How Green for Life’s CEO built a garbage empire

If Patrick Dovigi, one of Canada’s wealthiest people, cowered in the face of risk, his life would be far different.

He would not have ventured far from his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie at age 14 to chase a professional hockey career, or left a job in investment banking at just 27 to start a garbage-pickup enterprise. And he certainly would not have bought out an astronomical 220 companies en route to building Green For Life Environmental, now ranked by some measures as the fourth-largest waste management operation in North America.

The 43-year-old’s life has been punctuated by a series of big-time gambles that would make even the hardest of poker players wince; perhaps the largest of all was taking on more than $9 billion in debt to run a company responsible for much of Canada’s garbage and environmental services. But where the less-assured see the prospect of failure, Dovigi sees the potential for success.

On the balance sheets of Dovigi’s Toronto-based behemoth company, which operates in all 10 provinces and 26 states, that upside is a market capitalization of approximately $17 billion.

It’s also an estimated personal net worth of more than $1 billion, a private island in Muskoka near lake Joseph that he accesses via seaplane, and, until it was recently sold, a 75-metre yacht called Lady Jorgia that was named after his youngest of five children and was valued at approximately $90 million.

In 15 years of business, focusing on growth instead of balking at risk has clearly worked for GFL’s CEO and president.

Today he focuses more on what he’s chasing — recently, an aggressive foray into recycling technologies — rather than what might be chasing him: company debt levels that are more than double the industry average at a time when rates are as high as they have been in GFL’s lifetime. And yet the looming threat of a recession does not appear to faze GFL’s leader.

“I don’t have fear, generally,” said Dovigi, sitting in his home in Florida, where four of his children have been attending school since the pandemic. “If you decide wrong, you learn. And that’s better than standing still and not making a decision at all — my parents instilled that in me.”

Dovigi, the son of Italian immigrants, credits his fearlessness to long hours spent blocking pucks hurled at him by his father, Fred, on the family outdoor rink

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