October 19, 2020

A business graduate’s race to trace PPE in the pandemic

Kai Chen, who usually is in near perpetual motion in his double life as a consultant and co-founder of Toronto-based start-up impact fund True North, was grounded by Covid-19. But he was determined lockdown would not inhibit an ambitious response to Canada’s urgent need for personal protective equipment (PPE).

“I am normally flying every week for work. This is the longest period I have experienced of not doing anything outside my home,” he says from the Netherlands, where he has lived since early 2019.

Yet during the pandemic, China-born, Canada-raised Chen and his fellow directors turned True North into one of the leading suppliers of PPE to the Canadian government.

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They did so with the help of an international network of his classmates from the Master of Science in Management at Ontario’s Ivey Business School in 2016-17. Ivey, at Western University, is part of the Cems network of schools that allows students to relocate to different countries and continents to complete their degree. This gave Chen, 27, the opportunity to study in Rotterdam.

The story starts in spring 2018, when he was on an evening flight from Calgary to Toronto, travelling home from a meeting with oil executives for his job at the time as a consultant at Deloitte. He found himself sitting next to Frank O’Dea, a septuagenarian entrepreneur and philanthropist who had been awarded the Order of Canada for his various charitable ventures. The two struck up a conversation and quickly found they shared a passion for entrepreneurship and investing.

Experience: Entrepreneur Frank O’Dea was a co-founder of the impact fund
Experience: Entrepreneur Frank O’Dea was a co-founder of the impact fund

“By the end of the flight we knew we wanted to do business together and we met the next day to plan what to do,” Chen recalls. “The investing space was the natural way to go about it.” Together they founded True North and for the next couple of years used this to back “triple-bottom-line” investments — those making a profit for a social and environmental purpose.

When the operation was up and running they brought in another Canadian executive, Louis Desjardins, as an adviser, to tap into his 30 years of experience in healthcare and investment.

“It was important to us that we not only invested in companies that had profitable returns, but also that there had to be a positive impact on the environment or society. However, True North was essentially a hobby that Frank, Louis and I did on the side,” says Chen, who has continued to work as a consultant, since February 2019 at Simon-Kucher & Partners in Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

The work of True North quickly took on new importance when Covid-19 evolved rapidly from a local outbreak in China to a global pandemic and the founders realised they could play a role. By early 2020, Canada’s government, like others around the world, was scrambling to procure PPE for frontline health workers.

“Frank, Louis and I realised we had something of a unique opportunity,” says Chen. “Frank, through his charitable work, as well as his Order of Canada, is extremely well connected to the highest levels of government. Louis is a well-known name in the healthcare and medical device industry in Canada. And one of our investments the previous year was a Brazilian construction materials company that, critically, possessed an extensive supply chain in China.”

The trio exploited these links to turn True North into a vehicle for sourcing PPE. The company is one of 14 organisations, chosen from a longlist of more than 80, that has supplied the Canadian federal government with hospital-grade kit. “We were three guys with a laptop and a dream, but we were able to be in discussions at the highest level,” says Chen.

By June 2020, True North had 17m masks on order from its Chinese suppliers, about 1m produced by them, and 600,000 delivered to Canada. At the time, the government had ordered about 121m masks, meaning True North was responsible for about 14 per cent of the country’s supply.

On the line: True North imported millions of masks from its Chinese suppliers
On the line: True North imported millions of masks from its Chinese suppliers

Bringing this amount of equipment halfway around the world was not straightforward. One of the biggest challenges was to ensure the items True North wanted from its Chinese manufacturers reached it when governments were trying to outbid others at the factory gate.

“It has been like the wild west, getting stuff out of China,” says Chen. “In one case we had the contracts signed and were just going back to the manufacturing company’s lawyers with our lawyers in China when we were told by the company that the US state department had arrived and outbid us by over half what we were paying. The company reneged on us. This was pretty standard.”

Another problem was transferring money between Canada and China when True North was just a start-up venture employing a handful of staff working across different countries with limited technical resources. Initially, all the founders had to manage their cash transactions was a small-business account with US-based TD Bank, a subsidiary of the Canadian multinational Toronto-Dominion Bank.

“At one point I was on the train in Germany, looking at my phone and tens of millions of dollars just arrived on my banking app,” Chen recalls. “All I could think of was how to transfer this. My app was not designed for this.”

Chen’s Chinese roots also helped when dealing with PPE suppliers
Chen’s Chinese roots also helped when dealing with PPE suppliers

The Ivey alumni network came to the rescue on this occasion, as it has done with other business challenges True North has faced. “In Canada, Ivey is a strong brand. It opens doors,” he says. “I had a contact, a corporate director, in the head office of TD in Canada. She was able to speak to some people who could arrange for the money to be transferred specially.”

Chen’s Chinese roots also helped when dealing with PPE suppliers. “My parents have business connections in China, which meant we had local support. Also, I speak Mandarin. There is a different level of respect if you are able to communicate in the same language with businesses in China than if you just come in as westerners.”

He attributes his success in part to the style of teaching at Ivey and Cems. He picks out the use of overseas trips in the curriculum, where students are taken out of their comfort zone on overseas projects — Chen spent his time with a consulting firm in Mumbai — to build flexibility and an ability to deal with new challenges.

“You are thrown in at the deep end, but the lessons I learnt working in India were by far the most valuable out of the whole course,” he says. “You can do all these quant classes on a masters course, but it means nothing unless you understand how to react when sitting in front of a client.”

The experience has been fruitful for Chen and his co‑founders at True North. The business has grown to a team of 10 people this year, after four staff were added over the summer, and Chen is planning to join the operation full-time now that it has reached its current scale.

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“We are spread out across nine hours of time zones in six countries. Six [of the employees] are from Cems. Besides the obvious fact that [my network gives me] much better access to some real first-tier talent coming out of business schools, I would attribute the international, flexible and competitive mindset so common of ‘Cemsies’ to be a key factor of the luck that we’ve had,” Chen says.

“We’ve built the expertise over the past few years, and now the reputation, to go to [Wall Street] and raise the capital we need to make sustainable investments,” he adds.

“During the peak of the crisis I often wondered how it came to be that three friends doing this part-time became responsible for so much of Canada’s PPE supply. It has given us a lot of public goodwill.”

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