Canada’s billionaire Weston family is making a $100-million bet on the emerging-technology sector, hiring away one of Canada’s top early-stage investment professionals from Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System to run its new venture fund.
Jim Orlando, a managing partner with OMERS Ventures, will join a new arm of the Westons’ holding company, Wittington Investments, to develop “a meaningful corporate venture capital program and strategy,” according to a recruiting brief for the position.
He is expected to focus on areas of innovation germane to the family’s key corporate interests: baking company Weston Foods, supermarket operator Loblaw Cos. Ltd. and drugstore chain Shoppers Drug Mart Corp., controlled by the Westons’ publicly traded conglomerate, George Weston Ltd.
Wittington has just two disclosed investments in Toronto’s emerging-technology sector, backing digital-health benefits provider League Inc. and venture-capital fund Radical Ventures. George Weston made its first investment in venture capital in 2016, backing a $25-million consumer-products-focused fund managed by Dragons’ Den star Arlene Dickinson, while Loblaw this year partnered with Toronto startup Flashfood Inc. to sell perishable food items nearing the end of their shelf lives through a mobile app.
Calls to the office of Wittington president Pavi Binning were not returned. Mr. Orlando declined a request for comment.
The Westons join a small but growing group of wealthy families and corporations – including Telus Corp., Power Corp. of Canada, Royal Bank of Canada and OpenText Corp. – to invest in early-stage technology ventures.
Several real estate firms including Michael Cooper’s Dream Unlimited and Dream Office REIT and Cadillac Fairview Corp. Ltd. have committed tens of millions of dollars each to fund innovation in the property-tech market. Other Canadian “old economy” entrepreneurs – including mining magnate Seymour Schulich, property developer Robert Mantella, Vega nutritional supplement maker Charles Chang and Mission Hill Winery founder Anthony von Mandl – have emerged as big financiers of early-stage ventures in recent years.
“No question, [the Westons'] various companies are confronting a good number of significant opportunities and challenges, so there is no shortage of things to focus on,” said Rich Osborn, managing partner of Telus Ventures. “My caution would be, it’s easy to source and structure deals. The hard part is really unlocking the strategic value. That takes a lot more work and time to build that muscle. It will be a learning exercise for them for some time.”
Mr. Orlando, a native of Timmins, Ont., studied engineering at McMaster University and joined OMERS’ private-equity division 11 years ago after stints with Bell Canada’s venture arm and with Battery Ventures in Silicon Valley. He helped create OMERS’ venture-capital division early this decade after many institutional investors in Canada retreated from the space following years of poor returns. It was a well-timed move that saw OMERS back many of the top names in Canada’s resurgent tech scene.
“Jim has always been constructive, supportive and influenced us by asking the right questions at the right time, which is one of the most important traits of a great venture capitalist,” said Allen Lau, CEO of Wattpad, a social-network operator for readers and writers of amateur fiction. Mr. Orlando will leave the board of Wattpad and four other OMERS-designated board positions when he departs in the coming days.
Former Shopify Inc. chief financial officer Russ Jones described Mr. Orlando, a board observer from 2013 to 2015, as “a great, solid business guy" who proved a source of advice on how investors would view certain company issues, as well as market developments and merger and acquisition ideas. “He was a good value-add. Canada needs more smart venture-capital money, so I think the fact [Mr. Orlando] is doing that and [Wittington is] getting into the game is overall good for Canada.”
News of Mr. Orlando’s departure was communicated within OMERS earlier this week.
Damien Steel, who oversees OMERS’s venture-capital arm, confirmed Mr. Orlando’s departure, adding “we thank him for all his work over the years and wish him well in all future endeavours.”
His departure comes nine months after the unexpected exit of Mr. Steel’s predecessor, John Ruffolo.
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