Strategy

Live & Learn: Brett Wilson

The entrepreneur, philanthropist, sports investor and CBC’s new “dragon”.

Born July 1, 1957, in North Battleford, Sask. • Entrepreneur • Philanthropist • Sports investor

My dad sold cars, and my mom was a social worker, and that is where I get the quote that I always use about myself: “That’s how I became a capitalist with a heart.”

I have two younger sisters, and one has devoted her life to working with kids with special needs in early-childhood education in North Battleford. My other sister and her husband run an M&M Meat Shops store in Olds, Alta.

One of the biggest opportunities and challenges in my life came up as a result of being accelerated a grade. It was arguably the worst thing that ever happened to me. I was one of the smallest kids in the class. You can only come last in a running race so many times before you feel like giving up.

The word “geek” wasn’t used back then, but that’s what would’ve been used, and I’m comfortable with it. But university was a fresh start in terms of brand new relationships, brand new friendships, and I also discovered that I was no longer one of the brighter kids in the class. I discovered that I was pretty average, and if I didn’t get my ass in gear, I was going to be pretty much below average. It was a wake-up call.

I pride myself on my ability to do a deal on a handshake more than anything.

One of my great successes is in choosing my partners. You won’t find an ego here. I didn’t do it. We started Wilson Mackie. We started FirstEnergy. We, my ex-wife and I, had three amazing kids. All my successes come with the word “we.”

One of the critical things FirstEnergy developed early on — and it was Murray Edwards that brought this discipline to the table — was weekly meetings. Every department has a weekly meeting, and all the partners have a weekly meeting. Many times the partners would come in begrudgingly saying, “There’s nothing new to discuss.” But you know what? We’d take an hour and a half and discuss nothing new. It was about team building, it was about understanding how everybody responded under pressure, and taking the time to get to know each other.

We certainly see $150 oil. The demand contraction that is occurring as a result of price escalation this time is dramatic. New truck sales are down 45% in two months. Hummer sales have gone to zero. The price swing has hammered the world, and it’s gone too far, too fast. As much as I see $150 oil, I can also see sub-$100 again in the next year.

The end of my active career as an I-banker really began around the time of my divorce in ’99. I’d been running pretty hard, hardly knew my kids and certainly had alienated my wife. I became aware of that when I went through my divorce, but I didn’t act on it until prostate cancer hit me and that was two years later.

My kids tease me and say, “Dad, you didn’t retire.” I have to keep saying, “I retired from FirstEnergy, not from life.” My activity levels have doubled, probably. I’ve started focusing on fun investments. I bought into two professional sports franchises — the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx and Derby County Football Club — and I’ve invested in a ton of farmland across Western Canada.

Shooting Dragons’ Den has been exhausting. I thought I worked hard before. It’s been frustrating, because you’ve got to put your BlackBerry away all day. In the first eight days, we evaluated 110 businesses. Some of them were fascinating, and some I was fascinated that they’d got through the door. The range was huge.

For me the show was fun. I’m reasonably good at evaluating people — that’s one of my greatest strengths. I ended up doing quite a few deals as a result of believing that some of the people put in front of us were onto something.

You can’t really sell me — it just has to fall into my lap and be of interest to me.

More people die of retirement than hard work. In this case, my priorities are my children and having fun. And, frankly, I’ve let a lot of things slip that I shouldn’t have. I’m slow to return phone calls, bad at returning e-mails, terrible at responding to letters, because when an opportunity comes to chase my children, I jump on it.

I regret that I didn’t achieve balance in my life sooner, because it might’ve allowed me to continue a marriage, and it would’ve been easier on three amazing children. I had a couple of wake-up calls and recognized the time that I have with my children is the most valuable time.