University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Big on Business

Paul Giannaris, Dionne England, Eira Thomas, Natalie Townsend and Leonard Asper

Paul Giannaris
Paul Giannaris has discovered that fluorescent worms are excellent for two things: they’re great for fishing, and they really reel in customers. When he joined the family bait-exporting business in 1993 after his father’s death, Giannaris had fished around for a way to boost the company’s bottom line. “I wanted to bring something fresh, something different to the business,” he says. “Basically, I wanted to create a coloured, smelly worm.” His background in organic chemistry – he earned his master’s degree in 1994 at the University of Toronto at Mississauga – came in very handy as he set about creating a non-toxic diet containing government-approved ingredients that would give his earth brown night crawlers that certain glow. And so the NitroWorm was born.

What’s the advantage of having a bright chartreuse worm? “People have been colouring bait since the 1950s, but they were choosing the wrong colours,” says Giannaris, 35. “A red or blue worm isn’t any more visible than a brown one. But a fluorescent worm is visible deep in the water.” Just to prove how effective the NitroWorms are, Giannaris’s company, the Toronto-based Andy’s Bait International Inc., sponsored a fisherman in the Detroit River Michigan Walleye Tournament last year. The contestant caught the second-largest walleye in the competition’s history.
The Day-Glo creepy crawlies are actually leading the company into new markets in the United States and Europe, and research is continuing into how to build a better worm. Right now the focus is on flavour: garlic is great for attracting fish, though the company is also working on anise and bubble gum.

Dionne England
When Dionne England started working part time as a teller at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, little did she realize she’d still be with the company 12 years later. But while she was earning her BA in political science and economics at Victoria University at U of T, she was also working her way up at CIBC to become a personal banker. A year after graduating in 1994, England was hired to work in its private banking division and later in its wealth management sector. For the past two- and-a-half years, she has worked for CIBC Mortgages Inc. as business development manager for the East Toronto region. “My job is to help motivate staff to grow their mortgage business,” says England, 30, who meets with employees for training seminars and also counsels staff in one-on-one sessions. Her approach seems to be working: last year’s East Toronto region sales results were the third-largest within Central and Eastern Canada.

In fact, she can’t get away from motivating and teaching, even off the job. Since 1997, England has volunteered with the Toronto chapter of the Urban Financial Services Coalition, an American-based organization of minority financial service professionals. The group presents free seminars on buying a first home or credit management. England also speaks to high school students about getting involved in the financial services industry. “My favourite thing is giving presentations on communications skills to young people,” she says. “The earlier that they can develop them, the better.”

Eira Thomas
If diamonds are indeed a girl’s best friend, then Eira Thomas is looking to expand her social circle. In fact, if Thomas – president of Vancouver-based Navigator Exploration Corp. – has her way, she’ll have mines full of “friends” in Canada’s far North. She has already struck pay dirt once: back in 1994 Thomas was managing the exploration team when Aber Diamond Corp. discovered kimberlites – volcanic intrusions that transport diamonds from deep in the Earth’s mantle to the surface. That discovery is being developed as the Diavik mine (about 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife), which is expected to go into production in 2003. It will be only the second diamond mine in Canada. “It will cost $1.3 billion to develop the mine,” says Thomas, 32, who remains a director of Aber, “but it should take us less than three years to pay that back.”

When Thomas (BSc 1991) was a geology student at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, no one even suspected that there were diamonds to be found in northern Canada. But Thomas credits her education with making the Diavik find. “Geochemistry, geophysics and remote-sensing technology all played a role in the discovery,” she says.

With Navigator, she is currently working on two projects: the Severn Joint Venture in northern Ontario with Canabrava Diamond Corp., and the Thor Diamond Project with DeBeers Canada Exploration Inc. in the Northwest Territories.

“Canadian diamonds are popular because of the high quality,” she says. They are so popular that Aber has already struck a deal with Tiffany & Co. Now that’s a friend, indeed.

Natalie Townsend
When Natalie Townsend approached the board of directors at the Toronto Dominion Bank in 1994 about revitalizing TD Capital – its private-equity division – she was among a group of partners who had a clear vision of what could be achieved. At the time, TD Capital managed about $150 million in assets and had only two employees. Townsend, who had worked for the bank since 1988, believed that a $500-million infusion of capital, a more active investment mandate and a “partner-of-choice” culture that would provide financial and management advice and resources, would help the group fulfill its potential.

Today, TD Capital – with Townsend at its helm as president – boasts assets of $1.3 billion and 77 staff members. In April, it launched Canada’s largest-ever private equity fund: the $635-million Canadian Private Equity Partners fund will target middle-market firms for expansions, leveraged buyouts and acquisitions. “Our approach is to invest in a company and become partners with them so that we are helping them build their business,” says Townsend, 40. “Our mandate is to help people achieve their vision.”

Townsend, who earned her MBA at U of T in 1988, believes just as strongly in helping students achieve their dreams. To this end, she became involved in the TD Bank Higher Education Awards Program at U of T. The bank put up $2 million for an endowed awards program, and Townsend helped raise a further $250,000 in donations from bank employees – which was, in turn, matched by the bank. The $2.5 million was also matched by U of T and by the government of Ontario under the Ontario Student Opportunity Trust Fund program.

Leonard Asper
In an age of increasing corporate consolidation, perhaps the CanWest Global Communications Corp.’s recent $3.2-billion acquisition of most of Southam’s Canadian holdings might not raise many eyebrows. But given the doom-and-gloom predictions regularly heard about the future of the newspaper industry, it does require some explanation. “Why newspapers?” CanWest president and CEO Leonard Asper asked at his company’s shareholders’ meeting in February. “Because our 14 major metro newspapers reach up to 50 per cent of the population in their local markets and are massive sources of fresh news and information content. The newspaper acquisition is also a linchpin in our strategy to become the leader in providing news and information to Canadians.”

This could be an understatement: in addition to the 14 metro papers, CanWest owns 126 smaller community papers, 85 trade publications, 19 Canadian television outlets and all of the Hollinger and Southam Internet properties, including It also holds a 50 per cent stake in the National Post, the jewel at the heart of the Southam deal with Hollinger chairman Conrad Black. Asper, who succeeded his father, Israel (better known as Izzy), as CEO of the Winnipeg-based CanWest in 1999, has global designs, too – the company owns five television networks abroad and various radio operations worldwide, with the most recent radio acquisition in New Zealand in 2000.

The 37-year-old Asper, who earned his law degree in 1989, prefers to think big. “While others are cutting back, CanWest is launching a multimillion-dollar national newscast originating from British Columbia,” he told shareholders at the same meeting. Other plans include creating a new national public affairs program in Calgary, and adding more hours of local programming at TV stations in Hamilton and Victoria. Stay tuned.

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