Talking with a dragon


If there’s one thing I have learned from interviewing entrepreneurs and executives, it’s that business is extremely easy to depersonalise. You can have conversations around topics such as mergers, profits, losses and V-shaped recoveries without learning anything about your fellow interlocutor. And while the ‘it’s-not-personal-it’s-just-business’ veneer is maintained for professional reasons, it would be remiss to ignore that behind every business decision is a human, someone with his or her own experiences, thought processes, strengths and shortcomings.

Maybe that’s what makes Brett Wilson so fascinating. More than just the really nice guy (who sits directly right of the really mean guy) on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, Wilson is a respected businessman and philanthropist who continues to share his life with the Canadian public. And it’s not just his successes about which he remains transparent; it’s also his failures, low points and lessons learned.  

For someone who could easily highlight his victories and leave the rest unsaid, it strikes me as brave to hear Wilson reveal messy details of his life, such as his divorce, near loss of his kids, prostate cancer and the consequences of working too hard. Although if you asked him (which I did), he wouldn’t really see it as brave at all, just honest.

Sure, he could talk your ear off about oil and gas and investment banking—and he will, when appropriate—but Wilson has more to discuss than just numbers. And this month, I was fortunate enough to listen to some of what it is that Brett Wilson has to say.

Jennifer Sorlie: You’re very candid in your interviews, delving into your personal life more than most businesspeople. Why do you put yourself out there?
Brett Wilson: I don’t think of myself as ‘very’ candid. If someone asks me a question I’m going to answer it. I think that by being open about the mistakes I have made, it encourages others to realise it’s not just about success or winning, but about the journey.

JS: Without the defining moments of your life, such as your divorce and cancer, do you think you would have stayed on a ‘workaholic’ path?
BW: I suspect if I hadn’t had the speed bumps I did have, I would have had different speed bumps. This was my lot in life. I have enjoyed some incredible highs and the valleys have been a little deeper than I would like. But as I’ve learned, there are two sides of every valley; you get to the bottom and you’re on your way back up again. I just try to keep the valley bottoms as far apart as possible.

JS: Had you followed your work/life balance philosophy from the beginning of your career, do you think you would be as financially successful today?
BW: I suspect I would have accrued significant wealth either way. I have more than enough. I just wish I had realised I had more than enough earlier on in the journey. It’s a really difficult balancing act people make to provide for their families, covering basic cost of living first and then trying to provide a better life. Then you suddenly get into the trappings of success and they become a little bit infectious. Overtime becomes the best way to get that extra deal done, and the weekend becomes the only time to chase the new client. It becomes a vicious spiral.

Would I have enjoyed what I have now if I had practiced more balance? Yes, I probably would have enjoyed the lifestyle and everything I have. Would I have as much in the bank? I don’t know. It’s a hard question to answer. But the journey might have been a little less painful.

JS: Let’s talk about Dragons’ Den. I read an interview in which you said you’re not as kind as the show makes you appear, that it edits out your tougher moments. Do you wish Dragons’ Den would leave those scenes in?
BW: There are two aspects of this. Without Kevin [O’Leary], I wouldn’t look so nice.  I’m just a regular businessman. I listen, I’m respectful, I ask questions and I make a decision. The show, let’s not forget, is a show; it is contrived reality where people come in and are subjected to an instant bombardment of questions and challenges. It’s not exactly how the real world works. Usually, there is a lot more respect from people who do what I do, which is angel investing or merchant banking.

The approach to Dragons’ Den is really designed for entertainment, and sometimes when I ask regular questions (such as “how much time and money have you personally invested?”), the editors leave it out. I’m not sure the journalism graduates understand the relevance of that business question, but they’re making decisions for the show. And I understand their decisions are the right ones, because the show has been an incredible success.

JS: As Dragons’ Den’s most frequent deal maker, would you say you see potential that other Dragons don’t? Do your deals ever come from a place of wanting to see the underdog rise above?  
BW: There’s no question I get a return on investment, but the deals are about more than just cash. I enjoy working with people, I enjoy thinking about how I can connect other people and help move their lives forward, and in return, I get something out of the investment. For the effort it took me to help Eleanor who runs Pro Elvis Jumpsuits, it has been life changing for her. With $5,000, she has more than doubled her sales. She has gone from scratching out a living to having a bona fide business. The other Dragons said it’s not a big enough company.

I’m not sure what they’re looking for, because they criticise deals that don’t have cash flow and they criticise deals that are too small, and yet that’s the essence of who comes on the show. It’s not apparent that they’re interested in the earlier stage investments, as some are. The essence of the show is angel-style investing. Having said that, I’m probably as aggressive in the real deals as well, in terms of cash flow and upside. And companies like Hillberg and Berk (the jewellery company), or ecoTRACTION (the road salt substitute) are real businesses that have been doing $1 million to $3 million in sales per year. That’s not soft heart investing, as one of the Dragons wants to accuse me.
JS: You give plenty of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs on the show. Who is your entrepreneurial mentor?
BW: I’ve been watching [Virgin Record’s founder] Richard Branson’s activities since I first heard his name a decade or two ago. I love his passion for branding and respect for the local economies of the countries he gets involved with. I also love how he approaches the environment.

I’ve gotten together with him on more than one occasion. He did everything he could to get me to spend more than $100,000 to fly on mini space tourism rocket around the world at high orbit. I looked at it, but didn’t do it. I’m very interested in it, but he hasn’t commercialised it yet. When it’s closer to that stage, I’ll look into it.

I also look up to people like Dick Haskayne who are good at running businesses the right way. The University of Calgary was renamed the faculty of management after him: The Haskayne School of Business.

JS: How about personal mentors?
BW: My mentor was my father. It took me a long time to realise it and I wish more kids would think of their parents differently, as a result. He was community-minded. He would help a stranger who appeared to be in need. He was there at all times for all of his kids, in any way. I don’t know what more someone would ask of a father. It wasn’t until a decade ago that I began to fully appreciate what an amazing man he is.

He was a lead-by-example man, except when it came to university. There was no question in my world that I was going to university. I wasn’t taking a year off to travel and I wasn’t taking a year to work. I was going straight to university, and that was driven in no small part because my dad didn’t finish high school. There was no way his son was going down that path. Dad got an amazing job in grade 10 and the money kept him away from his education. He’s also one of the best salesmen I have ever met, and that’s ultimately how he made his living.

JS: As a renowned philanthropist, what motivates you to help people?
BW: It’s really to help people to be better, it’s that simple. If I can help a charity raise its profile and raise some cash and bring on new people, then I’ve accomplished my goal. I am typically described as a serial philanthropist: I work with a cause and move on. I don’t abandon them, but I do move on in the sense that I want to work with a different cause. I do several fundraisers a year, and I rotate causes and charities every time. The reason for that is it allows me to spread myself around.

For example, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for Alzheimer’s research, and I was contacted again by Alzheimer’s Canada asking how they could reconnect me. And, with apologies, I said to find someone else. There are 35 million Canadians. It’s someone else’s turn.

JS: Last question. In light of your upcoming book, I was wondering what you like to read.
BW: The book that’s on the top of the pile is called The Ultimate Gift by Jim Stovall. It’s basically about a billionaire great uncle who, after dying, leaves his great nephew an opportunity to do a bunch of tasks to earn his inheritance, while reconnecting him with the real world. It’s one of the most touching stories for children of wealth that you see ever read. I am not a child of wealth but my children are.

There’s another book called Code of the West by James Owen, which is about what Wall Street could have learned from the cowboy. It’s powerful stuff.

I told Wilson at the beginning of the phone call that I felt like I already knew him. This, of course, is ridiculous, because you can’t possibly know someone you haven’t spent a significant amount of time with—maybe that’s why he laughed. Having said that, I wasn’t surprised by any of his answers. This interview only confirmed what I already believe to be true about Brett Wilson, which is that he is a genuine and vastly interesting person, whose worth to Canadian business lies beyond his bank account.

By Jennifer Sorlie