The world works in mysterious ways, and sometimes things just happen for a reason. Dan Milanovic couldn’t agree more.
The eldest son of two hard-working immigrants from the former Yugoslavia, Dan (and his younger brother Sasha) grew up in the family business. In 1974, his parents Radovan and Ljubica opened a retail butcher shop called Juhor Meats, at Gerrard and Coxwell in Toronto. They sold smoked meats and imported groceries to the local old Yugoslav community, including Serbians, Croatians, Bosnians, Macedonians, and Slovanians. To their customers, Juhor Meats offered a little taste of home and the business thrived. Over time, they began making products that could be sold to restaurants, hotels, and other large institutions, and by 1979, they had outgrown their space and needed a bigger facility.
The business moved twice over the following 15 years, eventually settling in Ajax, and transitioning from retail into a Federally Inspected wholesale company supplying government contracts. “It was a big change for our little family-run business,” explains Dan. “We went from wooden butcher block tables with sawdust on the floor to stainless steel surfaces in a completely sterile environment.” By 1994, Dan’s parents were ready to retire, and they sold off their customer base. Things didn’t go smoothly, however, and within months, customers who were unhappy began reaching out to Dan, asking him to get back into the industry.
“I had been thinking about pursuing a career in marine biology,” says Dan, “but the Ministry of Natural Resources had a hiring freeze at the time. It just wasn’t meant to be. I saw an opportunity to restart the business, and I jumped in.” Dan and Sasha got to work and began scouting for a location. They found two industrial units in Ajax, and started construction themselves, without any financing. One day, while in the midst of construction, Dan walked into the bank covered in dirt, still wearing his work boots, and asked to speak with a bank manager to find out what was needed to obtain a loan. He spent the next few weeks putting together a comprehensive business plan and securing letters of commitment from previous large accounts who were interested in continuing to do business with him. When he went back to the bank to secure next steps, the manager told him that the bank had rejected the request, but she had personally overwritten the decision and signed her approval. When Dan asked why, she said “you came in covered in mud. I knew, the moment I saw you, that you would work hard. Make me proud.” Dan credits her for helping him get started, and so D&S Meats was established in 1995.
The newly-founded wholesale business started with 6 employees in two units, and over the next 22 years, they expanded into 8 additional units and grew to a staff of almost 50. Dan was at the helm of the business, as President/CEO, and Sasha served as VP. As with their parents before them, their reputation for providing quality meats – their peameal bacon was especially popular – was widespread.
They began receiving calls from private equity firms and potential strategic buyers who were interested in purchasing the business, but quickly realized that these potential buyers had no sense of the true value of their company. “It was serendipitous that we happened to receive information in the mail, last year, about Fuller Landau and their range of services. We engaged Bruce Roher, partner, to do a formal valuation of the company.”
At the time, a private equity firm had shown interest in buying D&S, but Dan wasn’t sure if it would be a good fit. “We needed an advisor with our best interests at heart – someone who could help us understand the process and identify a potential buyer whose vision for the business matched our own.” Bruce put Dan in touch with Jonas Cohen, a M&A partner at Fuller Landau. “Jonas vetted the private equity firm on our behalf and found that they were looking to nickel-and-dime their way through the deal,” recalls Dan. It was an easy decision – Dan and his brother Sasha chose not to pursue the offer. “Preserving our parent’s legacy was our main goal,” he says. “We needed a buyer who would understand that. We weren’t actively shopping our business around, but thankfully, Jonas has a lot of contacts in the industry.”
In early 2018, Jonas was approached by a representative of Cardinal Meat Specialists Limited, a family-run business with over 65 years in the industry. Jonas, in turn, made the introduction to Dan. “We each liked what we heard,” recalls Dan. “We shared the same vision and core values. Everything about it felt right.” Brent Cator, the President and CEO of Cardinal, purchased 100% of the shares of D&S Meats, with the condition that Dan stay on board. “Brent told me that he wanted to give me the opportunity to do what I hadn’t yet been able to do at D&S. I was like a kid in a candy store. If I had been given a blank cheque to build my own plant from scratch, it would look exactly like the one we have at Cardinal.”
Looking back on the deal, which closed less than a year ago, Dan reflects that the experience took him on a rollercoaster of emotions. “When you run your own business for 23 years, you are the final decision maker. It’s a lot of responsibility and stress,” he notes. “I was never able to really disconnect from my work. When I sold the business, I lost some control, but I gained back my life. I now have more time with my wife and children, and that’s invaluable to me.”
Dan, and his wife Natalija, whom he says he would not have survived without, have two children – a 16-year old daughter named Mila, and a 12-year old son with autism, named Niko. “Prior to the sale of my business, we held a couple of galas to raise money for Autism Ontario,” explains Dan. “We raised over $150K in total. This year, we’ll be holding our third Niko’s Night for Autism Gala and it’s shaping up to be bigger and better than ever.”
So, what’s next for Dan? Is he counting down the days until his commitment is finished so he can kick up his heels and enjoy an early retirement? Or does he want to start up another business of his own? “I’m a simple guy,” explains Dan. “I’m not looking to jump around or start over. I’d love to retire from Cardinal if they see value in having me there to keep growing the business. I just enjoy making a solid contribution.”
To learn more about Cardinal Meat Specialists Limited, visit http://www.cardinalmeats.com/.