The very sad news of the death of the Founding President of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Vancouver, Paolo Pela, brings to the fore his enormous contribution towards creating a dynamic, flourishing entrepreneurial business organization linking Italy and Western Canada. However, it took time for the association to reach “flying quota”, as Paolo defined it, and the years leading up to the formal recognition of the Italian Chamber of Commerce of British Columbia in 1992 were full of drama and struggles, with the role played by Paolo being decisive and perhaps not very well known.
At the time, both the already established Italian Chambers in Toronto and Montreal each had ambitions to create their own branch office in Vancouver. I had been engaged to assist the Montreal Chamber in the organization of the grand launch in Vancouver of Fiera Milano in Canada and the Toronto Chamber had a local representative recruiting members on their behalf. However, ultimately, both Chambers renounced their territorial ambitions leaving the fledgling Vancouver organization to sink or swim, after which the two branches amalgamated and Paolo became the first and founding President.
The kernel of the organization was just beginning: armed with a list of 30 or so companies doing business with Italy provided by Tom Santosham, head of the Europe desk at BCTrade, I began to try and recruit members and found varying degrees of receptivity. I also sought support from Italians who had settled in Vancouver and started successful businesses but, discouragingly, a recurrent refrain seemed to be “I made it on my own – why should I help anyone else?”
However, Tom encouraged me to contact the Pela brothers at Novam Development, whom he described as low-profile entrepreneurs of impeccable reputation. Paolo agreed to meet me and, despite what I am sure was initial bemusement at the entire enterprise, he decided to become involved and began almost two decades of dedicated engagement that fundamentally shaped the Chamber as it is today.
As the founding President, Paolo understood the pivotal role of the Chambers in Italy and from the start was insistent on creating his vision for a Vancouver chamber, without the “folkloristic” components of “pizza e tarantella”, as he termed it. He saw it as a means of linking the country of his birth and his adopted home and as a way to represent the very best of Italian business : its entrepreneurial spirit, its drive to achieve excellence, harnessing leading edge technology with centuries of artisan expertise, the aesthetic imperative of even the humblest of products. And, of course, Paolo was himself a prime exemplar of Italian entrepreneurial excellence : principled, fiercely intelligent, creative, determined, fair.
Yet, in order to be able promote this vision of Italy, the Chamber needed to be officially recognized by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs which, in turn, required three years of activity, events, and a substantial membership base in order to demonstrate viability. So without any funding, we set forth on a wing and a prayer with Paolo offering rent-free for several years a small office space in one of Novam’s downtown buildings. Paolo drew on his extensive network of business contacts and friends to boost membership and we organized some glorious events in other Novam properties such as the Birks building, the setting for fashion shows, wine tastings and operatic evenings. And somehow, Paolo also found the time to take on the thankless task of translating the Chamber’s Constitution and Bylaws from English into Italian as part of the documentation required for the Ministry.
Once recognition was granted, we were on somewhat firmer footing. Paolo continued as President, flanked by Vice-President Franco Anglesio, like Paolo a native of Piedmont, and we started to welcome economic missions and to organize business matching forums, speaker meetings, gala evenings. At the centre of all these activities was Paolo, with his elegant, patrician bearing and old-world courtesy, his thoughtful demeanour leavened often by a twinkle in his eye and sometimes a mischievous grin. Yet despite all his accomplishments, he was a very modest and self-deprecating man and I am sure that it was with some relief, having assured himself that the Chamber was in good hands, that he eventually bowed out of the spotlight and became the elder statesman. Some years later, however, he did not hesitate to step back into a leadership role when the Chamber risked veering into perilous waters, marshalling his keen mind and shrewd strategic instincts to ensure that we got back on course.
The Chamber owes Paolo a huge debt of gratitude – without his vision, dedication, generosity, wisdom and support, the outcome would have been vastly different.
“We shall not look upon his like again”.