Paul Dalla Lana is a late-blooming contrarian. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Toronto entrepreneur built a strong investment firm when the market was cratering. He won a professional racing championship without the requisite childhood training. And now he’s poised to go global, with both business and motorsport.
Dalla Lana started racing on a dare, decades after his peers drove their first laps. After a track day at age 41, he quickly signed up for racing school. That led him to the Canadian Touring Car Championship and then to two sports-car series sanctioned by NASCAR-owned Grand-Am Road Racing.
Competing against drivers who cut their teeth in go-karts as toddlers, Dalla Lana won the 2011 Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge championship in only his second full season of racing.
The victory was even sweeter when it led to the international BMW Sports Trophy, presented to the top BMW privateer driver. Dalla Lana beat 235 racers from around the world for the prestigious award.
“That’s the ultimate icing on the cake,” he told the Star in an interview. “To best a group like that is, frankly, unimaginable.”
But he knows racing is a team sport. He’s quick to credit his co-driver and coach, BMW ace Bill Auberlen, and their team, Turner Motorsport. “It all comes down to having a great teammate and a great team, and I’m pretty fortunate with both,” Dalla Lana noted.
“It was really a stroke of good luck to be able to start with such a good team and somebody like Bill Auberlen. To be a teammate of his, I’m not sure I even knew what it meant when I started. He’s such an accomplished driver. Every year, it’s gotten better. It’s just been fantastic!”
The trophies are terrific, but Dalla Lana received an even more memorable gift from racing — he met his wife, Alessandra, at a Formula One race in Montréal. When they return to le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve for next week’s Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series race (he’s warming up for that one later today in a race at Watkins Glen, N.Y.), Alessandra and the couple’s two young sons, Max and Luca, will have a special hero to cheer — the Canadian behind the wheel of the No. 94 BMW M3.
Meanwhile, business is booming at NorthWest Value Partners Inc., the real-estate investment company Dalla Lana founded after graduating with a BA in economics and an MBA in finance and real estate from the University of British Columbia.
Just as he does on track, he saw an opening and he went for it.
“I started the business at a time when real estate in Canada and in North America was really down. So it just seemed very obvious to me that somebody coming with fairly limited resources and a lot of energy had an opportunity to be involved,” he recalled.
“It’s been a fantastic 20-year run here in Canada. We’ve evolved our focus to be very specific to health-care real estate, hospitals and office buildings and related facilities. That has been rewarding, as well, since we’re now the largest owner in Canada of this type of real estate.”
The Dalla Lanas have shared their success with the community through a $20-million donation to the University of Toronto to establish the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
Why health care?
“Because no one else was doing it. It’s that deep contrarian gene,” he said. “I get very nervous when everyone else starts doing the same thing; I immediately have to go in a different direction. That’s what started us off and that’s what’s consistently kept us coming up with new ideas.”
Those ideas are taking Dalla Lana around the world as the company expands to markets in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Germany.
“It’s a really big step and one that takes a lot of things going right and in the same direction,” he said. “It’s very exciting, almost like that start-up feeling again, lots of energy and lots of challenges. Every day, something meaningful is happening.”
His race vision is roaming outside North America, too. Dalla Lana and Auberlen are considering entering some major international endurance races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans (France), the 24H Dubai (United Arab Emirates) or the 12H Bathurst (Australia).
Dalla Lana knows he’s pushing his limits, something every winning racer does.
“I’m probably at the maximum of my level of activities and hoping to dial back a little bit,” he acknowledged. “It’s really tough [to balance], especially with work and racing. They’re both very intense and very different.
“It’s really a lot of mental focus and [I’m using] time management as much as possible, but I’m probably right at the edge in terms of the amount of things I can and should be doing.
“Hopefully, the business will find its level and I can continue racing at this same level of competition. It takes time to get the experience and basic skills, but I’m finally feeling very comfortable in the car. I’m enjoying it and we’re competitive.”
Soon to be internationally competitive?
Perhaps contrarily, yes.