- Dominic D’Alessandro
2005 Horatio Alger Award Winner — Former President and CEO, Manulife financial Corporation
“Those who have desire and ability are given opportunities.”
Dominic D’Alessandro, the third of four children in his family, was born in Molise, Italy, in 1947. When he was three, he immigrated with his family to Montreal, Canada, where they settled in an ethnic neighborhood called Little Burgundy-a community of brick, cold-water walk-ups. When D’Alessandro was six, his father was working as a laborer when he was killed in a construction accident. His mother, who could only speak Italian, had few ways to earn money and still care for her young children. She rented the house next door and took in boarders, and also cooked and did laundry for newly arrived immigrants.
D’Alessandro describes his childhood as difficult, but he was able to find solace in books. Often, his mother took him with her to the Salvation Army thrift store in their neighborhood. While she looked for the second-hand items she needed, he went to the used book section. The library clerks got to know him and soon he was allowed to take home all the books he could carry for 25 cents. “I immunized myself from my surroundings through books,” he says. “I had a thirst for knowledge and a desire to see the world.”
At home, young D’Alessandro spoke Italian, but with his neighborhood friends he spoke French. When he started school, he quickly learned English. A precocious student, he skipped grades 4 and 6. D’Alessandro graduated high school when he was only 14. On graduation day, the school gave out a variety of prizes for academic achievement and D’Alessandro won most of them. He went on to Loyola College, an all-boys Catholic school in Montreal. During his last year of college, D’Alessandro taught grade 12 physics as a part-time instructor at one of Montreal’s most elite private schools.
Following graduation, he joined the accounting firm of Coopers and Lybrand. At night he attended McGill University to become a certified accountant. A star student once again, D’Alessandro was third in the nation when the CPA test results were released.
D’Alessandro’s firm sent him to their Paris office for a year. Upon his return to Montreal, one of his audit clients, Genstar Limited, offered him a position. During his seven years with that firm, he worked in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, as director of finance and subsequently general manager of a large marine transportation company with extensive operations throughout Arabia and the surrounding Gulf States.
From Saudi Arabia, D’Alessandro was relocated to San Francisco as a vice president in Genstar’s construction materials group. D’Alessandro left Genstar in 1981 and joined what was then one of the largest banks in the world, the Royal Bank of Canada. He started as an assistant controller and within five years became their CFO and an executive vice president at the age of 37. In 1988, he was appointed president and CEO of the Laurentian Bank. Even though the Laurentian was a relatively small bank, D’Alessandro went on to briefly become Canada’s top-paid banker.
Now one of Canada’s most prominent business leaders, Dominic D’Alessandro has served as president and CEO of Manulife Financial since 1994, and is credited with making it Canada’s largest public company. He has led the company to consecutive years of record financial performance, resulting in Manulife being among the most profitable life insurance companies in North America.
In 1999, D’Alessandro led the successful demutualization and conversion of the company to public company status. Since then, Manulife has become a world leader in the financial services industry. In 2004, he managed the largest cross-border transaction in Canadian history with the successful completion of the merger with John Hancock Financial Services, creating one of the largest life insurance companies in the world with a market capitalization of about $44 billion.
In 2002, D’Alessandro was named by his peers as Canada’s Outstanding CEO of the Year for his contribution to business and the community. In 2003, D’Alessandro was awarded the Order of Canada, the country’s highest honour for lifetime achievement.
When offering advice to young people, D’Alessandro says to aim high. “Don’t sell yourself short. Remain curious and be ambitious. Live your life with honour.”
D’Alessandro is honoured by his International Horatio Alger Award. “I’m delighted to be associated with such an impressive group of people, all of whom are self-made achievers,” he says. “The scholarships for at-risk youth that are funded by the Association are very laudable and noble. Helping young people get higher education is the best way to help society.”