NIAGARA FALLS — And to think, Dan Bouwman might have missed his big night.
"I almost didn't go," Bouwman said Tuesday morning, just 48 hours removed from winning a Niagara Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Established Enterprise.
While many may associate Bouwman with Heartland Forest, it's easy to forget that he is also the man behind Dan's Produce, a fruit and vegetable supplier with warehouse facilities on Montrose Road.
EOY voters, it seems, didn't forget.
The growth of Dan's is largely a result of hard work and faith in people Bouwman said.
"I was brought up with strong values — work hard," Bouwman said as he checked in on employees at his 25,000-square-foot warehouse.
And work hard he did.
Immigrating to Canada from his native Netherlands in 1965 when he was just 16. He started what would become Dan's Produce in St. Catharines just 18 months later.
"I couldn't speak English," Bouwman said. "I would go the Toronto Food Terminal and point at the onions then hold up two fingers. I didn't even know they were called onions."
Bouwman managed to make a $1,200 profit that first year.
"I was smart enough to know that if I bought something for $1 and sold it for $1.10 I would make a profit."
Through word of mouth, Bouwman began to sell to stores in Niagara Falls as well, leading eventually to the purchase of two acres of land on McLeod where the business has been based ever since.
Since that time, the business has grown into a major supplier of fresh produce to over 400 hotels, motels, institutions, restaurants and grocery stores in the Niagara region.
"We have 30 transport trailers a week going out of here," Bouwman said.
Dan's Produce now employs 25 full-time workers as well as a number of part-time and casual seasonal positions. Bouwman has demonstrated an unwavering faith in employees that has in turn, left Bouwman being rewarded with loyalty from his staff, many of whom who have been with him for more than two decades.
One of those employees is Pat D'Intino, who has been with Bouwman 40 years. These days, D'Intino and Bouwman's daughter Annamarie and son-in-law Kenny Burciul take care of the day-to-day operations at Dan's Produce while Bouwman tends to his other love, Heartland Forest.
"I haven't seen a whole lot of (Dan) lately," D'Intino said. "But it's always been a pleasure to work with him."
Now 66, Bouwman applies the same work ethic to improving Heartland Forest as he did to building Dan's Produce. More often than not, you will find him at the Kalar Road nature park tending to general maintenance or these days, plowing snow to keep pathways clear for those wanting to visit the facility.
"I'm not a suit and tie guy," Bouwman said.
The idea of giving something back to the community hit home with Bouwman nearly 20 years ago after a visit to southern California, where he and others took in a sermon by Robert Schuller at his Crystal Cathedral.
"He asked, 'What are you doing with your blessings?' " Bouwman said. "There was 1,200 people sitting there and I felt like he was talking to me. That's when I decided to be sharing and caring with the community."
With help from the Branscombe Family Foundation he was able to purchase 296 acres of land — including 93 acres of Carolinian Forest — that is now Heartland Forest of $1.2 million. His goal was to create a nature preserve that would be accessible to everyone.
That passion was stirred after the birth of his granddaughter, Sydney Burciul, in 1997. Born to Dan’s oldest daughter, Jaqueline Sydney suffered from a rare brain birth defect. Sydney passed away on Oct. 28, 2009 not long after the treehouse and accessible pathways were built at Heartland.
Since then, amenities such as a fully accessible walkway, mini golf course, fish pond, treehouse and a new multi-million dollar nature centre have been added.
"And there's more," Bouwman said with a sly smile. "But I can't talk about that right now."