Fo­cused on help­ing pa­tients stay alive

EN­TRE­PRE­NEUR WORK­ING ON VEN­TI­LA­TORS

Vancouver Sun - - PAN­DEMIC - JOE O’CONNOR

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. jo­con­nor@post­media.com

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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