How Canada Gave Me A Second Lease On Life
Amid the brutality of a long civil war, I made my way to Canada, leaving behind the country of our birth, soaked with the blood of siblings, parents and large extended families.
Roy Ratnavel
EVP, Head of Distribution
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It was on April 19, 1988, when I was 18-years-old, that I landed at Toronto Pearson International Airport— alone. I made my way to Canada, leaving behind the country of my birth, soaked with the blood of childhood friends and extended families. The only collateral I had was a strong back and the hope for a better life. When I arrived, English was not my first language, but my hopes and dreams were recognizably Canadian. Like immigrants from everywhere else, I was determined to overcome any obstacles, to build new life in Canada.

In my late teens, I was a new immigrant scrambling to make a living in a new country. By day, I worked to pay the rent— by doing odd jobs. By night, I studied at night school to complete my high school. And at late nights I would clean office buildings with a few friends of mine. One time I worked at a North Toronto packaging factory in the Concord area. My job was to stand there with a glue gun, and apply spray foam. A board would come by on the belt, and I would spray it. I was making $3.50 an hour. I’m not even sure if they were paying me the legal minimum.

At this point I was living with four roommates in a cheap apartment in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. One late night, coming home from a cleaning job—I noticed the Toronto Sun newspaper on the kitchen table, I flipped through the job listings, and there was one that said ‘Office Help Needed. $14K.’ I applied—even though I didn’t even know what ‘K’ meant. I was hired as a mailroom clerk. My new employer was Universal Group of Funds, a small company that would eventually grow into CI Financial Corp., now the largest independent investment company in Canada. My offer letter, dated February 16, 1989— 31 years ago—now hangs in a frame above my desk, in my 2 Queen Street office.

While working in the mailroom I met Bill Holland. He was in sales at the time and one of the company’s rising stars — who would eventually become the CEO. We bonded well due to our shared love of designer neckties. One day when I came to work I noticed a shopping bag on my mailroom desk. When I opened it, I noticed the bag was full of designer ties— in the likes of Brioni, Boss, Canali and Zegna. He gave me the ties that he wasn’t wearing any longer. Needless to say, I was the best dressed mailroom guy on Bay Street from that day forward. He also encouraged me to enter university part time as a mature student and also pushed me to apply for other positions in the company.

As a result, I gained a wide range of experiences by working in administration, customer service, and sales. In late 1997, I was an inside sales representative when I met my newly appointed Head of Distribution. He gave me the opportunity as a wholesaler in 1998— the job required me to move to Vancouver. Along with my wife Sue, I packed up what little I had and moved West. It was a risk— but one worth taking.

I was a wholesaler in BC from 1998 to 2006. Then I rose to manage the whole West Coast sales operation from Victoria to Winnipeg. In 2016, at my new CEO’s request, I came back to Toronto, where I joined the CI Financial executive team as Executive Vice President and Head of Distribution. It has been quite a journey for a skinny Tamil kid who arrived in this country thirty-one years ago with (US) $50 in his pocket.

Perhaps because of my modest success, I get asked about how to achieve career success— a fair bit. But it’s not something I think about much—at least, not in the way the question is framed. Here is my best attempt at answering that question.

Aristotle once noted that "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit." Habits play an important role as we go about our lives. Creating excellent habits is a combination of being able to recognize and eliminate your poor practices while implementing a series of positive and effective behaviours. This allows you to most efficiently complete the most challenging and repetitive tasks that life presents. Being conscious of what you do, that is consistent with your goals— and, being accountable for your daily actions is the formula and the key to creating excellent habits that can increase your odds of success.

Don’t let obstacles dictate the outcomes and by making a conscious decision— to stretch beyond your present situation to create the future you desire. Any challenge that you have in your life can be overcome by believing there is a solution and directing your energies toward pursuing it. Regardless of whether it is conscious or unconscious— success or failure is a choice. The ironic thing about failure is that you will fail at some point in your life. You will embarrass yourself. There is no doubt about it. But you got to take the risks— I’m sure you probably heard that before.

Reggie Jackson struck out 2,600 times in his career. The most in the history of baseball. But you don’t hear about the strikeouts. People only remember the home runs. Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that? I didn’t know that. Because the 1,001st was the lightbulb. That is perseverance. The secret to perseverance is maintaining a positive mental attitude in the midst of facing obstacles. Having a "Winners Persevere" mentality is a process of accepting that you will be faced with challenges but that all challenges have solutions.

True growth is really up to oneself, regardless of what is going on around you. You must be willing to learn to adjust and adapt to changing conditions. Next— you must decide on what actions will help you have better outcomes. Implementing those actions and continually assessing your results will keep you accountable to yourself and beyond the blame game. Making good decisions involves beginning with a commitment to make a decision. That's the hard part. Choosing the best possible path is only possible after you've established that you've got the guts and the commitment to make a decision. Don’t be afraid of change. Be afraid of not changing. No one can govern this— except yourself.

Step forward into growth and potential success— otherwise you will slip back to safety and into definite failure. The secret to knowing in which direction you step is to choose each step wisely. Choosing to step forward towards pursuing your goals could bring with it the fear of the unknown. Choosing to step backward towards complacency could bring with it the comfort of familiarity. But, you must ask yourself this— is it better to boldly succeed or is it better to safely fail?

So, take the lid off the self-made restrictions you have put on yourself. You are the sole architect of your career. You and you alone are the only one that can create, construct and care for your life and your career. Your responsibility to fulfill this goal— lies with no one but yourself. No one can cheat you out of your ultimate success but yourself. All motivation is self-motivation. Every person has some talent and perhaps even the training to succeed. But the question is do you have the guts to fail? If you don’t fail— then you are not even trying. Failure is part of living a full life. It is better to take the risk and fail sometimes, than not to take any risk at all and fail for sure.

Opportunities are never lost, but someone will take the ones you miss. As the saying goes, if you hang around the barbershop long enough you will eventually get a haircut. If you keep at it you will catch a break— eventually. Hard work always beats talent — especially, when talent doesn’t work hard. Pursue your passion relentlessly and don’t let any setbacks distract or define you. Defining who you are, is by what you are not— is the first step that leads you to really knowing who you are. Don’t wait for whatever ‘the event’ is to define you— what defines you has already happened.

Always play like an underdog. Being a snob doesn’t get you very far in the world. Nor does being thin-skinned. Opportunities will find you while you are busy trying harder and working smarter. In other words, your productive activities attract opportunities that can ultimately result in future success(es). Conversely, hoping that an opportunity will fall from the sky is wishful thinking. To get something you never had— you have to do something you never did. The dream is free— but the hustle is sold separately.

Who knows how things might have turned out for me? About thirty years ago, I was a lost kid from a far-away land. Canadian kindness taught a young kid that the world is not necessarily a bad place— and, nudged my life in a better direction. From the founder Bob McRae who paid part of my tuition fee, my surrogate father Ray Chang who helped me with my math homework and furniture for my apartment, my current mentor Bill Holland who helped me with the entrance to university as a mature student, my sales coach Peter Anderson who believed in me and gave a chance at wholesaling, to my dear friend Lorraine Blair who lifted me up when I was down with kind and encouraging words— they were all part of what made my experience in this country a success.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Canada. I realize this now more than ever. Canada gave me a second lease on life. Every time I think of Canada, I am reminded of the Irish proverb:

“When I count my blessings, I count you twice.”

My loyalty is marrow deep.

Happy Canada Day!


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