Fortress Paper boss on potential in challenging sectors: CEO Series

Oct 17, 2013

Chad Wasilenkoff

In the midst of the global financial crisis, many investors shied away from problematic sectors. However Chad Wasilenkoff, CEO and founder of Fortress Paper, and a 2010 Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year, has a talent for seeing the potential in businesses that send other investors running – and has used it as the foundation for a remarkable career.

Wasilenkoff discussed this and more with CKNW host Bill Good as part of the Chief Executives, an ongoing partnership between the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University and prominent Vancouver radio station CKNW News Talk 980.

Growing up near a golf course, Wasilenkoff’s entrepreneurial streak manifested itself at the age of nine, as he spotted the earning potential in collecting and selling lost golf balls. The business proved so lucrative that he was soon employing other children, and on a good weekend could make more than a thousand dollars.

He then branched into other markets and began dealing in other products that interested him, using the classified ads of local newspapers to buy and sell video game consoles, skateboards and BMX bikes.

“It was less an interest in business and more an interest in money that drove me,” he said. “I was doing anything I could to earn more money. I started skipping school on Thursday and Friday when the classified ads came out in order to monopolize the sectors I was trading in.”

Wasilenkoff’s keen eye once saw him profit from a snowstorm in his hometown of Calgary. With the city at a standstill, he recognized there was opportunity, and merely needed to figure out where it lay. He eventually discovered an auction house that was still operating, and was able to negotiate deals with the few other customers present to allow each other free runs at certain items on auction. Among the many bargains picked up that day was a Robert Bateman print that still hangs in his parents’ house today as a memento of his childhood entrepreneurial ventures.

“It was a unique childhood, but looking back now I have some regrets,” he said. “I missed out on being a kid since I was busy buying and selling things.”

Questioned as to how he became involved in the specialty pulp and security paper industry, Wasilenkoff revealed that he had scoured the planet for opportunities, and that the fact the forestry industry was an eroding business in the face of e-readers actually appealed to him.

After examining a lot of operations, he discovered that niche products had great opportunity for growth. The first asset he bought was a wallpaper mill in Germany for $5 million, in which he changed the entire product mix to produce a new, seamless type of wallpaper. Without putting any further investment into it, he recently sold the mill for $160 million.

With the forestry industry faced with so many challenges at present, investment is hard to come by for existing firms. Wasilenkoff sees the opportunity in these challenges, however, and through a carefully maintained network of lawyers, accountants and consultants, often has these opportunities land on his doorstep.

“Ideally, the more challenging the deal, or the more problems the opportunity has, the more excited I get,” he said. “I look at a lot of opportunities, but they have to meet a lot of criteria. A deal often takes a year or two to put together. People say I am a big risk taker, but I feel I am actually the biggest chicken out there.”

Revealing some fascinating insight into the secure paper business, Wasilenkoff explained that the bank note industry grows at about five percent a year, and is essentially recession proof. Even in the face of the financial crisis, banks are unwilling to take a chance on foreign companies. His business is not immune to the effects of the crisis, however, with the fluctuating exchange rates resulting in one branch that had long yielded 20 percent profit margins suddenly reporting a 20 percent loss before eventually stabilizing after a few years.

Success comes at a cost for Wasilenkoff, however, and he readily admits that his work life balance is not where he would like it to be. His days are so busy, that a few years ago he stopped going into his office, as he physically did not have the time to make the 20-minute commute. Although it is not uncommon for him to have no meetings in a day, he receives on average around 400 emails each day that all require an immediate response.

Indeed, Thanksgiving dinner for Wasilenkoff this year consisted of sitting by himself eating frozen gyoza. The demands of his job require him to travel a lot, and by his own admission, he does not spend enough time with his family. As such, he is currently planning on moving to Palm Springs or Bermuda in the near future so he can retire.

“I retired twice already, but it didn’t last long,” he said. “I got sucked back into the business world, and when I’m in it, I’m all in. You have to be faster and more efficient than anyone else. The old adage of work harder; get up earlier; and put in more time and effort than anyone else is very true.”

The next CEO to be interviewed on the fall 2013 CKNW CEO Series will be Ashley Cooper, of Paladin Security.

To see past interviews from the CKNW Chief Executives Series, visit http://beedie.sfu.ca/events/2013-cknw-ceo-series/

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