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Good Chemistry

Regis Duffy was a priest and professor before starting Diagnostic Chemicals, which he turned into a major success story on the Island.

 

Original Article By Jim Day From The Guardian Newspaper, Saturday, November 25, 2006

Regis Duffy found the right chemistry in what was first a daunting, rather than a desired, career path. Duffys early inspiration to join the priesthood was his hope to do missionary work. Distant lands, he said, had a special calling. Yet he wasnt calling the shots after being ordained in 1957. He was earmarked as a chemistry teacher at St. Dunstans University, so he dutifully accepted the challenge of heading to Fordham University in New York to pursue a PhD in chemistry, which he attained five years later. "You had one option and it was kind of a daunting option for a person who had a very limited handle on chemistry," he recalled. Duffy had managed to dodge an earlier vocation. The oldest of 12 children, Duffy was deemed the natural successor to the family farm in Kinkora, but he eagerly passed the baton to the next in line. "Well, I figured by the time I was 16 or 17, I had my lifes quota of manual labour," he said of long days milking cows, digging potatoes and hauling hay. Instead, he went on in 1962 to work long days commonly from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. as a chemistry professor at St. Dunstans. Taking over a fledgling chemistry department at SDU, he upgraded the labs and the curriculum, and began conducting summer research programs for chemistry undergraduates. He became the first dean of science at UPEI in 1969, but soon made the shift from an academic to an entrepreneur. In 1970, Duffy established an off-campus lab in a garage to explore research possibilities in the health-care field. That year, along with life-long friend and collaborator Douglas Hennessy, Duffy founded Diagnostic Chemicals Limited. The company had the humble beginning of producing one compound for a U.S. customer with $10,000 in sales the first year. More than 35 years later, DCL manufactures and markets over 400 products with annual sales between $35 million and $40 million. Duffy has garnered a host of accolades for his business successes, such as being named Atlantic Canadas Innovator of the Year in 1986. He too has shaped a company that is continually praised for providing the personal touch for its employees. DCL has been listed as one of Canadas Top 100 employers each of the past 16 years. Duffy said he has always recognized the value that his employees place on fringe benefits, such as DCLs favourable medical, dental and pension benefits. "I think we have always provided a rich environment for advancement of people," he added. "I think the work is fairly rewarding." Duffy said his company also has a good tradition of trying to accommodate the needs of its employees, which number about 200 in P.E.I. He said DCL, which employs many women, tries to be flexible with work hours where possible. "You cant do that for everybody but you try to meet peoples aspirations and what their actual domestic needs are," he said. Turning 74 Wednesday, Duffy is still a regular presence at West Royalty Business Park, where DCL has a handful of plants as well as the companys main headquarters. Duffy works five or six hours a day now, spending most of his time on new product development and talking to research people. He devours journals and newspapers to keep up with the latest trends in an industry that thrives on cutting-edge technology and developing innovative products. "I let the young guys do all the travelling and all the entertaining," he said. He and Joan (nee Murphy), his wife of 32 years, are not much for extensive travel. They did, however, start last year what will probably become an annual tradition of heading to Florida to seek partial reprieve from P.E.I. winters. In P.E.I., Duffy said that he fills a good deal of his time away from the office making the rounds of a large extended family.His late mother, Annie, had about 45 grandchildren. Regis and Duffy have three children: Earl works in information technology at DCL, Paul is studying anthropology at the University of Michigan, and Maureen Cobb is a substitute teacher. Duffy has no plans to stop working for his company, but he is set to step down from the UPEI board of governors after serving as chairperson for the past 10 years. He has had an intimate relationship with the university that dates back 55 years. "The university is a very important part of this community," he said. "Its a very natural environment for me. I know it, I understand it, I know what the problems are." Duffy has been a key force in encouraging growth at UPEI or what he likes to call an expansion of opportunities. Expanding the fish health unit, for example, helps attract outside funding, he explained. Duffy also speaks passionately of the need for communities across the province to explore how they can become more self-supporting and self-sustaining. He served as chair of the finance committee for the City of Charlottetown during his two terms as councillor. "I think each community on P.E.I. should have a small group and call it the new business development group and think of ways that they can make the community more self-sustaining," he said. "I dont think that we spend enough time really facing the hard issues and seeing can things be improved, what can you do or what can you learn from your successful neighbours."

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