Dan On is known as the “Cashew King” of Vietnam because of the influence his business has on the market there. Now the Richmond visionary behind the multinational Dan-D-Foods Ltd. has his eyes on a new delicacy for his birth country – B.C. blueberries and cranberries.
By introducing new products to the Vietnamese people, the 56-year-old Canadian entrepreneur is boosting the use of B.C. fruits and cereal grains in that country, which could lead to increased agrifood exports. That’s why his Vietnam factory and successful business model is the focus of a half-day tour by International Trade Minister Teresa Wat during her current trade mission.
But he was far from the savvy businessman when On left Vietnam at 18. With money his parents scraped together, he and 285 other refugees fled Vietnam in a 16-foot wooden boat. For four days they traveled across the sea, losing all that they brought with them to pirates.
Without food or water, hope came in the form of a German freighter that brought them to a refugee camp in Malaysia. On wasn’t sure what would happen to him until one day there came an opportunity to go to Canada and without hesitation, he signed up to start the new life his parents had always wanted for him.
What might have been a difficult transition became the opportunity of a lifetime. Adopted by Port Coquitlam residents, Irene and George Kavanagh, On landed with a loving and accepting family. He didn’t understand English, but with a pocket dictionary and the Kavanaghs’ patience, he learned quickly while also earning an income as a janitor at Kavanagh Foods.
In March 1989, 10 years after arriving in Canada and with encouragement from his adoptive father, On opened his first Dan-D-Foods plant, a 3,800 sq. ft. facility at Glen Drive in Coquitlam. In 1999, he moved to the 60,000 sq. ft. facility he now operates in Richmond.
It was George Kavanagh who encouraged On to open a cashew factory in Vietnam, and he foresaw that On would become the ‘King of Cashews’. A decade later On opened a cashew factory in his birth country which now employs 500 local people.
Today, Dan-D Foods Group Global operates in six countries and distributes its packaged products – cashews, dried fruits, rice crackers, snack foods, cereal – as far as Australia. It employs over 700 people, including 100 employees at the Richmond facility.
On knows firsthand the potential for British Columbian companies to do business in the Vietnamese marketplace. Vietnam is a society on the brink of major change with more than 90 million people and a growing professional working class. Tariffs are low now, and when cut or eliminated further as a result of the new Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, the incentive for exporting will be even greater.
This is an opportunity for both British Columbian and Vietnamese companies to grow, and although Dan-D-Foods already uses B.C. blueberries and cranberries in its products, On is hoping that lower tariffs will help him bring more to Vietnam.
On knows that he is fortunate and he takes every opportunity to give back, supporting a number of charities worldwide. He is particularly proud of Dan-D Pak’s contribution to a school for deaf children in Vietnam. He began his support for the nun-operated Thuan An Centre in 1992 and looks for new ways to contribute to the school’s economic independence by teaching students about entrepreneurship.
On is always looking for new ways to bridge the gap between Canadian and Vietnamese tastes. And for Dan-D-Foods, that next step is oatmeal. He thinks the timing is right to bring oatmeal to Vietnam. Once a week his employees prepare oatmeal for the 500 workers in Vietnam. They try it and tell their families and friends about it. It’s catching on, one person at a time.
Teresa Wat, Minister of International Trade and Responsible for Asia Pacific Strategy –
“The success of Dan On is an inspiration to all entrepreneurs. His story reminds us of the important economic contributions that immigrants bring to British Columbia and Dan-D-Foods Ltd. is a beacon for other B.C. businesses wanting to grow their companies by doing business with South Asian countries like Vietnam. This growth will help diversify our economy and keep it strong for future generations.”
Norm Letnick, Minister of Agriculture –
“Dan-D-Foods is a great example of the opportunities and advantages value-added food businesses have in British Columbia. B.C. companies are respected internationally for the quality ingredients they source and use, including those grown by B.C. farmers that are then sold and enjoyed around the world. B.C. agrifood exports to Vietnam increased 113% in 2014 to reach $25 million, and became our provinces seventh largest export market.”
- As a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Vietnam is a large market of 90 million people with a lot of trade potential for B.C.
- B.C. exports to Vietnam have risen significantly in recent years, from $49 million in 2010 to $104 million in 2014.
- B.C.’s agrifoods sectors led B.C.’s goods exports to Vietnam in 2014 and this year’s exports are on track to rise a further 10%, with seafood products experiencing particularly high levels of growth.
- Top B.C. agrifood and seafood exports to Vietnam include: salmon, herring, shrimp, prawns, geoduck clams, crabs, clams, cherries and apples.