Meet 2017 Anthony Roman Award Winner Pyarali Nanji

by Kathryn Willms

The first thing one notices walking into the headquarters of Belle-Pak Packaging Inc. is the sign above the company name declaring it to be one of Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies. Then you notice that the walls of the reception area are covered in plaques. A set of shelves displays awards and framed pictures. Look closer and you see that those photographs include a premier, a governor general, His Highness the Aga Khan, and more than one prime minister. What kind of packaging company is this? you think. Then you realize that in the middle of each of those photographs is the same smiling face. The crinkled eyes behind the smile belong to Pyarali Nanji. CEO of Belle-Pak. Renowned philanthropist. One of Canada’s Top 25 Immigrants in 2011. Recognized with the Positive Aging Award in 2015. The Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce’s Male Entrepreneur of the Year in 2010. Previously the recipient of two Business Excellence Awards, Nanji is again being honoured by the Markham Board of Trade, this time as the winner of the Anthony Roman Award.

This latest award to grace the Belle-Pak mantle recognizes Nanji for his talent for business, his dedication to philanthropy, and his leadership in the Markham community and beyond. “Mr. Nanji is certainly a deserving recipient,” says Richard Cunningham, president of the Markham Board of Trade. “He and his wife have been generous benefactors to hospitals and universities across the GTA. And with Belle-Pak, Mr. Nanji has created a successful and growing international business that is particularly notable for how well it treats its employees. It’s a wonderful story.”

A “beautiful” company

Nanji and his family emigrated from Uganda when the dictator Idi Amin gave the country’s 60,000 South Asians six months to leave. They settled in Montreal and became highly successful in the warehousing industry. When Nanji and his wife, Gulshan, moved to Ontario, the plan was to retire. But then the bank approached Nanji and his business partners with an interesting opportunity, a packaging company struggling in the economic downturn. Incorporated in 1991, they renamed it Belle-Pak because it was a beautiful company. The company grew through a series of strategic acquisitions. Today, it employs over 250 people in a 150,000 square foot facility and is a leading manufacturer of flexible polyethylene packaging with a diverse clientele that includes hospitals, banks, retail companies, and hotels across North America. “It’s not been easy,” says Nanji. “We’ve got a lot of competition. But we continue to invest in more advanced machinery, and the good part is that we are still growing.” One of the things that sets Belle-Pak apart is the investment it makes in its employees, many of whom have been with the company for more than 15 years. The company has created a university scholarship program for children of employees, and provides interest-free loans for first-time home buyers, as well as for employees going through a family emergency. “We have such loyal employees. They are excellent,” says Nanji. “We’re like the United Nations here. We have every community, every country, and no issues ever come up. They know if they need anything Papa Nanji’s here.” His eyes disappear as he laughs.

Saying thank you

When they came to Canada, the Nanjis vowed that if they had the opportunity, they would give back to the country that gave them a second chance. One glimpse at Nanji’s office at Belle-Pak confirms they have made good on this promise and more. A sideboard is covered in thank-you letters, article clippings, and commemorative books. The Nanjis have contributed to the renovation and expansion of the Sunnybrook emergency department and bought the hospital a state-of-the-art MRI machine. They are supporting eye care initiatives at the University of Toronto that see ophthalmologists travel to countries around the world to restore people’s sight and teach local surgeons to do the operations themselves. (“I want everyone to have their eyes,” says Nanji.) Their contributions are apparent at North York General Hospital, which features the Gulshan and Pyrali G. Nanji Ultrasound, CT and Radiography Center and the Gulshan and Pyarali G. Nanji Orthopaedic and Plastics Centre. A comprehensive list of their myriad contributions to various hospitals and educational institutes is far too long for this article.

Suzette Strong worked for Sunnybrook when the Nanjis’ first major donation arrived almost 15 years ago. Now as CEO of the Markham-Stouffville Hospital Foundation, another recipient of their generosity, she can attest to what makes the Nanjis so special. “They believe very strongly in helping others, in healthcare, in education,” she says. “They’re very proactive. They pick causes close to their heart, but they also want to know where they can make the biggest difference.” Strong says that all previous Anthony Roman recipients have had a meaningful connection to the hospital, and she is thrilled that the Nanjis are being recognized. “Mr. Nanji, with his philanthropic efforts, is inspiring other immigrants to give back.” Given the accolades he has received, one would think Nanji would be used to compliments, but he lowers his eyes modestly when commended on his philanthropic efforts. When pressed on what drives these efforts, he gestures towards the letters, photos, and plaques before him. “When you read something, when you hear something, that’s one thing,” he says. “When you see something, you understand the truth.”

At 88 years old, Nanji still walks his factory floor most days, consulting and joking with the staff, many of whom he knows by name. “What’s happening?” he calls out. “Work hard.” He’s a diminutive man in the vast space, but there’s nothing small about his vision or generosity. When asked if retirement is on the horizon, a staff member overhears. “He’s not allowed to retire,” she says, affectionately. Nanji grins and shrugs. “I’ll keep punching my card.”