread all over the globe east to west where never set the sun. On the way at Hong Kong they wanted to get health certificates issued to them for further journey. Once they got it, waiting for them on Hong Kong waters were a Canadian Pacific steam ship heading to Vancouver and days of long and tedious journey on the seas. Nothing was clear in front of their lives except a few yards of turbulent blue sea. Beyond the blues started hopes and imagination. The infant boy sitting on his mother’s lap never knew he started his little life with an extensive and determining journey. He never knew it would be his first step towards his boundless eventful life journey which his fellowmen witnessed later as legendary.
On this side of the ocean here now sits the legend called Asa Singh Johal who is the founder and president of Terminal Forest Industries, the mammoth company dealing with BC’s biggest portion of lumber business, setting out a journey in the depths of his memories. About his life’s escalation with times to the present where he stands in front of the world as the giant pillar of pride of all Indians and the role model for all his fellow beings in business and philanthropy. By conquering the throne of a billionaire and winning the name of Lumber Mogul he lives the life of an emperor in the lumber industry in British Columbia. The most successful business personality ever in the Indo Canadian community who has shown the world how to make money in fair business but also how to spend something out of it for the future of our society. The tycoon was talking to Darpan in an exclusive interview about his life.Why his life is so acclaimed? Why so many adjectives are
added to his name? The answers to these questions are nothing but his life. The life he started in Vancouver during the 1920s and 30s when things were not pretty good. It was British rule in Canada and he was an Indian. There were so many things in the air against an Indian’s life. There were world wars and economic depressions. There were a lot of uncertainties in the social life and sweeping changes happening. There was more darkness than light. But through perseverance and continuous hardwork along with apt applications of wisdom Asa Johal established his kingdom of fame and prosperity. He was a dedicated player of the game. Choosing a sure way for his life and following it while in rains and shines, he never changed the course. He was sure one day he would reach his promised land. The world he promised himself.
A glance into his mega life history and dazzling achievements itself will make us full in our minds with the light of that victorious personality. Asa Singh Johal is the first and only Indo Canadian billionaire being noted as one of British Columbia’s most prominent businessmen and outstanding citizens. He was in the board of governors of University of British Columbia for 3 years and is the director of BC children’s hospital. The doctor of Laws degree was conferred upon him by UBC and he received order of British Columbia in 1991, the highest civilian honour of the province. His area of activities has got an enormous range and there are many organizations and ventures keep going by receiving his radiating energy.
The beginning of 20th century saw East Indians mainly Sikh men started out exploring to other lands for a better future. Asa Singh Johal told us the story of the time when his father dared to do adventurous things for a better life. The pioneerswere men, mostly Sikhs from the Punjab; many were veterans of the British Army. In 1897 a contingent of Sikh soldiers participated in the parade to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in London, England. On their subsequent journey home, they visited the western coast of Canada, primarily British Columbia which at the time was very sparsely populated and the Canadian government wanted to settle in order to prevent a takeover of the territory by the United States.
The Sikhs, who had seen Canada, recommended the New World to fellow Sikh people who were in a position to venture out and seek new fortunes. They were guaranteed jobs by agents of big Canadian combines like the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Overcoming their initial reluctance to go to these countries due to the treatment of East Asians by the white population, many young men chose to go, having been assured that they would not meet the same fate. They were British subjects; Canada was a part of the British Empire; and the British Empire owed much to the Sikhs. Queen Victoria had proclaimed in 1858 that throughout the empire the people of India that they would enjoy “equal privileges with white people without discrimination of colour, creed or race.”
His father first came to Canada in 1905 and worked in Ontario lumber saw mills for several years. He went back to India in 1919 and got married and in 1924 February again started out to Canada to try his luck along with his wife and infant son. Asa was only one and half year old then. After a long journey from Calcutta through Hong Kong they reached Vancouver and settled in the town by the waters, somewhere near the Oak Street bridges. Asa’s father worked in the lumber mills like most of the Sikh people did then. Life was improving day by day when little Asa started attending school.
But the progress the family made was wiped out by the hardships during the great economic depression started from 1928 and lasted into the 30s. Asa’s father lost all his savings and they moved to North Vancouver and later to Squamish.
“I only studied up to grade six,” Asa recalls with a touch of sorrow. “That was all the schooling my family could afford. Discontinuing his studies did hurt but there was no way other than going to work to survive in those uncertain times.”
“The wage was 25 cents an hour in those lumber sawmills. I got 10 cents less because I was under age. And Caucasians used to get 10 cents more.”
Throughout his teens and into adulthood, Asa kept on working in sawmills learning things and making his little savings. In 1941, when he was around 19 years old, Asa decided to start a business using the small savings he had and the knowledge he acquired during the sawmill work. He started delivering fire wood to homes along with a partner.
Asa explains that firewood was a very important source of heating fuel. “During those times, there was no oil or gas or electricity. People used fire wood to heat their houses”. His choice of working with wood was a first step towards independence. “I found an opportunity in fire wood delivery and kept going along with sawmill work and occasional trucking,” Asa explains. “It was a small but significant start and grew bigger as the years passed by.” In 1948, he decided to get married and he returned to India to search for a bride. “During those days, British Columbia had a very small Indo Canadian community and most families had more sons. That’s why I went to India in search of my bride.
“It was his first journey to India after leaving when he was an infant. He found his bride in the Jhalandhar District of Punjab in his village only two miles away from his ancestral home. After marriage, the couple returned to Vancouver in 1949.
The year 1955 is a turning point in Asa Johal’s life. Until then, he was running a partnership business that involved managing a private forest, cutting and delivering fire wood. In 1955, after starting a small sawmill, it was time to divide the business. Asa took the sawmill and his partner looked after the forest and fire wood delivery. Starting the sawmill business with a staff of nine was the launching pad of his business explorations which led him to success.
“Each year, the business continued to succeed as I devoted my whole my energy and time to it. ” In 1962, he coined the name “Terminal” and it stuck. “Our small sawmill was near the trucking terminal. So naturally the mill got called by Terminal. Although I had a couple of other names in mind for my group of mills, the name terminal persisted.”
By 1973, Asa had two major saw mills and 125 people working for him. His operation grew from cutting 15,000 feet wood per day to cutting 485,000 feet by implementing technology that was considered state-of-the art back then.
From an owner of two mills in 1973 to becoming a billionaire was the result of a slow and steady progression into logging and manufacturing.
Asa explains how his focus led to success.“I picked up one line of business and stuck to it. I never thought of another line of business even when I encountered hardships initially. Success came after continuous perseverance, courage and strong belief in the business I worked for.”
Today, Terminal Forest Industries Inc. has the largest privately-owned and operated lumber manufacturing facility on the west coast with its own forests in Squamish and the Sunshine Coast.
“I never thought about becoming the big leader of the business,” admits Asa humbly. And he never admits that he is at the lead. “I like to run my company small rather than become really large. I would prefer to control my company myself and not have anyone else controlling my destiny.”
Throughout his business life, Asa showed genuine interest and generosity in helping public causes. Wherever a public cause is mentioned, the name Asa Johal is likely behind the scene.
Asa’s commitment to social causes without concern for recognition complements his success in the business arena and show his role as a leader.
His business success led him to endow two graduate fellowships in Forestry at the University of British Columbia as well as a chair in the language and culture of the Indian sub-continent.
His activities associated with University of British Columbia reflect the value he places on academic excellence even though he was forced to discontinue his studies at an early age. In recognition of his contribution, he received an honourary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of B.C. Right up until today, Asa continues to make contributions without concern for recognition. He has routinely matched public donations to fundraising campaigns for the B.C. Children’s Hospital,the Canadian Cancer Society, the Rotary Club-Polio Plus and OASIS, formerly known as the Orientation Adjustment Services for Immigrants Society. Recently, he contributed half a million dollars to BC Children’s Hospital.
“I made money here in BC and I want to spend it here,“ is his mantra.Asa Johal has contributed much to the Indo-Canadian community in British Columbia as a founding member, trustee and chairman of the India Cultural Centre of Canada and as president of the International Punjabi Society of B.C. He actively encourages his fellow Indo-Canadians to participate in mainstream society.
“Indo Canadians are doing well now. They are involved in many different businesses and many of them are highly successful.” In 1991, in recognition of his commendable contributions to the Canadian society, the Government of British Columbia bestowed upon him their highest civilian honour: the Order of British Columbia.
When asked about the present state of crisis in lumber industry, Asa shares his disappointment without any hesitation. “The lumber industry is vanishing day by day from the west coast. And my company is also facing hardships. There is no future in timber industry now.” He adds. “It is all in a mess. I don’t have much optimism in a solution for the present deteriation. The government is not acting positively. They only listen to the top and not to the middle man.” When asked about his views on the current generation of Indo Canadians emerging in BC business, his face lights up.“Generally, the Indo Canadian community has a good future in Canada. Earlier, we as a people were only involved in the lumber business. Now it’s gone. The new generation is exploring what this era has to offer, and it is a good sign.”
Asa Johal is nearing 86 years now butshows no sign of slowing. Time has not lessened his spirit of endeavour and enthusiasm. Inside, he is the same as the 19 year-old who started a lumber delivery business in 1941. To this day, he rises at 4 of clock in the morning and attends his different offices and manufacturing facilities. During the journey from home to office, he reads newspapers. He doesn’t want to lose time. “I enjoy meeting a great number of people, hearing their different opinions, guiding so many, leading in many areas that make my life rich in its all meaning.”
Asa Johal talked with Darpan about his daily life, family members, and the new generation of Indo Canadians.
Tell us about your family.
I have a son and daughter. My son joined my business when he was 18 or 19. I wanted him to go to university but he insisted on helping me with my business. After my daughter’s marriage, my son-inlaw also came to help me.
My daughter Jeevan Oppal has own real estate business in Kelowna now. I have 6 grand children and 4 great grand children. They all come to visit me and spend time with me.
Tell us about the scholarships in UBC?
I started two fellowships in forestry and a chair in Indian studies in late 80s. After working in the forest industry, I wanted to do something in return for the benefit of society in that field. Coming from India, I wanted to promote Indian studies in the western community. The students whobenefitted by these programs write to me often showing their gratitude. It gives me immense pleasure to see that everything is going well as it is supposed to be.
How do you see Terminal Industries’ future?
I would like to see the company keep going. But these are bad times. The good old days are gone. One company owns most of the forest and it is difficult to do business now.
Tell us about your lovely house.
My wife and daughter-in-law looked after everything including planning and management and I provided the wood. Since I have been working in the wood business, I managed some very good wood for them. Darpan: Tell us about your activities working with non-profit organizations and charities. I am the president of International Punjabi Society and in a leadership role for quite a few other associations and organizations. I travel a lot and enjoy meeting people and hear their different opinions.
Currently, I work for BC Children’s Hospital, the Cancer Care Society; as well, I am funding two UBC fellowships and a chair in Indian language and culture. I will continue to provide funding as long as I have money.
Do you have a message to share.
My advice to youngsters is work hard and be honest.
Asa Singh’s life is a saga with all the ups and downs of an epic. Starting from a wage of 25 cents an hour wages, his net worth is now measured in the billions but he maintains a humble view and emphasizes that his goals are not about being “big”. Asa Singh’s inspiring life journey continues as always to motivate people of all ages and backgrounds. His name and fame travel thousands of miles a day to reach thousands of hearts on the way.