When opportunity knocked, AJAY VIRMANI was awake — and went from
window washer to Canada’s cargo magnate
Inthe freezing cold of November 1975, Ajay Virmani was suspended outside the 52nd
floor of the TD Center in Toronto, washing windows to earn his daily bread.
Today, Virmani is President and CEO of
Cargojet, the company he founded in 2002, took
public, and has built into the third-largest
Canadian airline. The company has a fleet of 34
cargo aircraft including 12 B727-200 Advance
Freighters; two state-of-the-art wide-bodied
B767-200 Extended Range aircraft, the first of
their kind in Canada; one Boeing 757-200
Extended Range aircraft. And it has acquired
Georgian Express and Prince Edward Air, and
rebranded these companies into Cargojet
Regional, offering the services of 28 small craft.
Virmani employs 500 people including 100
engineers and mechanics besides 150 pilots, and
pulls in revenue in excess of $200 million even as
Cargojet continues to win industry awards. “We
have won the Air Cargo Excellence Award, we
were selected as the Outstanding Large Business
in Hamilton and year over year for six years, Canadian
Shippers have selected Cargojet as the ‘Cargo Airline of the
Year’, and I was selected Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and
From his vantage point at the pinnacle of success, Virmani
laughs as he recalls landing in Toronto without winter clothing
and getting a job as a window cleaner. That lasted for just one
day; when the company mailed him a check for his work he was
startled. “I thought nobody would pay me,” he recalls.
He moved to assembling speakers and selling life insurance
before landing a junior position at transportation company
Cottrell. Shipping and moving cargo efficiently and on time
became his passion — and is responsible, he says, for his success. Hard work, he believes, helps him stay ahead of his
employees, many of whom are on paper far more qualified than
Why not an MBA, Virmani recalls asking himself back in
1983, when he first realized he wanted to be an entrepreneur.
“My wife was working. I had one baby girl and the second one
was on the way. I had to take a loan from the bank to help me
while I studied two years for my MBA in New York.” He was
already in debt to the tune of $20,000; another $20,000 won’t
hurt, he told himself. Cottrell kept him on in a part-time capacity. In his rickety car, he commuted weekly between Toronto
and Buffalo and, each week, took the $19 flight from Buffalo to
New York. His MBA changed his position at Cottrell. The company made him head of their air cargo arm, and offered him a
partnership which he accepted for a brief period before he left
Cottrell and acquired a small company. Ironically, Cottrell —
which had been bought over by five of its own managers, all
former colleagues — found itself in financial difficulties and
came knocking at his door, to ask if he would buy it up.
Around that time, Canada 3000’s cargo side was going bank-
rupt. Virmani acquired 50 percent of that company as a start
and, when the terrorist attack of 9/11 created an atmosphere of
uncertainty, bought the remaining 50 percent, rebranded the
company and re-launched it as Cargojet, the only airline in
Canada fully dedicated to cargo.
9/11 created challenges but also opportunities, Virmani
says. “We were able to get good people who were laid off by avi-
ation companies,” he recalls. Equally importantly, he was able
to buy planes with book values of $40 million for around $4
million. “Buying those planes was a big risk – but for me, it was
a calculated, educated risk.”
Cargojet now dominates the Canadian cargo market, and has
gradually begun branching out into various US destinations.
Virmani’s ambitions have only been further fuelled – the goal,
he says, is to make his company an international success.
Work consumes him, but he still finds time for other pursuits.
Thus, he invested money in Deepa Mehta’s films Water and
Bollywood/Hollywood, for which he was executive producer.
Bollywood star Akshay Kumar calls him ‘dad’, and invariably
stays in his luxurious home on the lake front whenever he’s in
Toronto. “I have been involved in Broadway musicals also, and
have made investments in these in London, New York and
Toronto,” says Virmani, who was a major backer of the Toronto
International Film Festival’s initiative a few years ago to showcase Bollywood films.
Over the years, he has seen much change in the land he has
made his home. Today, he says, Canada is more friendly, and
provides a better environment for immigrants, than when he
first arrived. “I think people shouldn’t be afraid to venture into
business , to take some calculated risks in life,’ he says, pointing
out that his own example indicates the vast opportunities
Canada offers. “It is a great place to build a strong and promising life.”