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  • Writer's pictureBy Quinn Bender

Entrepreneurial Excellence and the mad mad mission of W. Brett Wilson

BUSINESS REGINA MAGAZINE | It's not enough for this Saskatchewan mogul to see success for himself, he wants to bring everybody with him
Former Dragon's Den co-star, W. Brett Wilson. Photo supplied

The philanthropic endeavors of W. Brett Wilson are legend. Known in the financial industry for his role in co-founding FirstEnergy Capital Corp., and his own private investment bank, Prairie Merchant, the self-made mogul is also known as the “capitalist with heart.” (He plans to give away the bulk of his wealth before he dies.) As the one-time boyfriend of Canadian music superstar Sarah McLachlan, it's as easy to find him in the pages of society columns as on the cover of Canada’s top financial publications. But don’t let his celebrity fool you. This guy means business. As an investor and host on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, he put the cool in entrepreneurialism by keeping his eye on profits while pushing others to reach their financial potential. You see, it’s not enough for Brett Wilson to succeed; he wants everyone to join him. As evidenced by his funding of the Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence at the University of Saskatchewan, his alma mater, he’s on a mission to teach businesses and individuals the benefits and necessity of solid entrepreneurial thinking.

Heather Fritz photos

Business Regina Magazine: You really push entrepreneurship on Canadians. Why is this important? Why can't Brett Wilson be successful on his own?

Wilson: First of all, let's define entrepreneurship. To me, it's a way of thinking. It's as relevant to the Prime Minister's office as it is to a church, to running parts of the military, as it is to business and academia. Entrepreneurship is a way of thinking where you don't assume someone else is going to do it. Where you look for and take a competitive advantage in terms of how you're going to accomplish something. A lot of people, especially in the academic world, have combined small business and entrepreneurship. These to [concepts] always go together, but they need to be separated. Small business is how many entrepreneurs start, but, for example, when Murray Edwards bought half a billion dollars worth of oil sands, and then put a 5- or 10-billion dollar plant on top of it--that's entrepreneurship. That's not small business.

Maybe it’s too risky an endeavor for most people.

Entrepreneurs are often viewed from people on the outside as risk takers. There's sometimes some truth in that, but for the most part I look at entrepreneurs as people who view risk differently. It's not like we get a thrill going to Vegas gaming tables and throwing the dice. Look at your magazine, for example. You guys got the first one off the ground [Fine Lifestyles], and now you've got this business magazine off the ground, and now you're going to do this, and then this. It's very sequential. Someone looking from the outside though will say, “What the hell are they thinking?”

Once it's successful people will always say they expected that. But again, it's about altering the perception of risk.

Have you always believed that—altering the perception of risk?

It took some time. I was on an airplane once from Calgary to Toronto with a client, and he asked me if the guy I was working for at the time could turn our firm into a full-service investment bank. And I paused, because I didn't want to bad mouth my boss. But in that pause, this client said, “Don't worry, you don't have to answer that. But just so you know, if you ever go out on your own, I would hire you.” Well, that took all the risk out of the decision for me. I then went out on my own. Now, this guy didn't hire me for more than two years. But in the back of my mind, because he said he would hire me, I knew someone else would hire me. I know what I'm doing and I'm good at what I do. He took the risk out of the decision.

It comes down to perception of risk. And perception, for most people, is reality.

Why not just work for someone else?

There’s nothing wrong with that. Never criticize that. You can be entrepreneurial working for someone else. I’ve got some very entrepreneurial guys working for me, in a very entrepreneurial environment. But they’re employees. That said, they’ve got a share of the upside, and I set them up so they have every reason to think like entrepreneurs.

The way the Prime Minister runs his office: very entrepreneurial. I disagree with him on lots of things, but I love the fact that he makes decisions. To be an entrepreneur you can’t sit on your hands and say “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” You have to be willing to make a mistake. And you can’t be afraid of the consequences, because generally it’s through those consequences that you learn. From learning comes experience and from experience comes good decisions.

You were the first to graduate from the University of Calgary with an MBA specializing in entrepreneurship.

Yes, but the interesting thing is, there were four or five others qualified before me, but they didn’t want to take it. They were afraid they wouldn’t get a job in the corporate world because of the perception of what an entrepreneur was. What does that tell you? It’s a shame; entrepreneurs thrive in the right corroborate environment.

Did you have mentors?

After school I worked for McLeod Young Weir Limited. It was a phenomenal learning curve, working alongside people who would become the iconic leaders in the investment banking industry: J.S.A. MacDonald, he went on to run Enterprise Capital, he was one of the top merger and acquisition minds of the country; Dan Sulivan, later chairman of the Toronto Stock Exchange and Consul General of Canada in New York; and David Wilson, who recently retired as head of the Ontario Securities Commission.

They were my bosses. I saw how they did work, how they built relationships, how people relied on them. I wanted to be like any one of them when I grew up. They were amazing role models.

In what ways did they mentor you?

They mentored me in that they were my bosses. I worked for them, but they never took me under their wing. This goes to a point I often like to make. I’ve said Richard Branson was a mentor of mine over many years, and he’s never met me. I watched what he did and I read about him. There is so much you can do to learn from a role model that you like. You don’t have to ask them “what should I do?” You should just be able to look at them and make your own mind up.

I’m often asked for mentorship by budding protégés, but I just tell them my entire mentorship program is on the internet. There’s 50 interviews and 20 videos [on my website]. Read them, watch them all.

Your philosophies shifted at one point. Where once you were driven by success in business, after surviving cancer you now prioritize time with friends and family. Does that subtract from your economic success?

No. It really doesn’t, but that also ties into another conversation about the definition of success. There’s a movie about Aristotle Onasis, where Jackie [Onasis] asks him, “How much is enough?” Aristole takes the cigar out of his mouth and slowly replies, “More. More is enough.” I always thought that was a great line. It took me 10 years to appreciate how pathetic that really was. But that’s how I lived—more!—for a long, long time.

Cancer gave me permission to say “screw you” to everyone. Literally everyone. Partners, clients, suppliers, people wanting me to donate money... just leave me alone, I’m busy fighting for my life. And it was in that space that I came to appreciate the importance of my health, my family and my friends. The rest all fits in. I still have my career. Am I still busy? Yeah, I take 100 flights a year, but 20 of those are chasing my kids down to wherever they are in the world.

In your mind, was Dragon’s Den a fair representation of entrepreneurship and of the deal-making process?

CBC’s mindset was that for this format to work, everybody had to be mean, to tear people apart. I disagreed.

Critisism is free. You don’t have to be all that smart to criticize. You don’t have to have a wallet to criticize. You don’t have to have any courage to criticize. But if you actually want to make a deal, you have to have money, you have to have intelligence and you have to believe in yourself.

I wanted to do deals, and I think that’s why they hesitated bringing me on. Now, everything I do has a profit motive; I just get value out of helping people.

The other Dragons closed almost no deals. But the way I saw it, that handshake I made on television was real. I was committed to doing my best to get a deal done with you, so long as everything I was led to believe was honest and the business plan was genuine. Half of the 60 deals I made passed due diligence.

And all of my Saskatchewan stuff is rockin’. They’re all in my Top 10.

Did you do business any differently on Dragon’s Den than you do with your bigger projects?

No. I invest in people. Always. I have to have some belief in the product, of course, but I really need to believe in the person, because if the person fails, I’m stuck with the product. The people I invest in must have passion.

Have you always been passionate with what you do?

When I didn’t I had to move on.

Don’t be afraid to do that. You can’t sweat the small stuff. I know a guy worth $250 million who spent the bulk of last year suing someone over $1 million. Is it a lot of money? Sure, but not to him. Was it about principle? Sure. But the real principle is that your life is worth more than that money.

You must have come to that philosophy by making some mistakes.

Oh, sure. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve spread myself too thin.

What about Petro Bank?

Where did you dig that up? [Laughs] Yes. I had 2 million shares. It would be worth $100 million today. I don’t beat myself about it. But let’s flip it around. I bought at $1.60 and sold at around $5. I did alright.

What did you learn from that?

You do learn something from everything, but generally speaking, I’m a long-term shareholder. I Always sell when management sells, because they know everything about the company. That’s where most of my liquidity has come from in the last few years.

You visited the Occupy Calgary protest. Why?

It was really hard to define what Occupy was. But in all cases it’s groups of people that want to be heard. If you listen to them, the problem will probably go away. You don’t have to agree, but you should listen.

We all want ethical governance and we want corporate greed to be minimized. The collapse we had in the economy in 2008 was blamed on a crisis of credit. And yes, that’s true, preceding that—and I talked to George Bush about this when he was sitting here, in Saskatoon—it was really a crisis of morality on Wall Street, and a crisis of leadership in corporate America. [Bush] said he absolutely agreed.

What’s been the highlight of your professional career?

If I had to pinpoint two highlights of my professional career, it would be emceeing the Premier’s [Brad Wall] dinner and receiving the order of Canada. They’re on par. It meant so much to me to be asked to come back to Saskatchewan. It showed how much respect this province has for its graduates.

You have a lot of faith in this province, economically speaking, don’t you?

Absolutely. There’s a rebirth in confidence. Once, when you were done school you went elsewhere for your career. There was a million people 1930 and there was a million people in 2004. It’s finally turning. I think Brad Wall did a phenomenal job. He was first down from negative 20 in the end zone. He had to dig his way out before he could get on the playing field. And now we’ve been scoring regularly. Touchdown after touchdown.

Saskatchewan was built by the original entrepreneurs: the hunters, the trappers, the farmers, the fur traders.

These weren't people who had pension plans and family wealth. They came out here to stake their wealth. And that's really the essence, the bloodstock, that's continued in Saskatchewan.

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