Vancouver Sun

Focused on helping patients stay alive



Jim Estill was talking about his “projects,” and how, when he sees a problem and recognizes that perhaps he could help out, he will dive in headlong seeking a solution. In 2015, the problem as Estill perceived it, when reading the news out of Syria, was that Canada needed to be doing something to help with the refugee crisis but wasn’t doing anything nearly fast enough.

So the serial entreprene­ur — whose first venture in the 1980s involved selling computers out of the trunk of his brown 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass and building a multimilli­on-dollar company and later becoming one of the founding board members of Research in Motion, a.k.a. Blackberry — decided to tackle the Syrian issue, by building a network of like-minded folks in his hometown of Guelph, Ont.

Estill, for all his hustle, wound up privately sponsoring 50 Syrian families, paying for the process while also providing the newcomers with English lessons and jobs at his current company, Danby Appliances. (Danby’s claim to fame? Bar fridges).

Estill was ultimately awarded an Order of Canada for his refugee work, a good deed he hasn’t let go off. By his best count, he has sponsored about 100 Syrian families in total, or 400 individual­s, 30 of whom still work for him at Danby in a mix of positions.

“Some of my staff are really down in the dumps about COVID-19 — thinking the sky is falling — but then I look at the Syrians and they will just look at you and say, ‘What do you mean? This is nothing. We’ll get through it.

It’s just one more challenge in life’.”

It is an awesome attitude, brimming with the can-do optimism Estill is now harnessing, along with the energies of his company’s 500 other employees, to tackle his latest “project,” which involves partnering with Bayliss Medical to manufactur­e 10,000 (or so) ventilator­s on order from the Government of Canada.

“The ventilator­s are no different than the Syrian project,” Estill says. “I saw a need — we need these ventilator­s — and I thought I could help.”

At the end of each day, Estill sends an email to his staff with the subject line: “Wartime CEO update.” The notes are a blend of nutsand-bolts work items, news articles of interest, praise for, for example, the sales team in an impossible time, plus the occasional image of some guy with a mullet or a YouTube video featuring amateur musicians pounding out a socially distanced version of the Beegees’ song Stayin’ Alive.

Estill’s biggest fear is that even with social distancing and the dramatic changes to daily life, the darkest hours for Canadians still lie ahead. It could well be that that person in the hospital who is in desperate shape, on a ventilator or in need of one, will be someone we know personally: a parent, uncle, colleague, friend, spouse.

“What we have is a wave coming at us, and we don’t know when it is going to crash over us, and we don’t know how big the wave is going to be — but we better try to be prepared — because if the wave starts crashing and we don’t have enough ventilator­s then it’ll be Italy, it’ll be Spain,” Estill says, his voice edged with urgency. “It’ll be (people) showing up at the hospital, at 70 years old, and dying in the hallway.”

It is an apocalypti­c scenario, the worst-case what-if, and it’s what keeps driving Estill, at age 63, to work “27 hours a day” repurposin­g his production lines.

“I am not surprised by what Jim is doing,” says Firas al Mohammed. “I am always expecting Jim to do something beautiful, and when this crisis hit I knew he would be at the front of the line wanting to help.”

Al Mohammed, a former geologist, arrived in Canada with the initial group of Syrians Estill sponsored. The 41-year-old father of two spent a year working for Danby before returning to school and getting a job with Nestle Waters. He and Estill remain close, and talk regularly, though their conversati­ons have been less frequent of late.

Pre-pandemic, Estill, by his own admission, was notoriousl­y unfocused as a CEO. His attention was always being pulled in different directions, which isn’t always an asset for a boss minding a bottom line. But it has proved a handy attribute during this crisis. Estill saw a need, scoured the country to figure out a way to meet it, and partnered with a medical device maker — while also having his engineers design a manual version of a ventilator as a fail-safe alternativ­e, should all else fail.

“We are trying to save lives here,” Estill says. “What’s the best case? Best case is, we get set up in two weeks and then I get the call and it is someone telling me, “We got it all looked after, Jim. COVID-19 died.”

Now wouldn’t that be nice.

 ?? PETER J THOMPSON / NATIONAL POST ?? Danby CEO Jim Estill hopes to be able to re-tool production lines to make much-needed ventilator­s during the COVID-19 pandemic.
PETER J THOMPSON / NATIONAL POST Danby CEO Jim Estill hopes to be able to re-tool production lines to make much-needed ventilator­s during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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