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How Dan-D Foods founder went from Vietnam refugee to Canada’s ‘Cashew King’

Dan On says mixing Asian and Canadian business practices and values was key to success
Dan On, founder and owner of Dan-D Foods Group Global, at a gathering with Asian Canadian Benevolent Association volunteers after the company’s food giveaway program to help seniors in Chinatown

May will mark one year since the B.C. government designated Vietnam as one of three key markets in its trade diversity strategy for the province.

Three decades ago, a B.C.-based company saw the significant economic opportunities in the Asia-Pacific country—and built half of his business empire there.

Among consumers who purchase nuts, dried fruit snacks and spices, the brand Dan-D Pak is well known. Dan-D Foods Group Global, a leading brand of packaged snack foods, sells its products in supermarkets and grocery stores across Canada and in more than 20 countries.

Lesser known is the fact the company is based in Richmond, and built from humble beginnings in 1989 by Dan On, who came to Canada at age 18 as a war refugee from Vietnam.

Now, the company reports more than US$200 million in annual revenue, employs around 800 workers in six countries—including at its 646,000-square-foot flagship factory in Vietnam—and exports more than 2,000 products worldwide.

“One of my legs is in North America, my other leg is in Asia. That’s what makes me more unique than anybody,” said On.

Becoming the ‘Cashew King’

Irene and George Kavanagh welcomed On, an 18-year-old Vietnamese boat refugee, at the Vancouver International Airport on a cloudy day in 1979 and drove him to their house in Port Coquitlam.

On recalled that the couple, who were not financially well-off, asked if he wanted to go to school or work.

“I was looking at their eyes and they were telling me: ‘Just go to work.’ So I said, ‘Okay, go to work,’” said On. 

He started working for George’s cereal business and worked part-time in a restaurant in the evening until George sold his business and retired 10 years later. On then opened his own grocery store, but soon found that it was not the career for him.

“In my blood, I want to enterprise. I didn’t have the luxury of being a professor, doctor, accountant, lawyer because I didn’t have time to go to school,” said On.

Thanks to the trust On built with HSBC while working with George, the bank granted him a loan to start his food processing business, Dan-D-Foods, in Coquitlam in 1989. He moved to the 60,000-square-foot facility he now operates in Richmond in 1999.

The turning point for his business took place in 1995 when On and George embarked on a trip to Vietnam and saw people selling cashews on the street for as cheap as $2 per pound.

“My father loved cashews. He said, ‘Well, this is it. Let’s come back to Vietnam to open a cashew factory,’” recalled On, who knew nothing about cashews at the time.

“I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it, give it a shot. But if I do cashews, I will do the best quality cashews.’”

And it turned out to be a huge success. At that time, there weren’t many cashews in the market and most of them came from East Africa. Dan D’s packed cashew products became popular in both Canada and Asia and set the company up for future success and expansion. 

“We are the king of cashews. We pioneered the industry. [Others] followed us—tens of different brands are competing with us. But that’s fine—we welcome competition because competition is also giving us opportunity to do better and keep reinventing ourselves,” said On.

Building a sustainable high-tech factory in Vietnam

On attributes a big part of his business success to his partnership in Vietnam, where he operates his flagship factory with around 600 employees. He described the factory as having world-leading cutting-edge technologies and operational models.

When he took US$500,000 to invest in Vietnam in the 1990s, he said he received a warm welcome from local officials, something he did not believe he would have experienced in China, a popular “world factory” at the time.

His second plant in Vietnam began operations in 2018 after an investment of approximately US$20 million. This factory has some of the most innovative technologies including robotic machinery and artificial intelligence (AI), is solar powered, and collects and recycles rainwater, according to the company.

There is also a canteen that provides three free meals per day to all the employees. Some of the ingredients come from the company’s own farm, where animals are fed by-products from the factory’s production process.

On said he believes high tech, innovation and sustainability help his company stand out amid fierce competition, and will help extend the longevity of his business.

“Cashews are becoming a non-profit [business] for us because it’s so competitive, so we get into packaging—we make our own packaging to pack our products, and we make flavoured nuts that people don’t usually do, and then we need to have the integration of sustainable and AI technology,” said On.

Offering free meals to workers—along amenities such as a salon, gym, swimming pool and music fountain—helps drive productivity, motivation and morale, according to On.

“We [benefit from] the low-cost labour in Vietnam. It doesn’t mean we abuse the labour in Vietnam, because the living style is totally different. People live in the village and after working for a few years, they can make enough money to build their own home,” said On.

“The country has lots of problems internally, like corruption and others.… I don’t look at that just as negative, I’m looking at those as opportunities for them to improve the system as a country that’s still growing.”

Formula for success

Like his business model, On said his working style is a combination of Asian and Canadian business practices and values.

“Asian culture is integrity, loyalty; the West is bold, competitive. Once you blend all together, this is the formula for success,” he said.

This blend means that On is shrewd at the negotiation table, but also likes to go the extra mile to build relationships and friendships with his business partners.

He also said he values employee loyalty. Many employees have worked for him for decades and he created a loyalty program to award them – when they retire, they receive three years of income from the company as their “vacation fund.”

“[Someone] said, ‘You have 50 employees that are over 60 and they are a liability.’ I said, ‘But before that, they were the assets to the company,’” said Dan.

On is also committed to giving back to the community that gave him the chance to build a better life. He donated $10 million to the Richmond Hospital last year. He also organizes an annual lunch for seniors, hosts outdoor barbecue parties for people living near his Richmond facility and delivers a food giveaway program for seniors in Chinatown in partnership with the Asian Canadian Benevolent Association.

On has also adopted 80 orphans in Vietnam and when he visits the country, he invites them to his house and the factory to enjoy the swimming pool, watch Western TV and have burgers and pizza.

“I always appreciate that somebody gave me the opportunity, that one chance to make a change in life. So that’s why I do the same thing,” said On.

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