How Former Hockey Pro Patrick Dovigi Created a Multibillion-Dollar Business
Many entrepreneurs will tell you that what they’re doing now is not what they initially set out to do. Making major professional changes—even mid- to late-career—can often lead to more fulfilling and successful outcomes. That’s what our series The Pivot is all about. Each month, we speak to founders, business leaders and entrepreneurs about how—and why—they changed course and found success in an entirely different industry. Here, we speak to Patrick Dovigi, the founder and CEO of environmental services company, Green For Life.
“In Sault Sainte Marie, playing hockey is like drinking water,” says Patrick Dovigi. The founder and CEO of Green For Life, a waste management company, grew up playing hockey in a rink his dad built in their backyard. “I laced up my first pair of skates when I was two years old.”
But Dovigi wasn’t just another neighbourhood kid playing shinny—he had the physicality and calm-yet-passionate demeanour befitting of a goalie, and at the age of 14 he left Sault Sainte Marie for Waterloo to join the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Elmira Sugar Kings, living with a billet family and attending high school nearby. By the time he turned 18, he was drafted to join the NHL as goaltender for the Edmonton Oilers. He spent two years blocking shots in the Gateway to the North before he was shipped off to join the Detroit Red Wings in 1999.
By 2001, after 15 years of playing hockey professionally, Dovigi had lost his enthusiasm for the sport. Between the constant travel and the lack of agency in where he lived, Dovigi began dreaming of a more settled life. “I was a piece of meat,” he says, referring to being at the mercy of other people’s drafting decisions. “I wanted to get into something where I would control my own destiny.”
Dovigi’s father, a business teacher who owned a stake in several Northern Ontario sports bars, had an entrepreneurial streak, which gave Dovigi the inspiration to become his own boss—something that would give him that agency he so desired. So he enrolled in the business management program at what is now Toronto Metropolitan University.
His first job out of school in 2004 was at Standard Mercantile, a small investment bank where he was responsible for assisting operations and collecting information on various companies the bank planned to invest in. “Then one of the investments we looked after went horribly wrong, and I got sucked in to go fix things,” he says.
“Putting in the hard work and facing adversity are things you learn when you play sports that teach you how to be a better executive”
It turned out the company they invested in had violated a number of environmental permits, causing a two-week-long fire at a trash site. The owner of the facility was ultimately fined and sent to jail. “He was only supposed to have 1,000 tons of waste on site, but he ended up having more than 100,000,” says Dovigi. “He collected a bunch of receivables and left us with a pile of garbage, literally. It was a total disaster.”
From this experience, Dovigi basically got a crash course on the ins and outs of waste management. The clean-up took two and a half years, by the end of which he realized the industry was full of opportunity for improvement. He aspired to create a company much bigger than the one he had been assisting. His big idea: buying up and consolidating the numerous mom-and-pop businesses operating in the category.
In the summer of 2007, he founded Green For Life with $10 million in seed capital from investors David Kassie and Barry Goldberg at Canaccord Genuity Group. (Dovigi had met Goldberg years earlier when he played hockey with his son, Sean.) From day one, the company aimed to be “a one-stop shop for all of our customers’ waste needs,” collecting municipal, industrial and commercial waste, cleaning stormwater from underground parking garages and collecting used motor oil from car dealerships and lube shops.
While he never had ambitions of expanding beyond Toronto, the 2008 financial downturn presented an opportunity to move into Western Canada through strategic acquisitions of companies like Envirowest and Smithrite. Then in 2014, the company began expanding into the Maritimes, and in 2017 Green For Life entered into the U.S. market, which was like rocket fuel for growth. Today, 65 per cent of the company’s business is in the U.S. GFL went public in 2020, which Dovigi described as the “next logical step” that gave them access to incremental capital to fund growth.
“My initial goal was to build a business of $40 to $50 million in revenue and here we are, $7 billion in revenue later,” he says. Green For Life maintains over 20,000 employees and Dovigi’s net worth is estimated at over $1 billion. He is now focused on giving back and supporting philanthropic causes, like a $5-million donation to create the Dovigi Orthopaedic Sports Medicine Clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital, the first dedicated sports-medicine wing at any hospital in Toronto.
According to Dovigi, building a business from the ground up is a lot like playing professional hockey. “It takes all kinds to make a successful team. From the coach, to the general manager, to the training staff, to the players, you’re all working together to win,” he says. “Putting in the hard work and facing adversity are things you learn when you play sports that teach you how to be a better executive.”
Does he ever miss playing pro hockey? “A little bit,” he admits. “But I’m pretty happy with the life I have now.”