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 died in a work-related construction accident. His mother, who spoke only Italian, had few ways to earn money while caring for her young children. She rented the house next door and took in boarders; she 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, he accompanied his mother to their neighborhood Salvation Army thrift store. 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 the fourth and sixth grades. D’Alessandro graduated from 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 final year, D’Alessandro taught 12th grade physics as a part-time instructor at one of Montreal’s most elite private schools.
Following graduation, he joined the accounting firm of Coopers & 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 its Paris office for a year. Upon his return to Montreal, one of his audit clients, Genstar Ltd., offered him a position in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia—first as director of finance and subsequently as general manager of a large marine transportation company with extensive operations throughout Saudi 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. He left Genstar in 1981 and joined what was then one of the world’s largest banks, the Royal Bank of Canada. He started as an assistant controller and within five years became its CFO and an executive vice president. In 1988, he became president and CEO of Laurentian Bank of Canada (LBC). Although LBC was relatively small, D’Alessandro went on to briefly become Canada’s highest-paid banker.
One of Canada’s most prominent business leaders, D’Alessandro became president and CEO of Toronto-based Manulife Financial in 1994, and he 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 Manulife’s successful demutualization and conversion to public company status. Since then, it has become a world leader in the financial services industry. In 2004, he managed the largest cross-border transaction in Canadian history through Manulife’s merger with John Hancock Financial Services, Inc., thereby creating one of the world’s largest life insurance entities.
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. The following year, he received the Order of Canada, the country’s highest honor for lifetime achievement.
D’Alessandro’s advice to young people is to aim high. “Don’t sell yourself short. Remain curious and be ambitious. Live your life with honor,” says D’Alessandro, winner of the 2005 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.”