Having clear vision is a fundamental attribute for success in life and in business. Knowing where you’ve been, where you are, where you are going, what you are doing and maintaining a clear vision of your goals are common characteristics of many leading business executives and philanthropists.
Dr. Ajay Virmani, inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame as an entrepreneur and philanthropist, knows a thing or two about clear vision, as, for a time, it was his job. Today, he is founder and chief executive officer of Cargojet, Canada’s most-awarded cargo airline with more than 2,000 employees shipping more than 50 million pounds of essential materials and goods every week. It’s a long way from how Dr. Virmani started his career — as a window washer.
Born in New Delhi, to a father who was in the military and a mother who was a teacher, Dr. Virmani immigrated to Canada when he was just 18 years old and is quite candid as to why he left his homeland.
“People always ask why I came here,” says Dr. Virmani in a recent interview with Dolce. “Obviously, we all come for a better life, but I always say that I ran away from India, because I was scared of the competition. It’s not easy to compete with a billion people; it’s much easier to be here and compete with 35 million people.”
His first job was as a window washer at the 56-storey TD Bank Tower in downtown Toronto. Not willing to spend his days swinging on a scaffold 700 feet in the air, Dr. Virmani quickly returned to earth and took a series of odd jobs before joining Prudential Insurance to sell life insurance. “It was really important to me, as they taught me how to sell,” says Dr. Virmani. “That gave me the language skills through conversations with the local people and blending in more. That was very instrumental for me, as it was a very communicative job and it sharpened me up for the times in this country.”
Canada in those years was not always as welcoming to immigrants as it is today, and Dr. Virmani certainly recalls some life lessons from those years and the handicaps he had to overcome.
“The handicaps used to be some of the language skills, the accent, your colour, and not many others had those handicaps in those days. It’s not like it is today,” recalls Dr. Virmani. “So, you make up for it through extra effort, extra work, extra hours of work, taking on more jobs. That was an important life lesson for me in how you make yourself stand out in overcoming any perceived handicaps.”
Dr. Virmani next joined a transport company, rising to the No. 2 position in the company in just nine years. He then founded a cargo company, growing it into the largest logistics supplier in Canada before selling it to Jim Crane, current owner of the Houston Astros. He invested in the former Canada 3000 airline in 2001, and just three months later came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which virtually grounded the airline industry. Dr. Virmani knew the shipping business and knew there was no national cargo airline in Canada, which led him to form Cargojet out of the ashes of Canada 3000.
Dr. Virmani’s business model was once again based upon his clear vision. He knew companies like Purolator, UPS and DHL all competed with one another through the day in their coloured trucks, but he told them all, “What does it matter the colour of the plane, when you’re shipping all your cargo from midnight to 5 a.m.?”
Today, Cargojet is a titan. In less than 20 years, Dr. Virmani has overseen its growth to where it is now — Canada’s largest overnight air cargo airline, with a $3-billion market cap. It flies to 16 Canadian cities each night, serves Latin America, Europe and Asia through scheduled service and has emerged as the largest enabler of next-day e-commerce in the country through its fleet of 34 Boeing aircraft.
Cargojet is continually recognized for its leadership and team excellence, winning numerous awards for innovation, corporate social responsibility and diversity, including Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies, the Air Cargo World Excellence Award and the Carrier of Choice Award by Shipper’s Choice Awards for 19 consecutive years.
A married father of two children and one grandchildren, Dr. Virmani has been recognized as The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business Top CEO “2020 Strategist of the Year” and Entrepreneur of the Year by both Royal Bank of Canada, and Ernst & Young. He earned his MBA from the City University of New York in 1985 and has been honoured with a doctor of laws from the University of Windsor.
“THE BEST WAY TO PUT IT IS THAT PEOPLE TEND TO UNDERESTIMATE THEMSELVES, AND THEY HAVE TO BELIEVE IN THEMSELVES AND THEIR IDEAS”
Cargojet has never been more important to Canada than these past 20 months. Before the pandemic, none of us gave much thought to supply chain logistics or the daily movement of essential materials and goods. The pandemic exposed how fragile that system really is, and Cargojet has been there to help every step of the way. It has flown more than 200 flights to China to retrieve essential personal protective equipment for Canada’s front-line workers, having turned down at least $80 million in business from American and international companies, so it could take care of Canada first. It also operates approximately 50 flights every day, delivering essential materials and goods to every corner of the country.
“Our main objective was to keep our employees safe and healthy,” says Dr. Virmani. “It would only take one sick pilot to ground the entire airline, so we brought in special testing capabilities for our employees, PPE [personal protective equipment], nurses — it didn’t matter what it cost. We also paid our employees super pay for months to address the hardship of coming to work during the lockdowns. We’ve never missed one flight during the pandemic.”
With his decades of experience in the shipping and transportation business, few people anywhere understand the importance of supply chain management more than Dr. Virmani, and he is not shy about issuing a siren call to authorities about its critical importance.
“Invest in infrastructure, because the supply chain is going to be the biggest factor for human survival,” urges Dr. Virmani. “If we don’t have the infrastructure to support the supply chain, we are all doomed. We lack infrastructure in every part of the world, whether its highways, airports, freight terminals or seaports. We need to improve infrastructure to continue to offer and grow the supply chain, because that is the future.”
If Cargojet’s actions so far in the pandemic seem generous, its true to Dr. Virmani’s nature, as he has been a long-time philanthropist through the Virmani Family Foundation and the Cargojet Foundation, which have supported numerous initiatives in health care and the arts. Cargojet Foundation recently committed $2.5 million to health-care initiatives and social justice causes. Dr. Virmani was instrumental in launching Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN) Diwali Gala in 2011, which has since raised $9.6 million for programs at UHN. Dr. Virmani has also generously supported Toronto’s SickKids hospital and the Trillium Health Network as well as many women’s shelter charities.
“We sponsor a number of research projects for the UHN related to COVID-19, so it’s amazing to help some of those out,” says Dr. Virmani. “I was also able to help out some smaller hospitals with PPE or pain-management clinics. Some of the causes we fund are sort of out of the box, as it goes to my philosophy that no one wants to fund these causes, but they all lessen the pain in people’s lives, so that’s our motivation.”
Dr. Virmani is the quintessential immigrant success story and has some sage advice for other immigrants to succeed in life, as well as business.
“The best way to put it is that people tend to underestimate themselves, and they have to believe in themselves and their ideas,” advises Dr. Virmani. “If they’ve got some unique ideas, it’s good. I wouldn’t start a business because everybody else is in that business; don’t follow the crowd. If you’ve got an outstanding idea, if you’ve always dreamt about something, you’ve got to be stubborn about it as well. And if you don’t have a unique offering, don’t do it. Have ideas that are the best or the first or are different and believe in yourself. It’s great to be a dreamer, but you’ve got to be a doer and a dreamer.”
Dr. Ajay Virmani personifies being both a dreamer and a doer. With his clarity of vision, hard work and business acumen, he has risen to the top as an entrepreneur. With his beliefs, compassion, caring and dedication to many causes, Dr. Virmani has made an incredible difference in his adopted country in the field of philanthropy. Canada is fortunate for so many reasons he chose it to become his home, and his induction into Canada’s Walk of Fame is well deserved.
INTERVIEW BY ESTELLE ZENT