Eugene Melnyk: Billionaire, tireless worker and a taste for Hawaiian shirts and fun

Melnyk died on Monday, aged 62, from an undisclosed illness, and those who knew him find it hard to believe he is gone

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Eugene Melnyk wanted to be a doctor. But his path took him elsewhere after the death of his father, an emergency doctor, Ferdinand, at the age of 17. York University student who, according to the story, lasted two classes before deciding enough was enough.

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Young Melnyk had his own ideas. He didn’t need a business professor to tell him that we worked hard or got fired. He was already a tireless worker, a budding entrepreneur, and what he took away from the promotions gig was that doctors were incredibly short on time, making it difficult for them to keep up to date with all the latest research.

To make their lives easier and make a few dollars, Melnyk, then 20, founded a medical publishing company, Trimel Corp., which grew to include 40 titles before selling it in 1989 for 6, $5 million to Thomson Reuters Corp.

Melnyk’s lawyer, Sheldon Plener, recalls congratulating him on the deal, while imagining all the possibilities for his client, which, given the money involved, perhaps included a retired immediately at age 27.

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“Eugene gets this incredible offer – it’s millions and millions of dollars – and he says to me, ‘I’m going to sell,’ and I say, ‘Awesome, fantastic’, and then he says, ‘And now I’m going to build a pharmaceutical company,” Plener said Thursday, recalling the early years of a business relationship that grew into a close friendship spanning nearly 35 years.

Eugene Melnyk in 2017.
Eugene Melnyk in 2017. Photo by Tony Caldwell/Postmedia Files

“I thought, ‘Holy mackerel, this person has an incredible appetite for risk and a creative mind – and he knew the path he wanted to take – and he was willing to put it all on the line and do it.

Melnyk’s determination to swing for the metaphorical fences in building Biovail Corp. from scratch propelled him into the ranks of Canadian billionaires. The one who then bought the Ottawa Senators in 2003, saving the team from bankruptcy and a possible relocation to the United States. He also had run-ins with securities regulators in connection with the pharmaceutical company he founded.

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“To a certain extent, things went wrong,” Plener said. “But he had no regrets. He was incredibly proud.

Melnyk could look great in a finely tailored suit, and he was as intractable as they come to a boardroom, but he felt most comfortable in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, with a rum and a soda. in his hand and a friend next to him, watching a Senators game at Bert’s, the sports bar he owned near his home in Barbados.

Eugene Melnyk bought the Ottawa Citizens hockey team in 2003.
Eugene Melnyk bought the Ottawa Citizens hockey team in 2003. Photo by Wayne Cuddington/Postmedia Files

“You walk into a room and you’d never know he’s a billionaire, it’s just Eugene,” said John Miszuk, Senators chief administrative officer and Melnyk’s friend and employee since Biovail’s early days.

How were those days? Long. Miszuk recalls a crazy time in the early 2000s with staff firing late at night. Melnyk shows up one morning with a coffee cart, driving around every employee’s desk. He also sent a bottle of Dom Pérignon with a handwritten thank you note to their home.

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“It was Eugene,” Miszuk said.

Miszuk, Plener and anyone who knew Melnyk well finds it hard to believe he is really gone. He died Monday, aged 62, from an undisclosed illness. Dying just didn’t seem like something Melnyk had time for. Even after amassing a king’s fortune, he was still working 12 hours until recently, sipping soft and soft drinks at his ocean-view desk.

He had no regrets. He was incredibly proud

Sheldon Plener

He wanted to win the Stanley Cup and swore he had the plan to do it. It was heading into new business territories, including China, where Clean Beauty Collective, its beauty and cosmetics store, is set to launch this year after establishing itself as one of Scandinavia’s top five fragrances.

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Melnyk was also turning his racehorse farm in Florida into a housing estate and was very interested in Neurolign Technologies Inc., a startup he started a few years ago that has developed a brain injury detection tool using technology. of virtual reality. In his mind, this would be his next home run, a game-changer with the potential to improve athlete safety, as well as have broader potential applications related to brain health.

“Eugene had a tremendous ability to take on many projects. He didn’t stand still,” said Plener, a partner at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP and alternate NHL governor for the Senators. non-stop, but when he took a break he knew how to have fun.”

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Miszuk recalls a Senators management meeting in Las Vegas. Serious stuff. A few hours after the meetings ended, he was walking through the casino bar when he saw a crowd. Somewhere in the middle, a piano tinkled. He guessed it must be someone famous, a virtuoso perhaps.

“It was Eugene,” he said, laughing at the memory.

It was also Melnyk who took all his pals to Barbados for a party where Bryan Adams was the musical actor; who hired crooner Wayne Newton to come to a casino northeast of Toronto, so he could throw his octogenarian mother, Vera, a private surprise birthday party; and who brought Plener on stage with him at a gathering of illustrious alumni of St. Michael’s College School in Toronto for a tribute, even though Plener was not an alumnus.

“Someone in the crowd shouted, ‘That’s the lawyer,’” Plener said. “No moment was too solemn for Eugene. He liked to have fun and that’s what I liked about him.

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: oconnorecrit

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