Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

From recycling to riches

Woman's self-started business now worth millions

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They used to call her the "Bag Lady."

And she used to call Winnipeg home.

Today, the venture she started nearly 40 years ago as a bag-lady-like curbside newspaper recycler is now Emterra Environmental, the multimillion-dollar company that does most of Winnipeg's waste collection and recycling.

And now Emmie Leung has a new nickname.

"They call me 'Dragon Lady.' "

For good reason, as I would learn.

But before she had taken on either of those titles, for a brief moment when Emmie first landed here as a university student, she was a frightened young woman.

Emmie shared that memory and more on Thursday, seated in Emterra's Winnipeg office, as her 32-year-old daughter and company vice-president Paulina Leung listened.

Emmie had left Hong Kong at the age of 21 without her father's blessing or support, yet she was happy when she took off for Canada.

Around midnight on Sept. 14, 1972, her plane touched down at Winnipeg International Airport.

And reality set in.

Alone in a place where she knew no one, Emmie, who spoke only broken English, was afraid to leave the airport.

"I was raised in Hong Kong. It is a big city. Lots of crime at night. You don't go out as a single woman."

What she was really afraid of, though, was the unknown.

It would be hours -- nearly dawn -- before Emmie summoned the courage to walk through the airport doors and take a cab to her dormitory at the University of Winnipeg. She had chosen the U of W because it was less than a quarter the cost of UCLA, where she had also been accepted. Soon she would be embraced by her first friends in Canada.

"My schoolmates. They were so kind. Amazing people... They accept me with open arms."

Emmie needed to support herself, so she found her first job in the university cafeteria busing tables.

A year later she transferred to the University of Manitoba to take business. She only returned to Hong Kong for a visit after she graduated in 1976. Once back home, her father and brother tried to convince her to join the family business, but she had made Winnipeg, and Canada, her new home.

Emmie didn't have the kind of management job she wanted in Winnipeg, however. So, over dinner one night, her older brother, Johnny, suggested she start her own business.

"He said, 'Think of something that you need. Something where you have a competitive advantage.' "

The next day she boarded a plane for the long flight back to Winnipeg.

"I was thinking about it the whole time," Emmie recalled.

And as she thought, she had a vision that would turn into her business future. The vision came to her as a memory of being a student, looking for a job in Winnipeg.

"You walk and you pound the pavement," Emmie said. "I see all kinds of cardboard and newspaper. I say, 'That worth money.' "

She knew that because her father owned a paper mill, and bought waste paper for recycling.

"So I say, 'My dad pay people to pick it up. Maybe this is my competitive advantage."

At first, Emmie approached a Winnipeg company, but the $40 a tonne they were willing to pay for a couple of truckloads of cardboard didn't pay enough. She could get $100 a tonne in Vancouver, where it could be shipped directly to China by boat.

It was December 1976, six months after graduating from the U of M, when Emmie moved to Vancouver, rented a Ford Econovan and chose her first route: the upscale, university neighbourhood of Shaunnessy. She began by leaving flyers in mailboxes asking residents to take the cardboard and newspapers they tossed in the garbage and leave them bundled on the curbside for her to pick up and recycle.

By the early 1980s North Vancouver was asking the by-then local legend to start a blue box program. Emmie didn't have the money to buy blue boxes, so she improvised with blue bags. That's how she came to be known as the "Bag Lady." And that's how she took her enterprise from one woman with a rented truck to a company that now serves 10 per cent of Canadian households. But how did Emmie get transform her name to Dragon Lady?

The answer to that came inadvertently, by asking a very different question.

I suggested to Emmie the garbage, collection business has a reputation for being controlled by organized crime.

She agreed.

So I wondered if she ever worried about that element trying to buy, or force her out.

"I've been given lots of offers," she said.

I gently suggested an offer hasn't been made she couldn't refuse.

Emmie laughed.

"That's why they call me Dragon Lady."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 26, 2014 B1

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