Bob Dhillon arrived in Canada about four decades back with nothing in his pocket: a Sikh, born in Japan, who spent his early years in Liberia before fleeing that country at a time of unrest.

In Calgary and Lethbridge on Wednesday, ceremonies will be held to accept a $10 million donation for the University of Lethbridge from Dhillon, founder and chief executive of Mainstreet Equity, a Calgary-based TSX-listed value-added, mid-market consolidator of apartments in Western Canada.

“Everything I’ve made I’ve made in Canada,” Dhillon said from Calgary on Tuesday. “This is an opportunity for me to give back to Canada. I want to give back to the greatest country in the world.”

The money is earmarked for the university’s faculty of management, which will be renamed the Dhillon School of Business.

The school will now focus on finance, innovation, entrepreneurism and internationalization. It will also emphasize futuristic learning in the fields of blockchain, cryptocurrencies and the growth industries of artificial intelligence and robotics.

The gift, the largest in the history of the University of Lethbridge, caps a four-year period of emerging relations between Dhillon, the institution and Mike Mahon, its president and vice-chancellor. That work included the sponsoring of foreign students and “one thing led to another,” said Dhillon, who in the late 1990s attended the Ivey Business School at Western University to earn his MBA.

“Everybody agreed that we need to transform the business school and equip the students with today’s and tomorrow’s education, not with yesterday,” he said, adding such a message is particularly relevant to Alberta in 2018.

“We have been living off resources and now it’s time to innovate from the ground up. Without the brains we haven’t got anything.”

Jeff Olin, founder of Vision Capital Corp., a Toronto real estate investment management firm, has known and worked with Dhillon either as a banker or investor for more than 15 years. He is an unabashed fan of his business acumen and the way he conducts himself.

“As a business person, Bob is certainly one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Canadian history,” Olin said, referring to Dhillon’s two-decade’s long track record in which he has grown his company to 11,200 units with an asset valuation of $1.72 billion from one with 272 units valued at $17 million.

What’s remarkable, said Olin, is that 100 times increase in asset value has been achieved on the back of virtually no equity issuance. At the end of 2017, Mainstreet had 8.8 million shares outstanding. In December 1998, it had 8.98 million shares outstanding.

Olin said Dhillon as a community member has shown equal “fervor and commitment,” by serving as a trusted and respected advisor to all three major Canadian political parties at the federal and provincial levels. “He forthrightly advances policy and principle over privilege and patronage,” said Olin. Three years back Dhillon was appointed to the board of CMHC.

This year Dhillon co-authored a book with Fred Langan on a business and retirement guide to Belize, where Dhillon is developing a 2,700 acre tourism project.

Olin describes Dhillon, who practices yoga daily, as an inspiration, “whose joie de vivre makes him fun to be around.”

Dhillon has shown his generosity in other ways. In 2011 and in 2016 when Alberta fires engulfed Slave Lake and Fort McMurray, Mainstreet made apartments available to people who were affected.

Asked about the reasons for his success, Dhillon lists luck, being based in Alberta (“the land of free enterprise”) and Canada’s relatively inexpensive education system. “It’s relatively free and people should take advantage.”

Financial Post

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