by Deirdre Kelly
photography by mike ford
Jay Klein (BA ’02) is a newly minted Top 40 Under 40, a prestigious Canadian business award he earned for making, well, mints in addition to fat-free popcorn and sugarless gum, everyone’s favourite chewable.
“We’ve kicked the aspartame in the gum market,” Klein says, flashing a Chiclet smile. No tooth decay here.
“We’ve built a brand that connects all over the world.”
A former York University international student who studied communication and political science while living in residence at Vanier College in the late 1990s, the 38-year-old American-born entrepreneur launched PUR in Toronto in 2010 for the simple reason that he wanted a bite of the global multibillion-dollar candy market.
According to the latest research, non-chocolate candy sales generated US$11 billion in sales in 2018, a figure expected to grow to US$12.42 billion in 2023. Klein understands why.
“Everyone loves candy,” he says. “It’s a social consumable. You share it.”
At PUR headquarters, located about a 10-minute drive south of the Keele Campus in an industrial park, a ton of shareable candy is packaged into brightly coloured boxes to be shipped to the 50 countries where PUR is now sold.
In 2016, after experiencing a five-year growth of 5,500 per cent, PUR appeared on PROFIT 500’s top 10 list of fastest growing Canadian companies and took the No. 1 position in manufacturing and distribution.
Expansion continues at a speed that would make even Willy Wonka feel dizzy.
“Our growth strategy is double-double,” says Klein, “which is double distribution and double consumption, which gives four times annual growth.”
Schulich School of Business co-director of entrepreneurial studies Chris Carder calls it a winning formula.
“PUR Gum and Jay Klein are not only a York story, they are a true Canadian success story,” Carder says.
“To make it to 50 countries worldwide in eight short years and to define a category like they have, it’s just remarkable and a story we should all be proud of. He’s one of the few truly powerhouse food startups that has broken beyond Canada’s borders. He has much to teach this sector.”
Klein’s warehouse/office comes loaded with awards (in addition to candy-pink furniture and spearmint-patterned wallpaper): Canada’s Best Managed Company, an EY Entrepreneur of the Year and a National Nutrition Award, all prominently displayed in glass cabinets in the sunlit foyer.
The latest honour is the Canada’s Top 40 Under 40, a national leadership awards program celebrating high achievers from a broad spectrum of industries. For Klein, it is the sprinkle on top.
“It’s not gender specific, it’s not industry specific, it’s not based on impact,” explains Klein, “it’s 360-degree assessment of each candidate’s contribution in their field.”
Elan Pratzer, a managing partner at Caldwell Partners, which administers Canada’s Top 40 Under 40, says that Klein stood out because he took a food group that might not be considered benign and turned it into a positive.
“He won because he conceived of a great idea, he executed on that idea, he built a serious business and he employed and led people, and at the same time he managed to be a whole person in terms of his family life and in terms of his social life, a social giving life. That’s why he was awarded the honour of being a Top 40 Under 40.”
Not surprisingly, Klein is already building on all that sweetness.
“Jordan is the most recent country we have entered,” he says, brandishing that smile again, “and later this year we’re going into Suriname, a tiny country in South America.”
Whatever could be next?
“Antarctica,” he says, not missing a beat. “Except there I don’t think they’ll need to chew the gum. They’ll just shiver it.” ■